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Sonata à 8 sopra Sancta Maria ora pro nobis (1610)

The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria borrows the opening phrase from the Litany of the Saints and reiterates it in the soprano voice eleven times over a sonata for eight instruments. In general, the structure of the Sonata resembles, on a very large scale, that of a typical late sixteenth-century instrumental canzona, comprising a series of loosely related sections with repetition of the opening material at the end. As with the adaptation of the L’Orfeo toccata to Domine ad adiuvandum, a liturgical chant is superimposed on the instrumental composition, which could easily stand alone.

The cantus firmus does not begin until well into the piece, and its successive statements are altered rhythmically and separated by rests of varying durations. The instrumental sonata supporting the cantus firmus unfolds in ten overlapping section, the first one restated at the end in the manner of a da capo. As in the Magnificat, the different sections differ in style and texture, and the meter shifts between duple and triple time with some frequency. In contrast to the Magnificats, the sections do not correspond exactly with the restatements of the plainchant, since the opening segment is without cantus firmus and another section supports two intonations of the chant melody.

The lengths of the ten sections comprising the Sonata vary considerably–the longest is three-and-a-half times the length of the shortest. Yet despite these many irregularities, there are some elements of symmetry in the structure of the composition, even if the piece is not as schematic as the psalms, Magnificats, and hymn. The Sonata is framed by the opening section and its da capo at the end; only the final plagal cadence with the last statement of the cantus firmus lies outside this frame. Sections 2-4 concentrate on virtuoso, dotted-rhythm scale patterns and ornamented versions of these patterns in the cornettos and violins. These sections are entirely in duple meter until the introduction of a series of four-bar interpolations in triple meter at the very end. The central segment of the Sonata, section 5, is abrief passage notated in blackened triplets, still under duple mensuration. This passage merges with the succeeding large segment comprising four subgroups (sections 6-9), all in triple meter.

Thus the outward frame encloses an only slightly off-balance symmetry of sections 2-4 and 6-9, the former in duple meter, the latter in triple meter, which surround the central segment inblack notation. This middle section is not perfectly located, however, since it is the concluding cadence of this section that articulates the mid-point of the composition.

The variation concept applies not only to the differing contexts of the reiterated litany, but also to portions of the Sonata where the chant is absent. The first two sections, for example, are formed from the same music, first in duple meter, the reorchestrated and recast in triple time, a procedure frequently encountered in dance pairs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A later figure, played by the violins in duet, is presented in several melodic and rhythmic variants, even in its first appearance: a scale in dotted quarters and eighths is embellishedwith an extra eighth and the continues in a sequnce of broken thirds.

The scale pattern, in both melody and bass, is a fundamental motif in the Sonata and appears in a variety of guises. While variation procedures may be at the root of some of these similarities, others may be attributed to a basic motivic consistency throughout the composition. The figure not only involves scale motion, but also is closely related by inversion to the opening motif of the Sonata. In fact, the section based on this motif functions as a transition between the scale forms and a new triple-meter section whose main motif bears a strong resemblance to the opening figure.

The motif undergoes several metamorphoses in the course of the extended middle section, but all its forms are suffieciently related to one another and to the opening motif in their use of conjunct and disjunct thirds to render perfectly and natural the return of the opening passage following the conclusion of this section.

These techniques in the Sonata illustrate the close relationship between Monteverdi’s concept of melodic and rhythmic variation and sixteenth-century methods of motivic development. Although the motifs are typical of the early seventeenth century in the strength and regularity of their rhythms and the time intervals of their imitations, the metamorphosis of one motif out of anpother by means of expansion, contraction, inversion, retrogression, and alteration of rhythmic values is the saem process found in innumerable ricercari and canzonas of the second half of the sixteenth century. It is only in those passages where greater identity of material is maintained that one can speak of variation in the form-building sense rather than as thematic development. Yet the distinction between the two in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria is largely a matter of degree, although it has significant structural implications. The techniques of thematic development facilitate the construction of large continuous sections, which maintain a certain sense of homogeneity despite alterations in the melodic material.

This process of formal variation, on the other hand, through its retention of a basic and readily perceptible morphological identity, tends to subdivide the music into comparatively short, discrete sections where first one variation technique is exposed and then another. This is apparent in the first half of the Sonata, which relies more ont he process of variation and is more clearly sectionalized than the portion depending on sixteenth-century medthods of motivic development.

The passage in blackened triplets (meliora) concluding the first half of the Sonata (shown in the image from the Cantus partbook above), section 5, has given rise to a variety of interpretations of its rhythmic relationship to the surrounding sections. My reading of this passage (which will be adopted by Magnificat in their perfromances) allows for a single tactus to be used throughout the Sonata, and all the bars are of equivalent length in performance.

[Excerpted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 297-303]

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