Vespro della Beata Vergine

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Vespro della Beata Vergine
Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi
Monteverdi Marienvespers voorpagina.jpg
Title page of the "Bassus Generalis", one of the partbooks in which the Vespers were published in 1610
CatalogueSV 206 and 206a
TextBiblical and liturgical, including several psalms, a litany, a hymn and Magnificat
DedicationPope Paul V
PublishedJuly 1610 (1610-07) in Venice
Duration90 minutes
  • soloists
  • choirs
  • orchestra

Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin), SV 206, is an extended musical composition by Claudio Monteverdi for soloists, choirs and orchestra for the evening service vespers on Marian feasts. In scale, Monteverdi's Vespers is the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach, with a duration of around 90 minutes.

The text is compiled from several biblical and liturgical texts that are traditionally part of the vespers on Marian feasts in the Catholic Church: the introductory Deus in adiutorium (Psalm 70), five psalms, the traditional Marian hymn "Ave maris stella", a sonata on the Marian litany "Sancta Maria", and the Magnificat. Monteverdi included biblical texts for motets inserted between the psalms.

Monteverdi composed the introduction, psalm settings, sacred motets (called concerti) between the psalms, the traditional "Ave maris stella" in several differently scored stanzas, a sonata on "Sancta Maria", and the Magnificat, structured in twelve movements of which he wrote two versions. In the composition, Monteverdi demonstrated his ability to assimilate old and new styles and employed all of the contemporary composition styles and techniques. He achieved a structural unity by building each movement on the traditional Gregorian plainchant as a cantus firmus. Monteverdi published the vespers in 1610 in Venice, with a dedication to Pope Paul V, dated 1 September. The work is therefore also called Vespers of 1610.

The first commercial recording of the Vespers was issued in 1953, followed by many recordings with both modern and period instruments.

History and context[edit]

Monteverdi composed the large-scale work at age 43, when he aspired to a better position than court musician for the Dukes of Gonzaga in Mantua. The work shows off his abilities as a composer in any style of his time.[1] The setting was Monteverdi's first sacred composition after his first publication 28 years prior and stands out for its assimilation of both old and new styles, prima pratica and seconda pratica, in a variety of forms.[2]


The liturgical vespers is an evening prayer service which follows the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, called Officium Divinum (Divine Office) at Monteverdi's time. Vespers remained structurally unchanged for 1,500 years. The regular prayer service contained five psalms, changing with the liturgical year, and the Magnificat.[3] The psalms for Marian feasts were the five psalms that Monteverdi set in his work. Each psalm and the Magnificat are concluded by the doxology Gloria Patri. Variable elements are antiphons, inserted before each psalm and the Magnificat, which reflect the specific feast and connect the Old Testament psalms to Christian theology.[4] Vespers is traditionally framed by the opening versicle and response from Psalm 70, and the closing blessing.[5]

On ordinary Sundays, vespers were sung in Gregorian chant. On high holidays, such as the feast day of a patron saint, elaborate concertante music was performed. In his Vespers, Monteverdi offered such music without expecting that all of it would be performed in a given service.[6]

Monteverdi deviated from the typical vespers liturgy by adding motets (concerti), alternating with the psalms. Scholars debate if they were meant to replace antiphons[7] or rather as embellishments of the preceding psalm.[8] He also included a Marian hymn, "Ave maris stella", and a Marian litany, "Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis" (Holy Mary, pray for us).


Monteverdi's Vespers composition was first printed in July 1610 in Venice, then an important centre for music printing, by Ricciardo Amadino. It appeared as a set of partbooks and was published together with a separate composition, a mass called the Missa in illo tempore, which parodied a motet by Nicolas Gombert, "In illo tempore loquante Jesu".[9] The cover describes both works: "Sanctissimae Virgini Missa senis vocibus ad ecclesiarum choros, ac Vespere pluribus decantandae cum nonnullis sacris concentibus ad Sacella sive Principum Cubicula accommodata" (Mass for the Most Holy Virgin for 6 voices for church choirs, and vespers for several voices with some sacred songs, suitable for chapels and ducal chambers).

