An Ancient-Music Christmas

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We are all familiar with Handel's Messiah and Bach's Christmas Oratorio (or, we should be). Here is a remarkable performance of an unjustly neglected masterpiece of Christmas church music, Vespro della Beata Virgine, Vespers of the Holy Virgin. The composer was Claudio Monteverdi.

A wonderful video production was taped at the Royal Chapel of Versailles. The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Written around 1610, 500 years ago, it is scored for "ancient" instruments including sackbuts, double reeds, recorders, cornets and trombones, lutes, strings, organ, and harpsichord.

Monteverdi is considered the father of the Opera, and to whatever extent that is true, it unjustly tends to minimize his larger role in Western musical tradition. This was written at the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, summing up the best of the past and anticipating the glories of the future -- while still being startlingly innovative. In fact some people at the time thought this work was blasphemous.

Its words are canonical -- it is music for the Offices including psalms, hymns, and canticles, through chants, responses, and antiphonal settings. But the notable thing about this piece is the music, the "staging." Monteverdi always experimented, and this piece features drama, vocal pyrotechnics, dance settings, aural surprises.
More -- and I hope anyone giving this a chance will notice -- Monteverdi employed an early version of "surround sound." I explained this in my biography of Johan Sebastian Bach, who did this occasionally, and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber of Salzburg, who was history's greatest master of it. What is it? It is church music performed in a cathedral constructed to accommodate a musical ensemble and chorus in the traditional apse or choir areas; but soloists, instrumentalists, duets or quartets, trumpets, lutes, or others... in balconies, the narthex, transepts, the nave, or in small radiating chapels.

It makes for an amazing effect -- music from every side. There are echo effects, verses and "answers," simulations of heavenly choirs, and so forth. With Biber, it sometimes was as many as 40 places around the church. Imagine being in the middle of such a performance!

The music is, however, just as the settings and staging, subordinate to the Message. Devote some time before Christmas -- or any time -- to Monteverdi's Vespers.

Rick Marschall is the author of Bully!: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt and produces a weekly blog, Monday Morning Music Ministry.

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