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Vespers for St. John the Baptist


The Green Giant
The Green Giant

On Sunday the Green Mountain Project brings Bostonians a new program from New York. Put together by Scott Metcalfe, Vespers for the Feast of St. John the Baptist plays at St. Paul’s Parish, Cambridge at 7:30. The stunning cast of early music specialists under the musical direction of Metcalfe and artistic direction of Jolle Greenleaf will honor the fifth annual celebration of the Green Mountain Project’s Vespers tradition. According to Metcalfe, “What you will hear is a concert that takes its shape from a Vespers service, featuring music of great variety, expressive intensity, and compositional virtuosity—music both delectable and rare—performed by nine singers, two cornets, two violins, four trombones, bass violin, two theorboes and an organ. We hope you will be ravished and stupefied.” Ticketing information is here.

Scott Metcalf offers BMInt readers a special version of his program notes:

Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers music “for the Most Holy Virgin,” published in 1610 and dedicated to the Pope, is well-known and beloved nowadays as “The Vespers of 1610,” but its modern existence as concert music may mislead audiences into thinking that its form is a unique one invented by Monteverdi. Actually, all Vespers services include five psalms, a hymn, and the canticle Magnificat, as well as various prayers and other items. On an ordinary day all these texts would be chanted, but on important feasts in 17th-century Italy, a religious musical establishment of any size or pretension would have sung at least some of the psalms and the Magnificat in polyphony. It was also common to insert other vocal or instrumental music: for example, a 1639 ordinance governing rituals in Venetian confraternies specified that “between the psalms at Vespers, one can sing motets on pious, devout texts which are taken from holy books and ecclesiastical authors” and letters from a German composer living in Venice in the late 1640s mentioned that at Vespers in various churches “a sonata or motet was always performed between the psalms.”

Monteverdi’s 1610 collection supplies polyphonic settings of all the music one might desire for a sumptuous celebration of Mass and Vespers on a great Marian feast day. There are also five non-liturgical items that Monteverdi calls “sacred songs,” mostly for smaller numbers of voices, that are interspersed with the psalms.

But Monteverdi left us a substantial amount of sacred music besides that of the 1610 print, and much of the rest is also music for the evening office of Vespers. The first idea animating this program was to draw from that rich repertoire, fashioning from it a new Vespers on the pattern of the 1610 collection, with each of the five psalms followed by a motet or instrumental work. Because the date of this concert falls just before the Feast of the Nativity of St John on June 24, this new Vespers program will honor that feast. Alongside music of Monteverdi and his great predecessor at San Marco, Giovanni Gabrieli, we will perform works by the Milanese composer Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and by other composers active in northern Italy in the early decades of the century—Francesco Usper, Gioseffo Guami, Giovanni Felice Sances—as well as a motet by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose music remained in use all over Europe long after his death in 1594.

The program is inspired not only by the 1610 Vespers, but also by descriptions such as this one of a service in 1620:

On 24 June, the feast of St John the Baptist, I was taken to vespers in the church of St John and Lucy where I heard the most perfect music I had ever heard in my life. It was directed by the most famous Claudio Monteverdi, maestro di cappella of St Mark’s, who was also the composer, and was on this occasion accompanied by four theorboes, two cornetts, two dulcians, one basso di viola of huge size, organs and other instruments, all equally well handled and played, not to speak of ten or twelve voices.

From the travel diary of the Dutch diplomat and musician Constantijn Huygens

Adorned with elaborate music for such large forces, a Vespers service mutated into something like a spiritual concert. The Englishman Thomas Coryat wrote a colorful account of music he heard in Venice in 1608, describing a three-hour “concert” on Saturday evening and three hours more of music the next morning (presumably First Vespers and the Mass).

The third feast was upon Saint Roches day being Saturday and the sixth day of August, where I heard the best musicke that ever I did in all my life both in the morning and the afternoone, so good that I would willingly goe an hundred miles a foote at any time to hear the like.… This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupefie all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not; for mine owne part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.

Sometimes there sung sixteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keepe them in order; and when they sung, the instrumentall musitians played also. Sometimes sixteene played together upon their instruments, ten Sagbuts, foure Cornets, and two Violdegamboes of an extraordinary greatness…

Thomas Coryat, Coryat’s Crudities hastily gobled up in five months travells…, newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the county of Somerset, & now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this kingdom (London, 1611)



—Scott Metcalfe

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