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

Serious Composition and COVID-19

Posted on July 29, 2020 at 7:40 PM

These days, we’re all (hopefully) “social distancing,” disinfecting, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings outside the home, and generally giving anyone walking in our general direction the widest possible berth. This is good for our own health, and for the health of our community and society in general. TV reporters in the field hold microphones up to their masked faces. Late-night talk show hosts are doing their shtick from their basements, living rooms, or patios; the only response to their opening monologue is a sort of awkward silence. Interviews are done remotely, live over Zoom or Facetime. Ads celebrate the sacrifices of "essential workers." Who knew the folks working the checkout at the local grocery store were so important?


COVID has also exacerbated the despair of many people in our society who've been put down, trodden upon, denied, or even killed, only because of the color of their skin. George Floyd died three miles from where I sit typing this; Philando Castile died just a mile from here. We've seen the glow of the fires, heard the continual screech of the sirens, and put up with the noise of helicopters over our house all day and all night for days. We've heard the protesters chant down the main streets near us. The cruel regularity of these murders, magnified by the dread feeling of isolation - already a problem before COVID - only serve to heighten everyone's frustration, and magnify the underlying feeling: Something has to change.


As most of you who are at all interested in music-making are aware, COVID-19 has pretty much kicked the pins out from under us. No rehearsals or concerts with large ensembles; no private lessons or small ensemble rehearsals in cramped studios or practice rooms – all on hold for some other day. And classical music performances these days happen electronically over social media, mostly solo performers from their studios or parlors, or a small ensemble, standing or sitting far apart in over-generously empty spaces.


While composers have the luxury of doing pretty much what they’ve always done – alone in their workroom with their thoughts – composition has been radically altered by COVID, at least for the long interim from now until “herd immunity,” and possibly even permanently. It’s altered the market. Demand for large ensemble pieces is on hold until all of this goes away. Chamber music is at present pretty much the rule.


For the moment, I don’t mind. I have always thought public taste - even the taste of that part of the public supposedly informed about good music – has been focused too much on large ensemble and big sounds. The intimacy and intricacy of chamber music, whether it be for solo performer or a small group, has taken an undeserved back seat.


Fellow composers, if the moment is giving us only lemons, let’s make lemonade. Write some really well-crafted chamber music. The medium can sustain a level of complexity and profundity that might amaze you if you’re willing to give it a shot. Or take an extended period of time to plan and execute a really quality piece for a large ensemble. They will come back someday. In the meantime, let’s take advantage of the gift of time away from the hustle-bustle. Let’s wrest something good out of all the tragedy and sadness. Let’s honor those who have suffered and died, and take this long moment to step back, think/feel through, and create something wonderful.

 

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