One of the partbooks contains the continuo and provides a kind of short score for the more complicated numbers:[10] it gives the title of the Vespers as: "Vespro della Beata Vergine da concerto composta sopra canti firmi" (Vesper for the Blessed Virgin for concertos, composed on cantus firmi).[11] Monteverdi dedicated the work to Pope Paul V, dated 1 September 1610.[12] Historical record does not indicate whether Monteverdi actually performed the Vespers in Mantua or Venice, where he became maestro di cappella at St Mark's Basilica in 1613, or Rome, where he was not offered a post.[1]

Monteverdi's intentions have been a debated among musicologists.[13] Graham Dixon suggests that Monteverdi's setting is more suited for use for the feast of Saint Barbara, claiming, for example, that the texts taken from Song of Songs are applicable to any female saint but that a dedication to fit a Marian feast made the work more "marketable".[14][15]

An alto part from the Magnificat à 7. The accompanying instruments are indicated. Note the absence of bar lines.

The Vespers is monumental in scale and requires a choir large and skillful enough to cover up to 10 vocal parts, split into separate choirs, and seven soloists. Solo instrumental parts are written for violin and cornett. Monteverdi did not specify traditional plainchant antiphons preceding each psalm and the Magnificat, because they varied with the occasion.[16] This allows performers to tailor the music according to the available instrumentalists and the occasion of a performance. A particular feast day's prescribed antiphons can be used. Another example of tailoring is provided by two versions of the Magnificat, one scored for a smaller group than the other. Some scholars have argued that this suggests that the Vespers was not intended as a single work but rather as a collection to choose from.[1] Performances beginning in the 20th century usually aim for the complete music Monteverdi published.[1]

Monteverdi's unique approach to each movement of the Vespers earned the composition a place in history. The work not only presents intimate, prayerful moments within its monumental scale, but it also incorporates secular music in this decidedly religious performance, and its individual movements present an array of musical forms – sonata, motet, hymn, and psalm – without losing focus. The musicologist Jeffrey Kurtzman notes: "... it seems as if Monteverdi were intent in displaying his skills in virtually all contemporary styles of composition, using every modern structural technique".[17] Monteverdi achieves overall unity by building each movement on the traditional Gregorian plainchant for each text, which becomes a cantus firmus in Monteverdi's setting.[2] This "rigorous adhesion to the psalm tones" is similar to the style of Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, who was choirmaster at the Palatine church of Santa Barbara in Mantua.[18]



Monteverdi's composition is structured in 13 sections.[19][16] The Ave maris stella is in seven stanzas set in different scoring, with interspersed ritornllos. The Magnificat is in twelve movements of different scoring, which Monteverdi supplied in two versions.

The table shows the section numbers according to the 2013 edition by Carus,[19] then the function of a section within the vespers, its text source, and the beginning of the text in both Latin and English. The column for the voices has abbreviations SATB for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. A repeated letter means that the voice part is divided, for example TT means "tenor 1 and tenor 2". A columns for instruments often holds only their number, because Monteverdi did not always specify the instruments. The basso continuo is shown as "continuo" when no other instruments play but the bass group. They play continuously even when not shown. The last column holds the page number of the beginning of a section in the Carus edition.

No. Part Text source Incipit English Voices Instruments page
1 Versicle & Response Psalm 70:1 Deus in adjutorium meum intende Make haste, o God, to deliver me T SSATTB 6 1
2 Psalm Psalm 110 Dixit Dominus The LORD said unto my Lord SSATTB 6 7
3 Motet Song of Songs Nigra sum I am black T continuo 18
4 Psalm Psalm 113 Laudate pueri Praise ye the Lord, O ye servants of the Lord SSAATTBB organ 20
5 Motet Song of Songs Pulchra es You are beautiful 2T continuo 36
6 Psalm Psalm 122 Laetatus sum I am glad SSATTB 38
7 Motet Isaiah 6:2–3
1 John 5:7
Duo Seraphim Two seraphims 3T continuo 49
8 Psalm Psalm 127 Nisi Dominus Except the Lord build the house SATB 2T SATB 53
9 Motet Audi coelum 2T continuo 67
10 Psalm Psalm 147 Lauda Jerusalem Praise, Jerusalem SAB T SAB 73
11 Sonata litany Sancta Maria Holy Mary S 84
12 Hymnus hymn Ave maris stella Hail Star of the Sea SSAATTBB 106
13 Magnificat Luke 2:46-55
Magnificat [My soul] magnifies [the Lord] SSATTBB 114


1 Deus in adjutorium meum intende / Domine ad adjuvandum me festina[edit]

The work opens with the traditional versicle and response for vespers, the beginning of Psalm 70 (Psalm 69 in the Vulgate), Deus in adjutorium meum intende (Make haste, O Lord, to deliver me),[20] sung by a solo tenor, with the response from the same verse, Domine ad adjuvandum me festina (Make haste to help me, o Lord),[20] sung by a six-part choir. The movement is accompanied by a six-part orchestra with two cornettos, three trombones (which double the lower strings), strings, and continuo.[21] The duration is given as 90 minutes.[21]

