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Composer

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 – Not for the Faint of Heart

The following is an article I wrote several years ago to serve as the program notes for a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers by Consortium Carissimi:


The music of Claudio Monteverdi can strike fear in the heart of the most technically capable singer; it can also create similar feelings of shock and awe for the typical modern listener. It is not that Monteverdi makes vocal demands that differ sharply from those of other composers of his day – historical evidence shows that he really didn’t. For singers, Monteverdi’s music seems to force a different approach vocally and interpretively. For listeners unfamiliar with Monteverdi’s music, understanding this difference requires a bit of context and explanation.


Singers today are trained to sing in the Bel Canto style. This manner of singing places emphasis on maximizing resonance and breath through a low position for the larynx, low breath support, a free vibrato, a raised soft palate, and an open throat – and in not using the larynx or throat to manipulate or stop sound. What results is the resonant, flexible sound we generally think of as healthy and beautiful. This technique works well for singing most vocal repertory.


What generally impresses the average listener first about Monteverdi (and can scare the heck out of singers) is his use of – and seeming insistence on – many ornaments, the execution of which can seem at great odds with Bel Canto. He made lavish use of (and wrote frequently of his fondness for) the trillo, a rapid repetition of the same note in almost machine-gun-like fashion. He also made liberal use of trills, grupetti, apoggiature, accaciature, and rapid melismas requiring the singer to employ the throat and breath in very non-Bel-Canto-like ways.

These ornaments were not unique to Monteverdi. Such expressive effects were actually common and expected in the interpretation of the music of the new secunda practica (second practice), ushered in by the then-new medium of opera, all the rage in Florence and Venice. Singers were expected to let the text lead the singing (as opposed to the more objective, intellectual style of the prima practica), painting the text expressively through precise diction and lavish ornament. The new stile recitative style was monophonic, featuring a single vocal line (as opposed to the prima practica of closely imitative multiple vocal lines), supported by a realized “general bass” accompaniment (which later became, with symbols or “figures” to define the harmony, the “figured bass”). The composer generally left the decision about ornamentation to the singer.


In the preface to his collection of monodies entitled Le Nuove Musice, Monteverdi’s contemporary Giulio Caccini attempted to define the conventions of the style. Caccini documented such elements as the filling in of melodic leaps with melismatic flourishes and grupetti, cadential ornaments, trills, and effects such as the trillo, tremolo, and grogia. Caccini notwithstanding, exactly how singers of the time ultimately handled these is a still matter of scholarly inquiry.


Unlike his contemporaries who left ornamentation largely to the singer, Monteverdi actually wrote ornaments into the music in the places he wanted them sung. (Years later J.S. Bach pursued a similar compositional practice, for which he was harshly criticized by his contemporaries.) In so doing, Monteverdi elevated vocal ornamentation from a merely expressive and somewhat ad libitum element to an integrally structural one.


As much as he was invested in the secunda practica, Monteverdi was nonetheless a dedicated student of the prima practica. Among the composers of that era that he admired were Josquin des Prez, Jacques Arcadelt, and Nicolas Gombert. All three combined strong intellect and technique with powerful expressive gesture. Monteverdi’s admiration of Gombert is particularly noteworthy, since he is known even today to have written some of the most complex music ever composed.


—–


The Vespers of 1610 is perhaps the most unique of Monteverdi’s works. The choral movements, with their dense counterpoint, are remarkably similar to those of Gombert. The best example of this kind of writing in the Vespers is “Nisi Dominus,” with its moments of almost incomprehensively complex counterpoint and its chorus-versus-chorus dialogue. And, like the sacred music of the prima practica, there is a plainchant cantus firmus present in nearly every movement, although the cantus does not really seem to perform its traditional role of structurally underpinning any of the movements, given the swirling imitative counterpoint over, under, and around it.


The solos, duets, and trios, though, are very much of the secunda practica, and represent some of Monteverdi’s most daring vocal writing. In the movement “Duo Seraphim,” a veritable tour-de-force for three tenors, the top two lines are heavily and imitatively ornate, with frequent melismas, grupetti, and trilli. When the third tenor finally enters about half way through the movement, Monteverdi reverts for a moment to a very prima practica bit of suspension and resolution, and then goes quickly back to the close and complex ornamental imitation of the beginning of the movement.


The Vespers show Monteverdi at the height of his intellectual and expressive powers. They show him to be, like Beethoven or Stravinsky, at the culmination of an older style, and at the vanguard of a new one.

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A New Direction - From Old Music?

