Monteverdi Vespers – Oxford Early Music Festival Concert: A Review

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is one of my favourite pieces of music. I am aware that this is deeply ironic as this piece was a trailblazer for what I see as so many questionable developments in western religious music. The Vespers encapsulate the instrumentalisation, theatricalisation, and harmonic-overcomplication that was sweeping through Baroque Europe, along with gaudily-painted, overly-voluminious church architecture and religious art. After a brief period of self-doubt in the wake of Protestantism criticism – an uncertain sixteenth century: marked by few miracles, almost no canonisations, simplification of religious music so the text could be heard, scepticism of explosions of emotionalism and visionary activity – the Baroque was steaming onto the horizon, marked by almost exactly the opposite. And, whichever composers refused to follow the trend, Monteverdi was not among them. The 1610 Vespers are self-consciously large, colourful, operatic, and innovative.

So, why, rather against my inclinations, do I like it so much? Above all, Monteverdi is a master, maybe ‘the’ master, of word painting. Have you ever heard better than this? Can’t you just hear the parts marching around like sentries illustrating ‘custodierit’ [he guards] from 00:50? And the anguish in the chord at ‘frustra’ [in vain] at 00:57 and the subsequent phrases (‘frustra vigilat, qui custodit eam’ – ‘they watch in vain, who guards them’) is palpable. And you can hear from 1:17 the frantic scurrying, like ants, in the following ‘vanum est vobis, ante lucem surgite…’ [‘vain is your rising before dawn…’] of the early risers, who stay up until late, and toil through the day, yet gain nothing thereby; it even underlies the contrast with God’s beloved, upon whom he pours gifts while they slumber [‘cum dederit dilectis suis somnum: ecce hereditas domini’]. And the heirs of God are introduced with a wonderfully pompous and royal sounding ‘ecce hereditas domini’ [‘behold the heirs of the Lord!’] at 1:49. I could go on; but, I shall restrain myself! Who couldn’t admire the genius in this?

Monteverdi, unlike Baroque art, is also very crisp and lively, along with his Baroque golden grandiose. The music is like frosty leaves and nippy autumn air. It jumps all the time, with extraordinary lightness and grace. Monteverdi is a master of syncopation, rhythm and line. He produces a piece that is simultaneously very rich and colourful, and yet very light and playful.

This, I’m afraid, is where the concert greatly disappointed me. It sounded like rice pudding, with no jam. It was a very heavy, stolid, imprecise performance, which almost completely dampened the sparkiness that make Monteverdi’s Vespers so brilliant. Perhaps it was just under-rehearsed – which is what it sounded like – but all the subtle sophistication of the playful rhythms, lightly-built phrases, and clever word-painting was lost because the performance dragged, lacked nuance, and too frequently actually erred in pitch, tempo and rhythm. There were some interesting ideas, like putting one tenor soloist in the pulpit for ‘Audi coelum’ and the other hidden away in the depths of the church, producing a sound effect of a call and heavenly response. But, overall, this was, sadly, disappointing.

The best thing about the performance, really, was the chance to admire the university church, which is a lovely building. The gothic-style architecture is breathtakingly light and perfect – the arches look like the legs of a racehorse. And, it’s of undeniable interest to an early-modern historian. Here, as in all pre-Reformation churches, you can see the sad empty niches where saints’ statues once stood, that were ripped down and smashed. But here also, according to John Foxe, some of Oxford’s Protestant martyrs were tried. And, during their trial, rumour spread that the church was on fire, and the foolish Catholics nearly killed themselves and got stuck in doorways trying to escape, while the valiant Protestant martyrs were unafraid as they held their logs, ready to be burned for real for their faith…. Yes, yes, alright, I take Foxe with a heavy pinch of salt, and can’t resist some irony (though one has to acknowledge his great skill at polemics and fascinating moulding of English martyrology); but, for a Reformation historian, it’s a particularly interesting building.

As for Monteverdi’s Vespers, though, I think it would better have been enjoyed with a good recording and perhaps a nice glass of red wine. Here’s another highlight from the composition; one which never fails to send shivers down my spine. It sounds so very ethereal.