Monday, November 9, 2015

Second Monday Music: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

Claudio Monteverdi
by Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1630
Performed by the Seicento Baroque Ensemble

By Chuck Smythe

Five years ago, Evanne Browne, the music director at Boulder’s First Methodist Church, made a great leap of faith. Her chancel choir, augmented by ringers such as myself, were occasionally performing major works. She decided, at that time, to do Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. She is a specialist in early music and knew the piece to be fairly difficult, not least because it used musical styles strange to the modern singer. It also requires a full orchestra of 17th century instruments and a large corps of virtuoso vocal soloists. And it had never been done in Colorado before. Still, we did it, and it was a great hit.
    So great a hit was it that Evanne determined to form a semi-professional ensemble dedicated to that sort of thing, and so Seicento (17th century) was born. I managed to pass auditions on the second try, and found myself in a chorus more than half of whom were professional musicians. Yes, I was intimidated. We’re now in the fifth season, and Evanne decided it was time to revisit the Monteverdi, this time (on October 24-25, in Boulder and Denver, Colorado) with the best musicians she could gather.
    Monteverdi was one of the most famous musicians of post-renaissance Italy. He is known for creative, adventurous music, with startling mixtures of chant, renaissance polyphony, and experiments sometimes surprising even to us. He threw everything at the Vespers. We went in with a chorus of about forty, often split into two choruses. Eight – count them – eight soloists. Portatif organ, harpsichord, viola de gamba, archlute, and theorobo. Two solo violins, three sackbutts, three cornettos, three flautos dolce, and a partridge in a pear tree.
    First a brief solo chant, then a fanfare, “Deus in adjutorium,” with cornettos flourishing over fortissimo chorus. Then another chant and “Dixit Dominus,” which starts out as a round for six voices, then alternates chants with variations in every imaginable rhythm. Then “Nigra Sum” (from the song of Solomon?), lyrics for a woman, but scored for tenor! Then “Laudate pueri,” alternating polyphony for eight-part chorus with trios for soloists...then at last the chorus slowly trails off, one voice at a time, gradually replaced by two tenors.

I can’t go on like this. I encourage you to listen on YouTube, where I recommend John Eliot Gardiner’s first-rate performance at Versailles, on March 21, 2014 [1:44:57]:

    Just a few highlights of our performances (which are not available on YouTube):

  • Frequent solo passages with impossibly difficult bursts of notes.
  • A duet for tenors with long passages of rapidly repeated tones bouncing off each other.
  • Another tenor duet with one on stage singing florid jazz riffs, echoed to the last flourish by another tenor in the balcony.
  • “Lauda Jerusalem” with a long melody sung by all the tenors, flanked by decorated passages from two three-part choruses.
    What fun. Thank you, Evanne! And the board may have sold enough tickets and swung enough grants to actually pay the $20K or so it took to put on this show. I’ve almost forgotten the fifteen hours of rehearsals and the three drives to Denver last week.

Copyright © 2015 by Chuck Smythe


  1. Chuck, if you couldn't go on like that, how do you imagine that anyone reading your description of it can go on either? They'd have to be tied to the mast like Odysseus, to be prevented from rushing off to the airport to take a flight to Boulder or Denver to join in the fun! THANK YOU for the irresistible account of the two concerts!

  2. Wow, Chuck - great to see you're still in the "life-long learning" mode. Congrats on the performances and I learned something new: what a sackbut is (thanks to Wikipedia). Will be good to catch up with you old friend!