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Monteverdi’s Setting of the Hymn ‘Ave maris stella’

The treatment of the cantus firmus in the hymn Ave maris stella is quite different from its use in the psalms and the Magnificats. In the hymn, the plainchant always appears in the topmost part as the principal melody, harmonized in an essentially chordal fashion. This manner of setting the Ave maris stella melody can be traced all the way back to Dunstable’s alternatim version, which adds a modest degree of ornamentation to the plainchant. Monteverdi, however, adheres strictly to the notes of the chant itself, which is a first-mode melody evidently derived not from the Roman rite, but from the liturgy of Santa Barbara in Mantua, prepared specifically for the Gonzaga ducal chapel in the late sixteenth century.

Monteverdi sets each of the seven verses either in voal polyphony or as accompanied monody, subjecting the borrowed melody in successive verses to  a series of variations in texture, sonority and meter. Separating verses 2-6 is a ritornello for five unspecified instruments. The overall setting is conservative in character, even in notation, which is principally in semibreves and minims. The only modern elements are the insertion of the ritornello and the reduction of the texture to a solo voice with continuo accompaniment in verse 4-6. Nowhere is there an attempt to interpret individual wordsof the text, a difficult proposition in the strophic setting of hymns in any event.

The successive variations in texture, sonority and meter are organized around both symmetrical and asymmettrical principles. The first and last verses comprise identical eight-voice, double-choir polyphonic settings. The second and third verses reset the cantus firmus in triple meter and are identical except that they alternate four-voice choirs, thereby varying the sonority. The fourth, fifth, and sixth verses retain the triple-meter version of the melody, but are performed by a solo voice with only basso continuo support. The solo voice itself changes from verse to verse: the fourth verse is sung by a soprano from the first choir (cantus), the fifth by a soprano from the second choir (sextus), the sixth by a tenor from the first choir (tenor). Thus there is a regular alternation between first and second choirs in verses 2-7. Throughout all seven verses the harmonization of the plainchant remains unchanged.

The ritornello, in triple time, is identical in each repetition, and bears no melodic relationship to the hymn tune. It does, however, bear astructural relationship to the verses in triple meter and the tonal structure of the vocal harmonization. Like the triple-meter verses, the ritornello comprises four phrases of five bars each, and several phrases begin and end with the same harmony as the verses (although sometimes substituting a major or minor chord for its opposite).

This ritornello is symmetrically deployed in the hymn: it does not appear until after the second verse, and according to Monteverdi’s rubric, it is to be omitted between the sixth and seventh verses. There are therefore paired verses at the beginning and end not separated by the ritornello; otherwise, the ritornello alternates with each verse. Likewise, the deployment of the hymn tune is arranged symmetrically between the two choirs. On the other hand, the varying textures and varying parts carrying the hymn tune are organized asymmetrically. As a result, Monteverdi, in his customary fashion, creates a structure based on simple principles, but not at all simple in its realization.

[Excerpted from The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance by Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 293-295]

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