Posted on October 18, 2013 at 11:55 AM

For the last seven years or so I have been performing with the Twin Cities-based ensemble Consortium Carissimi, a group specializing in Italian Baroque music. Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1684), the group’s namesake, is a particularly fascinating figure, for his many fine compositions, for his life (what little we know of it), for his teaching and widespread influence, and for the times in which he lived. In fact, the few facts about his life that we know provide potentially interesting and fertile ground for this composer today. It may take a bit of background to get to the point, but, I assure you, there is one!

 

Taken together, there are three aspects of Carissimi’s life of particular interest: his life as a Jesuit priest; his involvement with the “court” of Christina, the erstwhile Queen of Sweden; and the period in which he lived, one of breathtaking change and transition in many disciplines. Even a cursory look into these three aspects is bound to leave one wondering exactly where Carissimi stood, particularly on matters of faith.

 

St. Ignatius Loyola founded The Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in 1534, also the year of the English Reformation:

 

Ignatius and six other young men, including Francis Xavier and Bl. Peter Faber, gathered and professed vows of poverty, chastity, and later obedience, including a special vow of obedience to the Pope. Rule 13 of Ignatius's Rules for Thinking with the Church said: "That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity [...], if [the Church] shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black." Ignatius's plan of the order's organization was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 by the bull containing the “Formula of the Institute.” (from the Wikipedia article The Society of Jesus)

 

Such black-and-white thinking admits no flexibility, nor any consideration of alternative points of view. Indeed, the Jesuits were the most effective of the new orders in the Counter-Reformation in defending the doctrines of the Church reaffirmed by the Council of Trent.

 

Carissimi was ordained a priest of the Jesuit order in 1637. He became the maestro di cappella at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum in Rome, a post he would hold for the remainder of his life, refusing offers from many prominent establishments, including an invitation to succeed Monteverdi at St. Mark’s, Venice.

 

In spite of Carissimi’s involvement with the Jesuits, his life as composer, teacher, and courtier could easily prompt some speculation about his worldview. His many extant compositions – both sacred and secular – show him to be a man of learning, breadth, sophistication, and innovation. Hailed by many as the father of the oratorio, and an innovator through his advance of the recitative (so important to much of early Italian opera), his career spans the shift in the dominance of sacred music to the predominance of secular music, through all of which he was at the forefront. He was a most influential teacher, his renown and influence spreading far beyond his native Italy. However, the strongest evidence that his outlook might have differed from the stern doctrine of the Society of Jesus comes from his involvement in the court of Christina, who arrived in Rome in 1668 as the recently abdicated Queen of Sweden.

 

Christina was both remarkable and enigmatic. She often wore men’s clothes, and was rumored to have at least one female lover (there is extant documentary evidence for this). Of a fiercely independent mind and temperament, she was most interested in music, theater, and something known at that time as Natural Philosophy (now called Science). She amassed an enormous collection of art works. Among her wide circle of correspondents and acquaintances was the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who, upon visiting her and finding the cold of Stockholm not exactly conducive to his good health, died during his visit to her court in 1650.

 

Christina converted from Swedish Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism in large part as a result of her discussions with Descartes. Since it was illegal for the Swedish monarch to be Catholic, she abdicated, turning her throne over to her nephew, and eventually made her way to Rome. Her arrival in Rome was the cause of great celebration (mostly because she was a formerly Protestant ruler who had converted back to Holy Mother Church). Christina was hardly a good Catholic. She once even asked the Pope himself how closely she needed to hold to Catholic teaching to remain in good stead. She surrounded herself with a grand retinue of artists, philosophers, poets, playwrights, and musicians, among them Carissimi. Her “Academia di Arcadia” was a center of music, theater, languages, poetry, and intellectual discussions. Her “academia” was also not without its fair share of scandal, murder, and intrigue.

 

Carissimi could not have weathered his time with Christina completely unaffected by her explorations in the many alternative philosophies of the day. Though publicly he may well have clung to the Jesuit line, it’s within the realm of possibility that, privately, he may well have had other thoughts…

 

I have proposed to Consortium Carissimi an idea for a composition premised, in part, on the many extraordinary advances in science, mathematics, religion, and philosophy during Carissimi’s lifetime – advances which made possible much of what we have been privileged to witness in the present age - and on his potential private thoughts and doubts. The composition would use themes of Carissimi, and would serve as a musical explication of the extraordinary changes taking place during his lifetime. (I will say much more about these changes in the next blog entry - they are so extensive they deserve their own separate entry.) The piece would be scored for voices and Baroque instruments. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this for fear of giving too much away, but there’s very fertile ground here for a unique and interesting piece. We’ll see what happens…

 

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens…“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:1, 3,4)

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