10 Things to Know About the Monteverdi Vespers
1. One of the great masterpieces of Western music, but you rarely get to hear it live.
That’s because the piece really needs to be played on period instruments in order to sound anything like what the composer intended.
2. Festive enough for a Royal Wedding
Although we don’t know for sure, many scholars believe that Monteverdi composed (and assembled) this masterpiece for the 1608 royal wedding held in Mantua, Italy. Monteverdi’s boss was the Duke of Mantua, whose son married Marguerite of Savoy in 1608. Their wedding was the event of the decade – royals and aristocrats from all over Europe gathered In Mantua for a week of festivities. The closing event of the week was a “festive Vespers service” held on Sunday evening. Clearly, the Duke told Monteverdi to pull out all the stops…. Apollo’s Fire and Jeannette Sorrell like to evoke the ambiance of the royal wedding in their performance.
3. Many cool instruments on stage.
In addition to a choir and soloists, you will see 2 theorbos (giant lutes that resembles giraffes), 2 cornettos (ancient oboe-like wind instruments that sound like noble and mellow trumpets), 3 sackbuts (the ancestor of the trombone), a chamber organ, and a Renaissance drum.
4. For a sacred piece, it’s very sexy.
Remember the Royal wedding? Well, Monteverdi chose the most erotic love poetry he could find in the Bible – the Song of Solomon. The texts include such famous poems as “I am black and beautiful; the King took me into his bed chamber…”. Monteverdi set this passage as an intimate song for solo singer and lute.
5. Monteverdi was a revolutionary, like Beethoven
Just as Beethoven lived at the end of the Classical era and pushed music into the Romantic, so Monteverdi was living at the end of the Renaissance, and forging the new style that we call Baroque – by sheer force of will. In both of these composers, you hear a revolutionary spirit, a sense of struggle, and ultimately, a sense of triumph.
6. East Meets West
Living in northern Italy at the dawn of the 17th century, Monteverdi frequently heard the sounds of the Middle East – music of the synagogues in the Jewish ghetto, and music of the Arab traders who could always be found in the town square. In the Vespers, Monteverdi evoked these exotic sounds and blended them with Western musical structure. The result is strikingly modern.
7. Clash of Two Eras
To give this music a sense of the sacred and eternal, Monteverdi used the Medieval technique of the cantus firmus – taking a phrase of ancient Gregorian chant and using it as long, slow notes – while he composed new and daring counterpoint that dances around it. The tension between these two styles – the ancient Medieval and the new Baroque – is what gives this music its unforgettable tension and grandeur.
8. Each conductor’s version of this piece will sound TOTALLY different.
That’s because Monteverdi didn’t specify the tempos, the dynamics (soft and loud), which passages should be sung by soloists vs the full group. He didn’t even specify all of the instrumentation. So each conductor who takes on this piece has to make all of those decisions. Thus, if you listen to 5 different CDs of this piece, it will sound like 5 different pieces of music.
9. Secret (sssh!): The Monteverdi Vespers is Jeannette Sorrell’s favorite piece of music.
Jeannette chose not to pursue a symphonic conducting career because symphony orchestras can’t play the Monteverdi Vespers. These days, she does conduct such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, as a guest… but nothing makes her happier than conducting the Monteverdi Vespers with Apollo’s Fire.
10. The Monteverdi Vespers is a signature piece for Apollo’s Fire and Jeannette Sorrell – their CD album has been praised internationally.
“Exultant… instrumental colours blaze brilliantly”
–THE SUNDAY TIMES (London)
“A stunning achievement…. Wins out handily over William Christie’s versions and other recent issues”
– FANFARE Record Magazine
Chosen by BBC Magazine in 2022 as one of “30 CDs For Our Lifetime.”