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find it a strange concoction. To me it is key to its originality and success: a magnificent progression of music articulated and held together with constructional logic by the old-fashioned Gregorian cantus firmus, a unifying structural device serving as the spine of the work. The upshot is a sonic chiaroscuro—between the flamboyant (the psalms and canticle) and the intimate (the solo motets), the “public” and the “private,” and, as one contemporary put it, a demonstration of Monteverdi’s “various and diverse manners of invention and harmony.” Consider it for a moment as the sacred twin to his first opera L’Orfeo and you begin to see how Monteverdi brought the techniques of the opera house into church, fused them together with the church’s own ceremonies and rituals where the music could seek out its mysterious architectural spaces. Here was a paradigm for the way music drama was soon to develop in the hands of composers like Schütz, Purcell, Charpentier, and later, Bach and Handel. You could even say that the theatrical deployment of forces in such iconic 19th century works as Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts and Verdi’s Missa da Requiem had their origins right here. These and other ideas crystallized when in 1986 I first conducted the Vespers in the three Italian cities where Monteverdi had lived and worked— Cremona, Mantua and Venice. Above all, it was the experience of performing it in St. Mark’s that convinced me that this is the place where the music fits most naturally and convincingly. The burnished sounds of Monteverdi’s concertato psalms seemed to complement the opulent mosaics of the Byzantine cupolas, while the divided choirs and brass instruments rang out with magisterial splendour. In one’s mind’s eye one could picture how on high feast days the basilica was turned into a unique theatre for expressing Venice’s own self-image—the choreography of the spectacle, the procession of the doge, senate and clergy all splendidly dressed, and the deployment of the musicians in its galleries, facing pulpits and on special rostra in the sanctuary as described at the time and shown in contemporary
iconography, all contributing to a sense of awe. According to official legend, Venice was founded on the Feast of the Annunciation and the city assumed the virtues and attributes of the Virgin Mary—inviolate purity and an implied immortality. In time of war, invocations to her increased, as did the number of motets composed and sung to Marian texts. She was the “stella maris,” the star of the sea—a typically Venetian association surely not lost on Monteverdi, whose dedication to the SANCTISSIMAE VIRGINI is emblazoned on the title page of his 1610 print. No matter that Monteverdi’s style differs significantly from that of the earlier maestri of St. Mark’s, Willaert, and the two Gabrielis. In his Vespers we have the richest and most highly patterned mosaic in music hitherto composed, one which in performance in St. Mark’s becomes a feast for both the ear and the eye, so that you get the sense of being caught up in some spiritual dramma per musica. In “The Supper at Emmaus” that Caravaggio was painting around this time, Christ’s outstretched hand seems to project right out of the canvas into the viewer’s space. In the same way, the invisible “echo” soloists (in Audi coelum and the Gloria of the Magnificat) seem to seek out every inch of the basilica’s reflective surfaces before reaching out to the listener.