Douglas Shambo II

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.

Blog

A Tribute to My Mentor

Posted on October 1, 2014 at 2:30 PM

Almost everyone who has achieved anything in his or her life has had someone behind them who was instrumental in their development. For me, that person was J. Lee Flynn, the choir director during both my junior high school and high school days.


J. Lee was a natural showman with an exceptionally attractive and expressive personality, backed with thorough technical knowledge and solid musicianship. He was a popular teacher; many students fawned over him and sought his favor.


I was – and still am – a shy person, with many interests in addition to music. Although I came from a musical family, and had long participated in choirs, bands, and orchestras, my family life was very difficult; it was certainly not one that would build any confidence in the exceptionally gawky and socially awkward teenager that I was. Despite all of the turmoil at home, I was a straight-A student and a hard worker. For most of high school I was sure that I was headed for a career in medicine, academia, or research. I was never part of – and never wanted to be a part of – the mass of drooling sycophants constituting the “J. Lee Flynn fan club.”


Oddly enough, despite all of his adoring fans, he actually sought me out, casting me in a show-stealing cameo role as the Courier in the Watertown Lyric Theater production of “1776.” Thanks to him many other stage roles and solo opportunities followed. He also encouraged and aided my first efforts as a composer, editing my pieces and suggesting changes and improvements. When J. Lee and Frank Sacci, the band director, got wind that I was contemplating pursuing some career other than music, they called my mother into the music office for a conference. After the meeting, my mother looked at me very sternly and told me, “Well! It seems that you’re headed for life as a musician. They both told me in no uncertain terms that yours is a rare talent that should not be wasted. So you and I have a decision to make, Young Man!” Mother was convinced, even if I wasn’t. 


J. Lee, Joan Jones (Music Coordinator for Watertown Public Schools, and founder of Watertown Lyric Theater), Frank Sacci, Owen and Dorothy Willaman, Father Roswell G. Williams III (rector of my parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church), Philip and Roxanne Pratt (Mr. Pratt was my fifth grade teacher), Carolyn Brox (my 10th grade English teacher), Clarence and Betty Giles (fellow parishioners at St. Paul’s) and a few others (known affectionately as “The Baker’s Dozen”, since there were thirteen of them) put their time, heads, and resources together, and raised all the grants and funds needed for me to attend my first year of music school. J. Lee , Frank, and Mr. and Mrs. Willaman drove me to each of my auditions. After my freshman year I was on full scholarship from Hartt College of Music for the remainder of college. The rest, as they say, is history…


As it happened, just about the same time as I had moved to New York, J. Lee , who had retired from teaching, was doing the New York theater audition circuit, and had just landed his first off-off Broadway roles. We saw a fair bit of each other; I attended his shows when I could, and he paid me a visit at my office at Carnegie Hall. I also saw him perform here in St. Paul at the Ordway Music Theater in the national tour of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” starring Tommy Tune. It was a fortunate coincidence, because, on his day off during that run, he came over to St. Louis Church (where I was composer-in-residence) to hear the premiere of my French Mass for choir and orchestra.


It was only a few weeks ago that my wife Deb and I had the great pleasure of seeing J. Lee and Barb and catching up a bit. He was weak, bent over, walking slowly with a cane. Although it was clear he could follow the conversation, it took him awhile to formulate a response. After we said our goodbyes, and Deb and I had gotten in the car, I broke down. I couldn't believe that the person I had known, the person of boundless ideas and joy, was so close to the end. That end came Sunday morning at Samaritan Medical Center, the place where I and so many of us Northern New Yorkers were born. 


My life has been a unique and fortunate one, chock full of great music making, travel, and accomplishments. All those things came my way because J. Lee Flynn saw something in me that he felt strongly should be developed and nurtured. I was by no means the only student for whom he did this, but I always knew that he expected me to do a little better, and go a little farther.


Though his body has died, J. Lee’s spirit still lives on, through his family, through the many students he taught and encouraged, and through the great joy he shared with audiences in both his music making and his stage work. It was a great honor and privilege for me to have known him, worked with him, and to have had the benefit of his counsel and help. I owe him more than I could ever begin to repay. May his joyful, energetic, and generous spirit rest in peace.

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