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Claudio Monteverdi was the pre-eminent Italian composer of the late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries. Born in Cremona in 1567, he entered the service of the Gonzaga family,
rulers of Mantua, and became Master of Music at the Mantuan court in 1601. In 1610 Monteverdi
published a magnificent collection of sacred music for the Mass and Vespers: Sanctissimæ Virgini
Missa senis vocibus ad Ecclesiarum Choros ac Vespere pluribus decantandæ – ‘A Mass of the Blessed Virgin for six voices suitable for church choirs and Vespers music for more voices’. The publication was dedicated to Pope Paul V, and Monteverdi travelled to Rome in order to present the collection to the Pope.
It is possible that he was thereby seeking patronage or employment in Rome (certainly,such suspicions were raised among his Mantuan employers), and that the music included in the publication was in some respects aimed at the Roman market. Of the two parts of the collection, the music for Vespers – usually simply known as ‘Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610’ – has become the composer’s best known work and enjoys tremendous popularity in terms of performances and recordings.
But the great six-voice ‘Mass of the Blessed Virgin’ mentioned first in the title of the 1610 collection – and highlighted much more prominently on the title page than the music for Vespers – has received much less attention, one modern writer dismissing it as having ‘more of an academic than a practical character’.
Certainly, Monteverdi was here demonstrating his proficiency in what was by 1610 an eminent century-old technique of Mass composition: the so-called ‘parody Mass’, based upon material from an older work, most often a motet. For the Mass of 1610, Monteverdi’s source of material was the six-voice motet In illo tempore by Nicolas Gombert, one of the most prestigious of the Northern-European composers who dominated the world of sacred musical composition until the second half of the sixteenth century. Monteverdi’s skills in the traditional parody techniques are highlighted in the 1610 print by the inclusion of a list of the motives from Gombert’s piece which Monteverdi has exploited and transformed.
This aspect of the work is emphasised in a letter from Bassano Casola to Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga of 16 July 1610: ‘Monteverdi is having printed an a cappella Mass for six voices, [the product] of great study and effort, in which he is obliged to handle continually – in every note through all the parts, building up more and more – the eight points of imitation which are in Gombert’s motet In illo tempore; and together with [the Mass] he is also having printed some psalms of the Vespers of the Madonna with various and different manners of invention and harmony, and all on a cantus firmus, with the idea of coming to Rome this autumn to dedicate them to His Holiness.’
It would be a mistake to view Monteverdi’s piece as merely an isolated and anachronistic tribute to
older traditions of sacred polyphonic composition, or as an academic exercise: in the seventeenth
century the polyphonic ‘da cappella’ styles continued to be cultivated and prized alongside the
newer styles – including those involving solo song and obbligato instrumental parts – represented
by Monteverdi’s motets and music for Vespers in his 1610 collection.
Masses ‘da cappella’ such as the Missa In illo tempore were composed in large numbers in the seventeenth century in Rome, in Northern Italy, and in the Iberian world. Indeed, the traditional polyphonic styles, to which the description ‘stile antico’ would come to be applied (an alternative term was ‘stile osservato’), were associated particularly strongly with Rome and were seen as especially appropriate for the Mass, since, as Noel O’Regan has observed, they ‘came to act as a signifier for religious orthodoxy’. The Missa In illo tempore – which presents a fascinating contrast to Monteverdi’s better-known sacred music – is much more than a well-crafted and particularly richly scored example of the ‘da cappella’ manner.
As is typical of Monteverdi, one finds here imaginative manipulation and transformation of the materials and conventions with(in) which he is working, all the more striking given that he is dealing with so traditional a genre as the parody Mass, and with such traditional elements as imitative contrapuntal textures. Leo Schrade’s characterisation of the work and of Monteverdi’s approach to composing it thus seem essentially wrong: ‘We find…that his nature was…opposed to the style and he was not at ease when writing in a manner that he himself had made obsolete…His extensive studies and general artistic maturity did, however, enable Monteverdi to write a faultless composition in the old idiom and to imitate the pasts with an uncommonly pure feeling for the style…A total renunciation of his musical nature, the Mass is unquestionably the purest imitation of the sixteenth-century style.’ This suggestion that Monteverdi was here struggling against a style to which he was naturally ‘opposed’ conflicts with Monteverdi’s (and Monteverdi’s brother’s) own declarations that there existed two valid ‘practices’ in composition, the ‘first practice’ (prima pratica) being the polyphonic art which had developed during the preceding centuries.
