The occasion for which Claudio Monteverdi wrote his Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin) is not known, nor what most of the scoring was like at its conception, or even where and when it was first performed. The conductor must determine the orchestration for much of the piece, deciding whether to double voice parts with instruments, which instruments to use where and when they are not specified, and whether to assign some passages in the choral movements to vocal soloists. The Vespers first appeared in print in Venice in 1610, while Monteverdi was engaged at the ducal court in Mantua, and had yet to win the prestigious post of maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s. Nonetheless, this epic composition has long been accepted as the elegant bridge between the austere Late Renaissance church style and the more expressive religious music that culminated with Bach’s Passions.
In its own time, Vespro della Beata Vergine was unprecedented. No other surviving work from this period is written on such a grand scale. Monteverdi mandates seven vocal soloists, as well as a chorus that must be large enough to be divided into anywhere from four to ten voice parts, at times even into autonomous choirs. The piece includes a sonata, as well as non-liturgical motets interposed between the psalms. The orchestration includes many unique and obligatory instruments which are used in daringly modern and virtuosic manners. A more typical Baroque orchestra would have been fashioned around a central string section with an addition of various solo winds, Monteverdi's orchestra however, consists of three more or less equal sections, the string section (less their bass counterparts), the winds, and the continuo, filling in the bottom and improvising the harmonic accompaniment to the more constructed upper voices. The most noteworthy feature of this massive composition is found in the way Monteverdi has chosen to unify it, building all his major movements, the psalms, the sonata, the hymn and the entire Magnificat upon traditional Gregorian chants. As a result, Vespro della Beata Vergine offers a capricious range of textures and sonorities, brilliant instrumental writing and lavish choruses, as well as poignant arias and duets.
Alixandra Porembski, English Language Annotator