The following is an article I wrote several years ago to serve as the program notes for a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers by Consortium Carissimi:
The music of Claudio Monteverdi can strike fear in the heart of the most technically capable singer; it can also create similar feelings of shock and awe for the typical modern listener. It is not that Monteverdi makes vocal demands that differ sharply from those of other composers of his day – historical evidence shows that he really didn’t. For singers, Monteverdi’s music seems to force a different approach vocally and interpretively. For listeners unfamiliar with Monteverdi’s music, understanding this difference requires a bit of context and explanation.
Singers today are trained to sing in the Bel Canto style. This manner of singing places emphasis on maximizing resonance and breath through a low position for the larynx, low breath support, a free vibrato, a raised soft palate, and an open throat – and in not using the larynx or throat to manipulate or stop sound. What results is the resonant, flexible sound we generally think of as healthy and beautiful. This technique works well for singing most vocal repertory.
What generally impresses the average listener first about Monteverdi (and can scare the heck out of singers) is his use of – and seeming insistence on – many ornaments, the execution of which can seem at great odds with Bel Canto. He made lavish use of (and wrote frequently of his fondness for) the trillo, a rapid repetition of the same note in almost machine-gun-like fashion. He also made liberal use of trills, grupetti, apoggiature, accaciature, and rapid melismas requiring the singer to employ the throat and breath in very non-Bel-Canto-like ways.
These ornaments were not unique to Monteverdi. Such expressive effects were actually common and expected in the interpretation of the music of the new secunda practica (second practice), ushered in by the then-new medium of opera, all the rage in Florence and Venice. Singers were expected to let the text lead the singing (as opposed to the more objective, intellectual style of the prima practica), painting the text expressively through precise diction and lavish ornament. The new stile recitative style was monophonic, featuring a single vocal line (as opposed to the prima practica of closely imitative multiple vocal lines), supported by a realized “general bass” accompaniment (which later became, with symbols or “figures” to define the harmony, the “figured bass”). The composer generally left the decision about ornamentation to the singer.
In the preface to his collection of monodies entitled Le Nuove Musice, Monteverdi’s contemporary Giulio Caccini attempted to define the conventions of the style. Caccini documented such elements as the filling in of melodic leaps with melismatic flourishes and grupetti, cadential ornaments, trills, and effects such as the trillo, tremolo, and grogia. Caccini notwithstanding, exactly how singers of the time ultimately handled these is a still matter of scholarly inquiry.
Unlike his contemporaries who left ornamentation largely to the singer, Monteverdi actually wrote ornaments into the music in the places he wanted them sung. (Years later J.S. Bach pursued a similar compositional practice, for which he was harshly criticized by his contemporaries.) In so doing, Monteverdi elevated vocal ornamentation from a merely expressive and somewhat ad libitum element to an integrally structural one.
As much as he was invested in the secunda practica, Monteverdi was nonetheless a dedicated student of the prima practica. Among the composers of that era that he admired were Josquin des Prez, Jacques Arcadelt, and Nicolas Gombert. All three combined strong intellect and technique with powerful expressive gesture. Monteverdi’s admiration of Gombert is particularly noteworthy, since he is known even today to have written some of the most complex music ever composed.
The Vespers of 1610 is perhaps the most unique of Monteverdi’s works. The choral movements, with their dense counterpoint, are remarkably similar to those of Gombert. The best example of this kind of writing in the Vespers is “Nisi Dominus,” with its moments of almost incomprehensively complex counterpoint and its chorus-versus-chorus dialogue. And, like the sacred music of the prima practica, there is a plainchant cantus firmus present in nearly every movement, although the cantus does not really seem to perform its traditional role of structurally underpinning any of the movements, given the swirling imitative counterpoint over, under, and around it.
The solos, duets, and trios, though, are very much of the secunda practica, and represent some of Monteverdi’s most daring vocal writing. In the movement “Duo Seraphim,” a veritable tour-de-force for three tenors, the top two lines are heavily and imitatively ornate, with frequent melismas, grupetti, and trilli. When the third tenor finally enters about half way through the movement, Monteverdi reverts for a moment to a very prima practica bit of suspension and resolution, and then goes quickly back to the close and complex ornamental imitation of the beginning of the movement.
The Vespers show Monteverdi at the height of his intellectual and expressive powers. They show him to be, like Beethoven or Stravinsky, at the culmination of an older style, and at the vanguard of a new one.