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