ENGLISH BAROQUE SOLOISTS
JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, CONDUCTOR
Images: Monteverdi–The Visitation, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1491–St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
Claudio Monteverdi was the first truly significant composer of the Baroque era. Indeed, his life (1567-1643) overlaps the Renaissance with the Baroque in the same way that his music represents the last of the best of the Renaissance and the first of the best of the Baroque–the last great pillar of one musical era and the first great pillar of the next. His music is regarded as the great “hinge” between musical eras.
Monteverdi was born in Cremona. His life’s work was accomplished in two localities—in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo from 1590-1613, and at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice from 1613 till his death. He composed both sacred and secular music, was—for all intents—the first composer of opera (with his L’Orfeo), and was an astute defender of what became known as the “seconda pratica” or “stile moderno”—a style of composition that looked to the future, with its basso continuo style, as opposed to the past which had been rooted in Franco-Flemish polyphony.
In truth, though, Monteverdi was a master of both styles, and the prima pratica—the “first practice”—is more evident in this Magnifcat than the seconda.
In the Christian religion, the Magnificat is a highly regarded hymn, supposedly spontaneously uttered by Mary, the mother of Jesus, upon the visit of her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a canticle—that is, a hymn not taken from the Psalms—and it appears in only one of the gospels, that of Luke.
The text, in modern English, is as follows:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.
The number of composers, both great and not-as-great, who composed musical settings for this text is quite impressive. It is, in fact, almost a who’s who of musical genius: Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Josquin, Taverner, Willaert, Tallis, Byrd, Victoria, Gabrieli, Praetorius, Monteverdi, Gibbons, Schutz, Buxtehude, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach, Salieri, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Franck, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Walton, Persichetti, Penderecki, and Rutter. These are just the “mountain peak” names of composers who wrote Magnificats. One can only guess, in hindsight, that composers may have regarded the writing of a Magnificat (usually, composers wrote only one) as some kind of rite of passage.
Musical settings of the Magnificat became, over time, a fixture in the Vespers—or evening—service within the Catholic Church. (Of course, prior to the Reformation, there was ONLY the Catholic Church; nevertheless, Magnificats were composed after the 16th century for Protestant consumption as well.) Claudio Monteverdi composed his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) in 1610. Historically, Monteverdi would fall right in the middle of all these illustrious Magnificat composers. He had not left Mantua yet to become the maestro di capella at St. Mark’s—the most prestigious musical position in the Catholic world—so his Vespers became the crowning achievement of his years at the court of Mantua.
Indeed, Monteverdi’s Vespers was the greatest work of religious music before Bach. It is an outstanding, and lengthy (at 90 minutes), work. Monteverdi actually wrote TWO Magnificats for performance within his Vespers; they occur one after the other at the conclusion of the Vespers. The one I am linking to is the second one, the one that makes it onto “best-of” music appreciation listening lists. In his Vespers, Monteverdi links the past—all the movements of the Vespers including the two Magnificats are based on Gregorian Chant—with the future—a distinct veering away from modality to what we now regard as traditional functional harmony.
It has been conjectured that Monteverdi may have written the Vespers as a kind of “audition” work in his application to become St. Mark’s music director. We’ll never know. But John Eliot Gardiner assumed as much in his making of this legendary 1990 recording of the Vespers. It was recorded at St. Mark’s with its marvelous acoustics.
As always—one need not know ANY of this to appreciate every note of Monteverdi’s Magnificat. A sensitive soul and a curious spirit are all that is really required. The choral writing here is spectacular.