Home > 2013-2014 Seaon > About The Viola (or Trombone) Parts in Monteverdi’s Selva Morale

About The Viola (or Trombone) Parts in Monteverdi’s Selva Morale

Herb Myers has reconstructed the trombone parts for Magnificat’s performance of vespers music from Monteverdi’s Selva morale on June 8 as part of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. We asked him to discuss the issues involved in “Re-composing” Monteverdi.

In the rubrics heading a number of the items in the Selva morale – including the Dixit Dominus secondo, Beatus vir primoLaudate Dominum primo, and Magnificat primo on today’s program – Monteverdi mentions the optional inclusion of a choir of either viole (in this case meaning lower members of the violin family) or tromboni. The rubrics are somewhat deceptive however, in that they suggest these instruments may be “left out, according to need,” while in fact if we wish to include them their parts must be reconstructed, as such parts are generally lacking in the original print.

We are thus left with a number of puzzles. Are the instruments simply supposed to double the vocal parts? If so, which ones?  (There are always more vocal parts than the suggested number of viole or tromboni – usually just four.) And where do they play? Throughout?  (Unlikely, but possible.) Just in the tutti sections? Or wherever the obbligato violins play?

Happily an otherwise unfortunate mistake on the part of Bartolomeo Magni, Monteverdi’s publisher, helps provide answers. 

In place of two of the indispensable vocal parts (Altus II and Bassus II) of the Magnificat primo, Magni printed two of the optional instrumental parts, each labeled viola. As pointed out several years ago by the noted English conductor Andrew Parrott, these inadvertently printed parts supply invaluable clues not only for fleshing out the instrumental choir of the Magnificat itself, but for composing parts for similar choirs of low strings or brass in other works.

Analysis of the two surviving viola parts shows that indeed the optional choirs were primarily intended to strengthen forces in tutti passages; often this does mean chiming in with the violins, but the latter still have an independent role to play in more lightly scored passages. We also discover that the parts of the viole or tromboni choir did not double any vocal parts consistently, but neither did they avoid such doubling; the contrapuntal rules to be followed in making up such parts thus resemble closely those given at the time for making up a keyboard basso continuo realization.

As a consequence of Magni’s error, we are of course forced to reconstruct as well the missing vocal parts of the Magnificat, but that task is actually somewhat easier than one might imagine; the nature of the missing parts is easily determined, and there is little room for doubt regarding the proper solutions. All considered, then, the publisher’s error turns out to have been something of a blessing in disguise.


Herbert Myers is Lecturer in Early Winds at Stanford University, from which he holds B.A., M.A., and D.M.A. degrees. He is also curator of Stanford’s collections of musical instruments. As a member of the Concert Ensemble of the New York Pro Musica from 1970 to 1973 he toured extensively throughout North and South America, performing on a variety of early winds and strings; currently he performs with The Whole Noyse, Magnificat and the Jubilate Baroque Orchestra. He is well known as an expert in the history and construction of musical instruments through his numerous published articles and reviews.

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