This distinction between two ‘practices’ is useful but crude, and can obscure the eclectic mixing of tradition and innovation characteristic of so much of his output, including both the Mass and the Vespers music in the 1610 collection. Certainly, the Missa In illo tempore is very far from – as Schrade suggests – a perfect reproduction of a ‘sixteenth-century style’ of sacred polyphony.
In the Mass, Monteverdi takes Gombert’s motives and from them builds astonishingly rich and monumental edifices, including extended sequences and ostinati which can produce impressions both of timelessness and drama. The ‘Christe’ is largely fashioned from such sequences, which subtly transform the metre of the music through their melodic and harmonic patterns: this rich variety of metrical effects and phraseology is one of the delights of the Mass, and is again prominent in the first ‘Agnus Dei’. For the final ‘Kyrie’ Monteverdi borrowed a motive from Gombert’s motet which is itself sequential, and span out this brief idea into lengthy chains, closing the movement with a grand longer-note presentation of the motive starting in the highest part of the top voice’s range, and the same climactic idea is heard at the end of the Credo.
This motive is also employed to produce the mesmeric opening of the Sanctus. The cumulative expressive power of Monteverdi’s sequential writing is apparent in the ‘Hosanna’ settings which conclude both the Sanctus and the Benedictus: in the Sanctus the ‘Hosanna’ sequence provides a wonderful surge of energy after the timeless circling ostinati of the ‘Pleni sunt cæli’ section, portraying the eternal heavenly glory. Some sequences also serve the purpose of ‘word-painting’, as at ‘descendit de cælis’ (‘he came down from heaven’) in the Credo, a passage similar to sequential sections in the psalms Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri within the Vespers music of the 1610 collection. Rising sequence is deployed to add power to the word painting at ‘et expecto resurrectionem’ (‘and I look for the resurrection’) later in the Credo.
Monteverdi’s dramatic impulse is most overtly apparent in two ‘shocking’ changes of harmony, used to highlight the ‘Et incarnatus’ section at the heart of the Credo and the opening of the Benedictus, in both of which sections the impassioned chordal declamation stands out from the imitative counterpoint characteristic of most of the Mass.
Although Monteverdi maintains rich sixvoice writing for almost the whole of the work, he includes an extended quartet section for upper voices at the centre of the Credo, vividly setting the dramatic passage of text between ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘non erit finis’, where Jesus’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming are recounted. Monteverdi’s six-voice ensemble in the rest of the Mass – with twin superius (here, soprano) and tenor parts – is expanded to seven voices (adding a second bass) for the second and final ‘Agnus Dei’, such textural expansion being a long-established tradition in polyphonic Masses.
This recording is not a ‘liturgical reconstruction’. Rather it juxtaposes Monteverdi’s Mass with
north-Italian instrumental music of the period so as to throw both into relief, although the liturgical
use of instrumental sonatas and concerti was in fact commonplace in Northern Italy during this
period. Monteverdi’s lifetime saw a tremendous flourishing of new instrumental forms and styles.
|1||04:17||Toccata Sesta||Claudio Merulo|
|2||04:37||Missa In illo tempore: Kyrie||Claudio Monteverdi|
|3||06:45||Missa In illo tempore: Gloria||Claudio Monteverdi|
|4||04:17||Sonata||Giovanni Paolo Cima|
|5||12:03||Missa In illo tempore: Credo||Claudio Monteverdi|
|7||04:59||Missa In illo tempore: Sanctus and Benedictus||Claudio Monteverdi|
|8||05:02||Sonata Secunda||Dario Castello|
|9||06:15||Missa In illo tempore: Agnus dei||Claudio Monteverdi|
|10||05:53||Toccata Settima||Claudio Merulo|