Part Text source Incipit English Voices Instruments
Versicle Psalm 70:1 Deus in adjutorium meum intende God, come to my assistance T 6
Response Domine ad adjuvandum me festina Make haste to help me SSATTB

The music is based on the opening Toccata from Monteverdi's 1609 opera L'Orfeo. It has been described as "a call to attention" and "a piece whose brilliance is only matched by the audacity of its conception".[22]

2 Dixit Dominus[edit]

The first psalm is Psalm 110, beginning Dixit Dominus Dominum meum (The LORD said unto my Lord). Monteverdi set it for a six-part choir with divided sopranos and tenors, and six instruments, prescribing "sex vocibus & sex instrumentis". The first tenor begins alone with the cantus firmus.

3 Nigra sum[edit]

The first motet begins "Nigra sum, sed formosa" (I am black, but beautiful), taken from the Song of Songs. Monteverdi set it for tenor solo.

4 Laudate pueri[edit]

The second psalm is Psalm 113, beginning Laudate pueri Dominum (literally: Praise, children, the Lord, in the KJV: Praise ye the Lord, O ye servants of the Lord). Monteverdi wrote eight vocal parts and continuo. The second tenor begins alone with the cantus firmus.

5 Pulchra es[edit]

The second motet begins "Pulchra es" (You are beautiful) from the Song of Songs. Monteverdi set it for two sopranos.

6 Laetatus sum[edit]

The third psalm is Psalm 122, beginning Laetatus sum (literally: I am glad), a pilgrimage psalm. The music begins with a walking bass, to which the first tenor enters with the cantus firmus.

7 Duo Seraphim[edit]

The third motet begins "Duo Seraphim" (Two angels were calling one to the other), a text combined from Isaiah 6:2–3 and the First Epistle of John, 5:7. Monteverdi set it for three tenors. The first part, talking about the two angels, is a duet. When the text turns to the epistle mentioning the Trinity, the third tenor joins. They sing the text "these three are one" in unison.

8 Nisi Dominus[edit]

The forth psalm is Psalm 127, beginning Nisi Dominus (Except the Lord [build] the house). Monteverdi set it four three choirs: two tenor parts singing the cantus firmus, and two four-part choirs singing overlapping.

9 Audi coelum[edit]

The forth motet begins "Audi coelum verba mea" (Hear my words, Heaven), an anonymous liturgical poem. It is set for two tenors, who sing in call and response (prima ad una voce sola), and expanded to six voices when the text reaches the word "omnes" (all).

10 Lauda Jerusalem[edit]

The forth psalm is Psalm 147, beginning Lauda Jerusalem (Praise, Jerusalem), set for two three-part choirs (SAB) and tenors singing the cantus firmus.

11 Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis[edit]

In the Sonata sopra "Sancta Maria", the soprano sings the cantus firmus, in different rhythmic variants, to instrumental variations.

12 Hymnus: Ave maris stella[edit]

Gregorian chant of "Ave maris stella"

The penultimate section is devoted to the Marian hymn "Ave maris stella" from the eighth century. Its seven stanzas are set in different scoring. The melody is in the soprano in all verses but verse 6 which is for tenor solo. Verse I is a seven-part setting. Verses 2 and 3 are the same vocal four-part setting, verse 2 for choir 1, verse 3 for choir 3. Similarly, verses 4 and 5 are set for soprano, first soprano 1, then soprano 2. Verses 1 to 5 are all followed by the same ritornello for five instruments. Verse 7 is the same choral setting as verse 1, followed by Amen.[23]

Movements of Ave maris stella
No. Part Incipit English Voices Instruments Page
12a Versus 1 Ave maris stella Hail Star of the Sea SSAATTBB 106
12b Versus 2 Sumens illud Ave Receiving that Ave SATB 108
12c Ritornello five 109
12d Versus 3 Solve vincla reis Loosen the chains of the guilty SATB 110
12e Ritornello
12f Versus 4 Monstra te esse matrem Show thyself to be a Mother S 111
12g Ritornello
12h Versus 5 Virgo singularis Unique Virgin S 111
12i Ritornello
12j Versus 6 Vita praeasta puram Bestow a pure life T 111
12k Versus 7 Sit laus Deo Patri
Praise be to God the Father


