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The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance.

The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance. By Jeffrey Kurtzman. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. [xix, 603 p. ISBN 0-19-816409-2. $90.]

"Comprehensive" and "authoritative" are words that come to mind in characterizing Jeffrey Kurtzman's new book on Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. Kurtzman has devoted much of his career to studying Vespers music in the seicento, and his scholarship includes an important dissertation ("The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 and Their Relationship with Italian Sacred Music of the Early Seventeenth Century" [University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1972]), a seminal book (Essays on the Monteverdi Mass and Vespers of 1610 [Houston: Rice University Press, 1978]), numerous distinguished articles, a major bibliography of printed music for Vespers (as yet unpublished), and more recently, an ambitious set of editions of seventeenth-century music for Vespers and Compline (Music for Vespers and Compline (Responses, Psalms, Canticles, Antiphons, and Hymns), 1600-1700, vols. 11-20 of Seventeenth-Century Italian Sacred Music [New York: Garland Publishing, 1996-]; vols. 17-20 forthcoming). The present book, along with Kurt zman's new critical edition of the 1610 Vespers (Vespro della Beata Vergine [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]), have therefore been eagerly awaited, for they offer the author's latest views on a work that is arguably one of the most widely admired examples of so-called early music--and unquestionably one of the most controversial.

The book falls naturally into three sections: "Context" (two chapters on the principal questions surrounding the work, and two devoted to overviews of Vespers music by Monteverdi's predecessors and contemporaries), "The Music" (six chapters of detailed description and analysis of all the Vespers music from Monteverdi's 1610 edition), and "Performance Practice" (thirteen chapters covering virtually every aspect of performance). Six appendixes, including a richly detailed discography, round out the volume.

The opening chapter, "Sources, Controversies, and Speculations: The Early and Modern History of Monteverdi's Vespers," begins by tracing the Vespers from Ricciardo Amadino's original edition to the present, discussing editions of the music, significant secondary literature, and numerous recordings. This ingenious structure allows Kurtzman to write the first thorough reception history of the work and simultaneously provide detached, objective descriptions of the sometimes heated debates concerning it. Only toward the end of the chapter does he begin to weigh in on the central controversies, often by glossing the work of other scholars. For example, he endorses Graham Dixon's suggestion that much of the music may have been conceived originally for a celebration of the feast of Saint Barbara at the ducal church in Mantua. On the other hand, he expresses reservations about another theory that has gained considerable currency, David Blazey's proposal that Monteverdi's Sonata sopra Sancta Maria was intended as a s ubstitute antiphon for the Magnificat and consequently was misplaced in Amadino's edition. Kurtzman finds this idea "plausible, though ... troubling," preferring the "hard evidence" (p. 34) of the ordering of compositions found in the edition. On the question of the liturgical unity of the Vespers, he assumes a sensible middle ground, maintaining that the music from the 1610 edition could have been used to provide the major items in canto figurato for the celebration of Vespers, while allowing that Monteverdi perhaps envisioned additional performance possibi]ities, particularly the extraction of works from the collection for use in other contexts. Finally, it is clear throughout the book that Kurtzman sees all five sacred concertos (including the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria) as antiphon substitutes, intended to replace the repetition of the chant antiphons following each psalm.

A short, closing section of this initial chapter provides a thumbnail biographical sketch of Monteverdi's activities in the years around 1610, exploring the origins of the Vespers, the composer's motives for publishing a major collection of sacred music, and the possible performance of parts of the collection in connection with Monteverdi's audition for the position of maestro di cappella at Saint Mark's in Venice.

In "The Liturgy of Vespers and the Antiphon Problem'" (chap. 2), Kurtzman's "antiphon problem" is not, as one might expect, the putative role of Monteverdi's polyphonic sacri concentus as substitutes for the repetition of chant antiphons after each psalm. Instead, the chapter focuses mainly on a question that has received far less consideration: how (and whether) the chant antiphons preceding each psalm were brought into tonal agreement with the polyphonic psalms that followed. Since there is little direct evidence on how such antiphons were coordinated with canto figurato, Kurtzman is forced to attack the problem obliquely, principally by examining the adjustments and transpositions made to psalm tones when they were performed alternatim with polyphonic organ versets or falsobordone settings. Extrapolating from the practices used with psalms to the performance of antiphons, he concludes that nearly all of the possible solutions to the antiphon problem are viable: (1) antiphons might have been transposed so that their reciting notes matched those of the psalm; (2) antiphons might have been transposed so that their finals matched those of the psalm; (3) antiphons might have been performed at any comfortable pitch level, ignoring tonal differences between antiphon and psalm; or (4) antiphons in the correct mode from a different feast might have been performed. This flexible approach is entirely consistent with seventeenth-century attitudes and finds support in the sources Kurtzman discusses.

