Monteverdi’s Marian Love Letter

Over at my old stomping grounds, the incomparable Robert Reilly just reminded me of something that has confounded me for years:

I love Monteverdi’s Vespers.

Why is that confounding, you ask?

Because despite my relatively extravagant musical sweet spot, I have always struggled to enjoy (or even to appreciate) Renaissance music. When confronted by a friend a few years back, I verbosely explained that “the melodic ideas expressed by most composers of that era are a trifle too dissonant for my Baroque-trained ears.”

I’m not really sure what that means, come to think of it. If I understand myself correctly, I’m admitting that I like more obvious (aka easier) melodies — which is probably why I enjoy more pop music than I am willing to admit in public.

But does this seem “easy” to you?

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As I listen at this very moment, I find myself thinking “There’s no way I really like this. It’s too odd. It flies in the face of everything I know about myself. But …I love it!”

I hate it when my tastes refuse to comply with my opinions. I would have thought I was perfectly clear with myself on this matter. On the other hand, I think Reilly just might be able to bail me out:

Monteverdi’s Vespers are in the tradition of the sung evening service for feasts of the Virgin Mary.  For this, he gave choral settings to five psalms (Dixit Dominus [6-part choir], Laudate pueri [8-part choir], Laetatus sum [6-part choir], Nisi Dominus [10-part choir], and Lauda Ierusalem [7-part choir]), followed by the Marian hymn, Ave Maris Stella, and a setting of the Magnificat, which closes the work.  Between the psalms, Monteverdi inserted five “sacred concertos,” a sequence of motets for a gradually increasing number of solo voices, with continuo accompaniment—the last one, an exuberant Sonata Sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’, with an extensive instrumental introduction, followed by the full chorus.

In addition to the helpful blueprint, Reilly uses a word that resonated instantly with me: “exuberant.” He’s using it in reference to a particular part of the Vespers, of course, but there’s an overall truth to it, as well.

It’s hard not to love a work that is so clearly excited about Our Lady.

Monteverdi was renowned in his time for his highly expressive vocal style.  What about for our time?  Does it still convey?  The answer from the Walt Disney Concert Hall is that, when sung as splendidly as it was by the LA Master Chorale—yes, the Vespers are for our time or any other.  There is something timeless about music like this, which is the whole idea. It is also clear from this great composition that Monteverdi was every bit as much in love with Mary, as is Morton Lauridsen.  It is quite a coincidence that the loves of these two composers have been so effectively communicated by the same performers.  Or perhaps, as unexpected as it might be—could this be something about the City of Angels?

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • http://knock-knocking.com Agnes

    I loved the parallel between the two composers and the reflection on the city these works were performed in. Like yourself, I struggle a bit with the fussiness and tempo changes of Monterverdi and Renassaince music in general. For me the Marian Vespers are a tribute as to how repetition can allow one to learn to appreciate music. I say this because our mother played it for us every night as we were falling asleep… And for many years.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat/ Joseph Susanka

      The point you make about repetition is an excellent one, Agnes.

      Listening to Bach’s French Suites nearly every night during my college years certainly led to a greater appreciation on my part. But that was an example of coming to more deeply understand and enjoy a work I already liked. With the Monteverdi, I can’t quite figure out how I got to the point where I had listened to it enough to like it enough to listen to it again. Since I can’t imagine liking it to start with. (I trust I make myself obscure.)

      It’s firmly outside the sphere of things I like “at first blush,” and I remain mystified. But I’m grateful at the end result of my confusion. This is not an instance where greater consistency would have produced a more satisfactory result.


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