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Monteverdi’s Song of Mary and ‘Re-Animation’

Magnificat at Grace Cathedral

Last weekend I had the privilege of sharing Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine of 1610 with an extraordinary assembly of musicians and three engaged and appreciative audiences. I have often said that the most wonderful  thing about directing Magnificat is that I get the best spot in the hall to experience fine artists at work and that was definitely the case in these concerts.

When I eventually got home from the Grace Cathedral on Sunday, I opened the laptop to check the Inbox and was greeted with the familiar pop-up window “You are now running on reserve battery.” My initial response was “No kidding!,” a response to which anyone coming off a production like the 1610 Vespers could relate. But it also got me thinking about the ‘rhythm’ of vespers how eloquently Monteverdi embroiders that rhythm and ‘recharges the batteries’ as the vespers moves from one multi-layered text to another.

After an audacious tutti opening acclamation that announces the commencement of vespers, Monteverdi sets about painting the five psalms proper to Feasts of the Blessed Virgin, with their mystical, often ambiguous and orthogonal verses so well suited to the Seicento composer’s fascination with color and word painting. Each of the psalm settings is a tightly controlled and sensitive reading of the text and they collectively present the listener with a complex matrix for contemplation. Monteverdi fills these psalms (and the non-liturgical sacri concenti interpolated between them) with a panoply of the most modern virtuosic operatic and madrigalian styles while ingeniously  grounding each in the ancient psalm tones to  provides an harmonic scaffolding as well as motivic and architectural coherence.

After the sheer intensity of the five psalms, some release is necessary and the inclusion of the metrical strophic poetry of a hymn aptly serves this purpose. The hymn was a later addition to the vespers, becoming part of the liturgy centuries after the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict, which had established the basic structure vespers. Monteverdi’s re-introduction of the instruments at this point (they had been silent since the brief ritornelli in the first psalm, Dixit Dominus) highlights the new energy – the reserve battery – that fuels the high point of vespers that follows – the Canticle of Mary, the “Magnificat”.

In a conversation after the Sunday concert, I found myself discussing “re-animation” in relation to Luke’s text “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“my sould doth magnify the Lord”) and how the quantum steps of the four statements of the word “Magnificat” in Monteverdi’s setting of the Canticle so exquisitely convey the notion of magnification – of re-animation and expansion, of calling upon the “reserve battery” in order to transcend the ordinary.

In Monteverdi’s Magnificat (the seven-part setting – Monteverdi collection also includes a 6 part setting without instruments, the composition of which most likely preceded and served as the basis for the 7 part setting was based) the instruments are featured in a most colorful and virtuosic manner. In fact, when performed as published, the Hymn and Magnificat create an almost “Wizard of Oz” black-and-white-to-Technicolor moment when the voices are suddenly illuminated by cornets, sackbuts and violins illustrating the shift from prophecy to fulfillment embodied by the Magnificat text.

It seemed to me that the emotional state necessary to sing that first statement of the text “Magnificat” (as Jennifer Paulino did so poignantly in each of the concerts over the weekend) and for the listeners to hear it, requires the experience of the psalms and hymn that precede it in the inexorable flow that is vespers.

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