Kurtzman's view of the place of Monteverdi's Vespers among contemporaneous collections of printed music (chaps. 3, 4) has changed little over the years--a tribute to how well his earlier research has held up. Nor has he modified his basic view of the musical structure of the psalms and the two Magnificats in the 1610 edition; in chapters 6 and 7, which address this topic, he expands, refines, and reorganizes passages from his earlier writings.

Kurtzman's analyses of the sacred concertos take an eclectic approach that fuses traditional tonal analysis, modal analysis based on the work of Bernhard Meier, ideas borrowed from Eric Chafe's "modal-hexachordal system," and Susan McClary's quasi-Schenkerian concept of diapente descents. Kurtzman's modal analyses, which draw on the Renaissance tradition of Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino, seem at first to create something of a procrustean bed for Monteverdi's music. For example, Kurtzman sees works like Nigra sum and Pulchra es--both are C-final, natural-system pieces with prominent cadences on C and D--as mixing modes 7 and 8, a reading that forces him to deal with ranges that sometimes exceed the normal ambitus of the modes and melodic gestures that frequently stress the "wrong" reciting tone. Yet most octonary modal systems of the seventeenth century (for example, the one advanced in Adriano Banchieri's Cartella musicale [1614]) deal neatly with such compositions, recognizing both C and D as princi pal cadential degrees (cordes) in mode 8. Nonetheless, careful reading of Kurtzman's analyses reveals sound reasons for his reliance on older modal traditions, with their emphasis on the range or ambitus of melodies, the positions of the pentachord and tetrachord in relation to the finalis, and the melodic emphasis on the reciting tone. This approach ultimately reveals that Monteverdi did, at times, remain keenly attuned to some aspects of Renaissance modal thought, particularly in his sensitivity to register and to the traditional weight accorded the reciting tone.

Kurtzman's tonal readings of Monteverdi's music are occasionally less convincing. For instance, he claims that in the psalms "the reciting tone may he harmonized by as many as three different chords" (p. 238). When the reciting tone falls on a, however, no fewer than five harmonizations are available, apart from inversions (A major/minor, D major/minor, and F major), and Monteverdi uses all five in Nisi Dominus. Kurtzman also describes the opening of Ave maris stella as establishing "a G major tonal focus at the outset through a V-I progression, which, after prolonging the I, moves to IV in bar 6" (p. 295), a hearing that seems difficult to impose on this mode 1 hymn. Similarly, Kurtzman seems anxious to draw a firm dichotomy between modal and tonal thinking in Monteverdi's music, particularly between "cadentially oriented progressions" and "modally oriented basses," perhaps implying too strongly that the modal system excluded many of the cadential formulas that came to characterize later tonal music.

The concluding chapters could almost stand alone as a succinct guide to performance practice in the seventeenth century, for they deal with wide-ranging topics, including continuo instruments and realization, organ registration, vocal style, pitch, transposition, instrumental and vocal doubling, tempo, ornamentation, tuning, and historical pronunciation. Although selective in depth of coverage--the complex question of transposition in the works notated in chiavette is discussed in less than three pages, while meter and tempo receive thirty-three--several of these chapters are among the best available syntheses of information on individual performance practice topics. Each chapter provides a clear overview of the primary and secondary sources, along with sensible, flexible suggestions for applying this information to performances of the 1610 Vespers. Kurtzman's suggestions generally acknowledge not only Monteverdi's probable intentions, but also the wide range of possibilities encountered in the seicento, and while some of his recommendations are sure to prove controversial, they are always informed not only by an intimate knowledge of the literature, but also by keen musical instincts.

Kurtzman's exploration of Monteverdi's Vespers is clearly aimed at scholars, for much of the writing assumes prior knowledge of the music and the controversies surrounding it. John Whenham's short yet substantial handbook Monteverdi: Vespers (1610) (Cambridge Music Handbooks [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997]) furnishes more basic background information on the Vespers and complements Kurtzman's volume in a variety of ways, providing greater emphasis on Monteverdi's musical rhetoric and offering different viewpoints on several other matters. Research and undergraduate libraries will certainly want to own both.

In his preface, Kurtzman notes that "Monteverdi's Vespers seem to raise virtually every controversial, ambiguous, and ultimately unresolvable issue in early seventeenth-century sacred music," and he laments that many of these "remain, in the final analysis, without definitive answers" (p. vii). In squarely confronting these issues and circumscribing the range of options on so many of them, Kurtzman has realized stunningly the implied program laid out in his subtitle, appreciably deepening our knowledge of Monteverdi's music, its context, and its performance.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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