Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Virgine (1610)

During the spring semester of 1974, I read voraciously. In English class we studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Windhover,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman. Inspired by my history of western civilization class, I read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” My friend Paul Mankowski wrote and told me that he had loved Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” so I read that, too. He also mentioned a writer whose name was new to me, James Joyce. One day I picked up a copy of “The Dubliners” and was smitten, especially by the story called “A Painful Case.” But when I read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” my life changed.

That book made me want to become a writer. It captured so well the internal struggles of an intellectual trying to balance his love of knowledge with his faith. I remember one part where Joyce describes a boy listening to a priest’s sermon about eternity. The priest said that God would punish those who sin with eternal damnation. He then told a story to help people imagine how long eternity was. The priest told them to imagine a mountain of sand on a beach. A bird flies down, picks up one grain of sand, and takes it away. Imagine how it would take the bird to remove that mountain of sand. Then imagine if the bird had to move as many mountains of sand as there were grains of sand in that mountain. The story gave the boy nightmares, the point of which is what kind of religion is it that gets you to be good  by using threats of punishment? Especially for little children who are supposed to be innocent.

My relationship with my parents at this time became somewhat strained. I often argued with my father. He was a bit like the argument clinic in that Monty Python sketch. No matter what point of view you took, he seemed to contradict it. And yet, if you contradicted him, you certainly didn’t win any brownie points. I have already said that he was worried that my reading Dostoyevsky would turn me into a communist. If I threw out an idea that contradicted his, moreover, he would blame it on “those atheistic college psychology professors.” I think my mother sympathized with me, although she once told me “You think too much, and about the wrong things.” Maybe she was just worried that I was spending too much time by myself, listening to music and reading.

Sometimes I escaped to the house of my brother Bob and his wife, Cindi, who lived over the state line in Niles, Michigan (birthplace of Ring Lardner.) Cindi was working on finishing her bachelor’s degree, and sometimes read me poems that she had written. From time to time they would go on a date and I would baby sit for my brother Bob’s daughter, Karen, who was about three or four. She was a cute baby and had taught herself to read about that time. To show how out of touch I was with reality, I once asked her if she would like to me to read her a story. When she said yes, I pulled out my copy of “A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man,” and started reading it to her. After a few paragraphs, she slipped off my lap and went off to bed. She eventually did grow up to be smart as a whip, graduating cum laude from Indiana University, and is a gifted writer.

One day at the over-priced record store at the local mega-mall, I found today’s piece. I’m not sure why I bought it, except that it was a double album on a very expensive export label and someone had accidentally priced it as a single record. It has turned out to be one of my all time favorite works of music.

Written in 1610, it stands as one of the pivotal bridges between sacred and secular choral music, out of which modern opera arose. It contains five sung psalms, interspersed with eight other pieces that are hymns of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m not sure of the origins of some of these texts, but some are quite sensual:

“As long as the king is at his table, my spikenard gives forth sweet perfume.”


“Thou art fair, my love, beautiful and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem.”

And even

“My beloved is radiant white and ruddy: the hair of his head is like the crimson of the king, bound in little plaits.”

But what even today sends chills down my spine is the singing. Some of the melodies are based on traditional Gregorian chants. Monteverdi alternates passages given to the choir, with solos, duos and trios sung by sopranos or tenors. These voices sing in a pure, unaffected pre-operatic style, which is so simple yet beautiful. I also loved a technique that he employs several times throughout the work. He often starts out a section with a little musical interlude played on the high-pitched and difficult to play medieval cornetto, the valve-less precursor to the trumpet. When the soloists being singing, eventually one or more of the voices will echo the melodies that were played by the cornetto earlier.

Another effective technique is how he uses the soloists. Sometimes one leads and sings the melody. When the one finishes, the other will sing the last phrase again, which give a hauntingly beautiful echo effect. I saw the Vespers sung several year ago in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. During some of these duos, they actually moved the second soloist to a different part of the church. In one of the most beautiful, “Audi caelum” the lead voice sings a prayer to God in heaven, asking “who is she who rises bright as the dawn?” The echo voice is supposed to represent God answering back to the supplicant. As the singer continues the prayer, he eventually ends each phrase on a higher and higher note, until at the end, he resolves back to the beginning key.

The recording that I bought was by The Concentus Musicus under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Monteverdi Choir of Hamburg. It was issued on the Telefunken label in 1972, and I think it was one of the first recordings of its time to use all original period instruments. The liner booklet was quite a piece in itself, some 24 pages in length describing the characteristics of the instruments, the research to find the first edition of the score, and the structure of the work itself. Of a number of recordings I’ve heard over the years, this is clearly my favorite. Without hesitating I would choose it as one of my desert island disks.


Download MP3 or buy CD from Amazon here

Harnoncourt only available on CD of Vespro Della Beata Vergine from Amazon

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