In many ways, the 1610 Vespers sums up the best music had to offer four hundred years ago. Monteverdi, one of the true giants of our musical past, stands on the cusp of the transition to Baroque style. He embraced the revolutionary techniques of the monodists and brought new developments in secular music to church forms.
The piece most commonly known today as Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers is in every respect one of the towering masterpieces of the Baroque era. However, for the modern performer, it is not without its puzzles and requires each interpreter to take a stand on various issues of liturgical and performance practice. The solutions to these sometimes thorny questions that we have adopted for this evening’s performance are not necessarily the “right” ones, or the “wrong” ones.
In modern times the temptation to treat the 1610 Vespers as a choral masterpiece has proven irresistible. However, it is not likely that this was Monteverdi’s intention. The more normal mode of performance for this sort of work would have been one singer to each part, with perhaps an occasional reinforcement. This is the approach we have elected to follow this evening because so much of the writing is in the virtuoso and supple style of the Baroque, and only solo singers versed in this manner of performance can do justice to it.
There is one further decision that needs to be confronted in the performance of the Vespers: both the Lauda Ierusalem and the Magnificat are written out in a combination of clefs which implies a downward transposition of a fourth. This makes good sense in terms of the tonal organization of the work and brings the vocal parts into the same ranges as the rest of the movements. And while it is certainly possible for cornetti and violins to play these movements at the higher pitch level, the called-for transposition keeps them in more usual ranges for these instruments at the time.
The 1610 Vespers is daring and grand in conception and structure, and it represents the very best of all the musical styles current in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century. We look forward to celebrating the 400th anniversary of this stunning composition at Washington National Cathedral.