Vespers for the Blessed Virgin: Monteverdi’s magnificent masterpiece

Whilst Monteverdi was a genius at transforming his musical compositions in gold, did you know that he also dabbled in alchemy?  This is just one of the fascinating facts the intrepid researchers of the Chandos Chamber Choir have uncovered as part of our preparation for our performance of his Vespers of the Blessed Virgin at St John’s Smith Square on Thursday 26 March.

A hi-definition photograph of Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi

It is difficult to fully appreciate the significance of Monteverdi’s work without understanding the backdrop against which it was composed.  Monteverdi (1567-1643) was a composer, a musician and a priest, composing and performing both sacred and secular works. He held appointments as both a court and a chapel musician, and his letters give a fascinating insight into the life of a professional musician during that period.

Monteverdi was a key figure in the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music, and indeed came under criticism for his adoption of a new harmonic style which he saw as an evolution of earlier polyphony, but others considered a radical change.  The furore had largely died down by the time his Vespers were published in 1610, though we can clearly hear the fusion of old and new throughout.  It is unlikely that Monteverdi viewed the collection of psalms, motets, a hymn and a Magnificat as a single continuous work.  However, the separate elements are clearly linked through the use of the traditional Gregorian plainchant sung by one of the voices and adorned by more intricate harmonisation in the other parts.

The Vespers showcase Monteverdi’s talent as a composer, and, in 1613, he was unanimously elected to the post of first organist and Maestro di Capella at St. Mark's, Venice.  This was the most highly regarded musical appointment in Italy, which he held for the rest of his life.

As for the alchemy, Monteverdi describes his experiments to transform lead into gold in his correspondence of 1625 and 1626 with the Mantuan courtier Ercole Marigliani.  Unfortunately, there is no record of him being successful.

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear the Chandos Chamber Choir turn his Vespers into gold on 26 March at St John’s Smith Square.  Book early to avoid disappointment at https://www.sjss.org.uk/events/chandos-chamber-choir

 

To find out more about Monteverdi’s fascinating life, five Radio 3 programmes from Composer of the Week are available here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tnxf/episodes/player

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Chandos Chamber Choir will celebrate the music of women composers at their forthcoming London concert on 4 July, at St Pancras Church. They will perform a wonderful selection of choral works by women composers through the ages, with an exciting programme ranging from medieval works through to contemporary composers including Kerry Andrew, Cecilia McDowall, Carlotta Ferrari and Chen Yi.

portraits of the featured composers
portraits of the featured composers (Top L-R: Laura Snowden; Roxanna Panufnik (photo ©Benjamin Ealovega); Clara Schumann; Kerry Andrew. Bottom L-R: Fanny Mendelssohn; Sally Beamish (photo ©Ashley Coombes); Libby Larsen; Cecilia McDowall)

The performance will take the audience on a musical journey charting the way in which female composers have challenged expectations of their role in society and music throughout history. Women, such as Hildegard von Bingen who pushed the boundaries of traditional monophonic Gregorian chant with her fluid, expressive melodies, and Clara Schumann who held her own against her composer and pianist husband Robert, despite her doubts as a young 20 year old: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”.

This timeline of music by female composers will be brought up to date with the premiere of a new work by guitarist and composer Laura Snowden. Laura has been paired with the Chandos Chamber Choir through the prestigious Adopt a Composer scheme, and choir and composer have been working together to develop some exciting ideas. In keeping with the theme of the concert, Chandos and Laura considered a number of texts, written by women, settling on a poem entitled Evensong by Cherry Smyth.

Laura says, “When a member of Chandos Chamber Choir suggested using the text of Cherry Smyth’s poem Evensong as a starting point for this new work, I immediately fell in love with the poem. Cherry’s words are so colourful and evocative, and seemed a perfect fit for the choir. It has been a wonderful process to work with the choir and their brilliant director James, and I’ve hugely appreciated their willingness to share and try out new ideas.”

This concert will be the culmination of the Chandos Chamber Choir’s work with Laura, with the performance being recorded for potential broadcast by Radio 3. Adopt a Composer is run by Making Music in partnership with Sound and Music, in association with BBC Radio 3, and funded by PRS Foundation and The Philip and Dorothy Green Music Trust.

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