The last movement of a vespers service is the Magnificat. Monteverdi devotes a movement to every verse of the canticle, and two to the doxology. Depending on the mood of the text, the movements are scored for a choir of up to seven voices, to solo, duo or trio singing.[24]

Movements of the Magnificat
No. Text source Incipit Voices Instruments Page
13a Luke 1:46 Magnificat SSATTBB 6 114
13b 47 Et exultavit A T T 116
13c 48 Quia respexit T cornettos, violins, viola da brazzo 118
13d 49 Quia fecit A B B violins 122
13e 50 Et misericordia SSATBB 124
13f 51 Fecit potentiam A violins, viola da brazzo 126
13g 52 Deposuit potentes T cornettos 128
13h 53 Esurientes implevit bonis S S cornettos, violins, viola da brazzo 130
13i 54 Suscepit Israel S S T 132
13j 55 Sicut locutus est A cornettos, violins 133
13k Doxology Gloria Patri S T T 136
13l Sicut erat in principio SSATTBB all instruments 138

Position of the motets[edit]

The position of the motets Nigra sum, Pulchra es, Duo Seraphim and Audi coelum is disputed. The title page of the first printing of the score suggests that they are not part of the vespers but intended as separate sacred concertos. However, their place between the psalms indicates that they were intended to be part of the vespers but could also be performed on other occasions, such as at the court of the Duke of Mantua, Monteverdi's employer. Furthermore, questions arise as to whether the motets are antiphon substitutes or antiphon supplements.


The first commercial recording of the Vespers was issued in LP format in 1953, since which date the work has been recorded many times in numerous versions, involving both modern and period instruments. Some recordings allocate the voice parts to choirs, while others use the "one voice per part" (OVPP) concept.

As mentioned elsewhere in this article, there is a debate about whether Monteverdi's publication was intended to be performed as a single work or was more of a compendium of Vespers music from which a selection could be made. To some extent, this debate is reflected in the recordings, although they generally offer the listener a single work. One area where the recordings differ is that several present the music in the context of a "liturgical reconstruction" (this involves additional music such as plainsong appropriate for Marian vespers or vespers for St Barbara, for example).[15] Paul McCreesh, who is well-known for his liturgical reconstructions,[1] also changes the order of several movements in his 2005 version. Other examples of editorial decisions are:

  • Magnificats

The publication of two magnificats suggests that Monteverdi gives the performers the option of selecting the version which is more suitable for them. In recordings the more lavishly scored magnificat is usually chosen. Peter Seymour is an exception in using the other magnificat which requires only organ accompaniment.[1]

  • Motets

In a few recordings, such as that by Denis Stevens based on his own edition, the motets (or "sacred concertos") are replaced by antiphonal chants.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Kemp 2015.
  2. ^ a b Whenham 1997, p. 3.
  3. ^ Wolf 2013, p. XVI.
  4. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 9.
  5. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 6–8.
  6. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 10.
  7. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 16–17.
  8. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 21.
  9. ^ Wolf 2013, p. XII.
  10. ^ McCreesh 1995.
  11. ^ Kurtzman 2000, p. 1.
  12. ^ Wolf 2013, pp. XII, XXVII.
  13. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 6.
  14. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 33–34.
  15. ^ a b Knighton 1990.
  16. ^ a b Kurtzman 2000, p. 2.
  17. ^ Kurtzman 2000, p. 3.
  18. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 34.
  19. ^ a b Wolf 2013, pp. 1–141.
  20. ^ a b Wolf 2013, p. XXII.
  21. ^ a b Wolf 2013, p. 1.
  22. ^ Whenham 1997, p. 61–62.
  23. ^ Wolf 2013, pp. 106–113.
  24. ^ Wolf 2013, pp. 114.

Cited sources[edit]

  • Kemp, Lindsay (9 February 2015). "Monteverdi's Vespers – which recording is best?". Gramophone. London.
  • Knighton, Tess (February 1990). "Monteverdi Vespers". Gramophone. London.
  • Kurtzman, Jeffrey (2000). The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 – Music, Context, Performance. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-816409-8.
  • McCreesh, Paul (May 1995). "Monteverdi Vespers: Three New Editions". Early Music.
  • Whenham, John (1997). Monteverdi: Vespers 1610. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-45377-6.
  • Wolf, Uwe, ed. (October 2013). Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine / Marienvesper / Vespers 1610 (PDF). Stuttgart: Carus-Verlag. pp. XII–XX.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]