As much as I love singing the music of Antonio Vivaldi and Francesco Cavalli, I must admit that Claudio Monteverdi’s glorious vocal writing is like a healing balm to my soul! I’m currently practicing a set of early Italian arias for an upcoming vocal recital at Valparaiso University in July. The program will also feature my 2017 Lutheran Summer Music vocal faculty colleagues, Penny Hogan, George Hogan and Michael Scarbrough.
The roots of my adoration for Monteverdi's music stem back to my college years at the University of California-Santa Barbara where I was a member of the vocal ensemble, Musica Antiqua, conducted by our wonderful, resident early music scholar and music history professor, Alejandro Planchart.
When our ensemble met for the first rehearsal of the semester that year, Dr. Planchart distributed thick, full scores to each of us. The scores contained the work we were slated to perform at the end of of the Spring term, (my last semester at UCSB); Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610 Vespers). Talk about graduating on a high note!
The members of our ensemble did not sing in rehearsal that day. With scores in hand, we listened to the entire work and many us were in awe I might add. My jaw dropped upon hearing the opening movement of piece which featured brilliant brass and singing string instruments. With all the beautiful antiphonal choral movements, duets, trios, solo singing, florid and ornamented continuo, and instrumental ritornelli that further unfolded throughout the work, I found myself with tears in my eyes after my initial hearing.
Both the rehearsal process and ultimate performance of our rendition of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers were often intense and inspiring that semester, requiring much concentration throughout. This work features an abundance of virtuosic vocal writing, especially the solos. (which were entirely performed by UCSB students for our performance that year). The process of studying, rehearsing and performing this technically-challenging music stretched my colleagues and me in extraordinary ways. I was left with a joyful and rewarding sense of accomplishment, creating an indelible imprint in my memory to this day.
Is has been further thrilling to have had subsequent professional opportunities to perform this extraordinary masterpiece following my initial introduction to Monteverdi's music as a student. One such occasion was with Helmut Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival. Maestro Rilling made an interesting observation about the piece and it's composer at the time. He suggested that while Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers was essentially a sacred work, with traditional and poetic Latin texts throughout, the music must also be performed passionately. Monteverdi was Italian after all, and from a culture known to live and express all aspects of their lives with great passion.
What I remember about the Oregon performance was the sense of oneness that prevailed between all the musicians and with the audience. Singing with that particular Soprano section felt like one amplified voice, with seemingly one breath and one heartbeat; a transcending experience as I recall. I've been privileged to sing with some of the best vocal ensembles in the country, but this performance stands out as one of the high points of my professional choral career. The audience immediately leapt to their feet with a standing ovation at the end of the concert, no exaggeration. Sometimes the practice of standing ovation seems overused at times, but in this case, it was unabashedly warranted given the extraordinary musical rarity of what had just occurred.
If you ever want to see and hear a spectacular performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers presented in the historically significant, Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) in Venice, where the work was first premiered, check out the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists DVD filmed in the late 1980s. It's a truly breathtakingly beautiful performance and makes use of all the various balconies and nooks and crannies of the beautiful Basilica space. If one of the baritone soloists looks familiar, it is indeed a very young, future opera celebrity, Bryn Terfel!
As much as I adore his larger works, I find the spontaneous and dramatic interaction within Monteverdi’s madrigal writing to be rewarding as well. I’ll admit that I am really a chamber musician at heart. To my delight, I’ve discovered a wide breadth of Monteverdi's sacred and secular vocal chamber music while perusing through the complete works section at various university arts libraries. It has been fun to program several of these gems in recitals in recent years. I also love Monteverdi’s opera writing, which, at that particular point in history, was dominated by recitative with an intense capability of immediate story telling.
What I’m practicing now is an aria from Monteverdi's Scherzi Musicali, a collection of arias, duets and trios with texts focusing on love’s desire, unrequited passion and return of affection. The aria I’m preparing includes three verses of recitative and includes an ostinato bass line and chord progression. I truly adore ostinato lines in this style of writing, along with theme and variations, melodic sequence, harmonic suspensions and of course, interactive ornamentation.
Finally, for me, Monteverdi's music continues to stand the test of time. There is always something new to notice, find relevance in and rejoice with in experiencing his magnificent writing.