When as a rookie conductor I first conducted the Vespers back in 1964, very little of Monteverdi’s music was then known, and performances of the Vespers were extremely rare. In my teens, I heard a BBC broadcast from York Minster with massed choirs and the LSO conducted by Walter Goehr. I remember being completely bowled over by the grandeur of the music—so different from any other music I’d heard by then, so eloquent and passionate, but not in a grandiloquent 19th century way. An idea, at first dimly formulated, began to grow: how to grapple some day with this amazing score, how to begin to do justice to this glorious seicento Italian music, how and where to perform it, with what forces, what voices, what instruments, in what deployment; and then how to pay for it? (Things don’t change…) The challenges were immense, but starting with a wonderfully understanding tutor, the anthropologist Edmund Leach, who allowed me time off from the History tripos at Cambridge to prepare for the assignment, I had advice aplenty from such experts as Denis Arnold (“perform all the Vespers music in exactly the order it was first printed in 1610”), Thurston Dart (“here is the 1610 print: now go and make your own edition”), George Malcolm (“aim for as un-English a choral sound as possible”) and Philip Brett (“don’t allow the mushy King’s Chapel acoustic to sap the music’s vitality”). Indeed!
Piecing together a mixed voice choir made up of choral scholars and young English singers trained in a totally different tradition, none of whom had ever sung a note of Monteverdi before (except perhaps the odd madrigal in a punt on the Cam) —that was the easy bit. But the smooth, polite euphony of the collegiate choral style of the early ’60s was a million miles away from what I imagined then to be the hallmark of Monteverdi’s style—vivid, passionate, multi-colored, text-orientated and rhetorical. I drew comfort from a contemporary description of the problems Monteverdi himself faced when he first arrived at St. Mark’s to take charge of “this most celebrated choir in Italy, feeling himself to be “foreign:” how he won “the compliance and support of the valorous singers, who with good will devoted themselves to embracing the manners of singing no longer practised by them.” Next I had to scour the country to find the only three players around of those treacherously difficult instruments—the cornetto—with very mixed results. All in all, it was a stern test of everyone’s good will and adaptability, and I am certain that our performance was more rough than ready. It caused a bit of a stir. For me it was a kind of epiphany. It led to my resolve to train as a conductor, to put the choir onto a regular basis as the Monteverdi Choir, to a glorious year spent learning investigative musicology from Thurston Dart (the Sherlock Holmes of textual analysis) and to two years’ gruelling but inspiring study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
about the program
title Vespro della Beata Vergine da concerto, composta sopra canti fermi—what should be included in performance and in what order? Is it just a haphazard compilation or are we entitled to speak of this as a unified “work?” If so, is it genuinely a single consistent piece of music, or did it come about more by accident than design? Scholarly opinion is divided: some say no, some yes, but then look to liturgical practice to bolster or qualify their position. Different hypotheses as to how to perform this music proliferate, some well argued so that what starts out as theory turns rapidly into quasifact and soon acquires the status of a new orthodoxy. It can be bewildering. Fortunately there is more than one way to skin a cat.
All through the ’70s and ’80s, regardless of the diversity of music I was conducting, it was always a joy to return to the Vespers. Each time and in different venues I found a growing audience clearly relishing the music. I became more and more convinced that the unusual printed placement of solo motets and duets (the sacri concentus referred to on the title page) between the five vesper psalms, far from being an error or a casual whim on the part of his Venetian printer, was part of an audacious pre-ordained plan by Monteverdi. Some scholars still dispute this and 3