Theater of Voices

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At face value, 1612 seems like an unremarkable year for vocal music, coming two years after Monteverdi's landmark Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (which in turn came just three years following the same composer's L'Orfeo, widely regarded as the first major opera).

But by 1612, Monteverdi was dismissed from his court position in Mantua and his fellow maverick composer Giovanni Gabrieli—the grandfather of the Venetian School of multi-choir music—died. Other major works were published by Orlando Gibbons and Peter Philips. It's the abundant change in this year that made it more appealing to Robert Hollingworth and his ensemble I Fagiolini than Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, which had already been recorded several times.

This led the ensemble to "1612 — Italian Vespers," an album of lesser-known Renaissance music which came out on Tuesday. "The shadow of Monteverdi’s [Vespers], at least from a modern perspective, looms large over this time,” said Hollingworth in his director’s note to the album. However, Monteverdi is also largely absent from this album, save for a six-and-a-half minute aria for solo bass, "Ab aeterno ordinata sum.” Published down the line in 1640, it’s an aria that in many ways harkens back to L’Orfeo’s aria, “Possente spirito e formidabli nume." Likewise, this style of music infiltrated the composer’s Vespers some three years later, even using the same ornate style from “Possente” in a trio for three tenors representing angels.

But as much as Monteverdi may have loomed over the second decade of the 1600s, he is indeed just one figure in a starry constellation of other groundbreaking composers. Gabrieli is here as well, in a specially-reconstructed Magnificat for 28 voices and a “reconstitution” of his magnum opus In Ecclesiis.

And though the release is tied to this Gabrieli anniversary year, the more interesting discoveries on the album belong to Lodovico Grossi da Viadana. Writing for Rovi, James Manheim argues, “everything Viadana did was done better by Claudio Monteverdi just a few years later.” I find this to be a bit of an unfair statement, similar to saying that everything Monteverdi did in opera was done better by Cavalli some years later. Hollingworth also indirectly argues this point in his liner notes, offering up the idea that, “with hindsight, Viadana’s is a more progressive work than Monteverdi’s in its clear division into solo and accompanying groups.”

Certainly on "1612," Hollingworth makes a case for that. In the juxtaposed arias of Viadana (“O dulcissima Maria”) and the aforementioned Monteverdi, there is a greater ecstasy in Viadana’s two-minute work, though there is still a strong taste of espressivity in the Monteverdi. Zooming out, what we hear on the world-premiere recording of Viadana’s four-choir Vesper Psalms, also written in 1612. Viadana and Monteverdi coincided in Mantua, and as Hollingworth hypothesizes, the two composers “struck sparks off each other there as they set about establishing a new way to treat the Vespers psalms.”

Where Viadana departs from his onetime colleague’s own Vespers, however, is where the real progression is seen. Not one to compose operas himself, the composer funnels a keen sense of drama into the call-and-response of soloists and textured layers of choirs in his settings of the psalms. At certain fever pitches, you can even eke out presentiments of Mozart and Beethoven’s own choral proclivities, such as in Psalm 109.

Though more austere in many ways than the hedonistic world of opera, the church was never too far removed from the theater, from the obvious passion plays to the more subtle rituals that took place during a priest-led mass. Viadana makes these connections with his music, giving singers a sonic playground for a variety of emotions while still seemingly remaining in a “safe” territory. As the nascent genre of opera began to evolve, stand on its hind legs, works like this that blended cathedral simplicity with indulgent monody and declamatory moments for soloists served as a sort of bridge between the realms of the spirit and the flesh. You do hear traces of Viadana in Monteverdi’s later operas, particularly the most psychological of all of them, L’incoronazione di Poppea.

However, whether or not Monteverdi’s use of forms pioneered in part by his colleague is better or worse is ultimately irrelevant: Better, worse, or simply different, it all moved the music forward, allowing very human instruments to offer up very human feelings and expressions.

For more on I Fagiolini in action, check out the below film by John La Bouchardière, featuring the consort's singers in a modern-day dramatization of Monteverdi's Madrigals, Book IV.