Monteverdi’s musical pictures

In all his music – the madrigals, operas and sacred works – Monteverdi stands out for the way he prioritises the text, always using the music to draw out the sense of the words. He does this on the large scale with the overall mood of each movement in the Vespers, but he also revels in painting in little details, and it’s been fun trying to spot them during rehearsals.

Here are just a few we’ve noticed – there are undoubtedly many more.

Dixit Dominus
The Lord at thy right hand has broken kings in the day of his anger … he will break the heads in the populous land.
The music here is angry and jagged, full of complicated cross-rhythms, with the parts offset by a beat (the counting is tricky here, it feels as it it’s breaking our heads!)Nigra Sum
This is a sensual love song, but when ‘the time for pruning has come’ the soloist’s melody falls away, leaving just a single, bare note.

Laudate Pueri
References to things going upwards are easy pickings for composers. In ‘Nigra Sum’, the solo climbs an octave and a half on the word surge – arise. Another particularly effective  bit of ascending word painting comes in the next movement, ‘Laudate Pueri’. In the passage Suscitans a terra inopem, we sing about raising the helpless from the earth and lifting the poor man from the dung heap, and the music grows in an ecstatic rising chord sequence.

Duo Seraphim
In one of the most moving moments of the Vespers, two angels call to each other across heaven. When they praise the Trinity, a third voice enters and on the words ‘and these three are one’ the three elaborate solo lines come together, merging into simple chords.

Nisi Dominus
In the Gloria, Monteverdi returns to the music he used at the start of the movement for ‘as it was in the beginning’

Audi Coelem
After an amazing echo effects with two solo tenors reflect on the virtues of the Virgin Mary, the whole choir join in on a majestic ‘Omnes!’ – ‘All!’,  then as the text continues ‘so let us all follow her’,  the voices dutifully troop off, one behind another, in a canon that becomes a procession following Mary.

Lauda Jerusalem
Keep an eye on the text for this vivid psalm, as it’s full of unusual imagery and Monteverdi makes the most of it; softness for ‘snow like wool’, spiky chords for the ice, then beautifully smooth, long notes for the flowing waters.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. The music here is sparse, just two simple lines, mostly moving in thirds – and the two parts swap over when for the second half of the verse just as the fortunes of the rich and poor are reversed.
And right at the end, on the final “forever and ever” of the final Gloria, the music broadens out into a majestic climax, as if Monteverdi is daring to imagine for a fleeting moment how the music of eternity might sound.