For a city to have one performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” in a calendar year might be accounted a blessing. To have two seems almost decadent. Part plainchant, part madrigal, part motet, part opera, Monteverdi’s Marian Vespers of 1610 — a collection designed to show off his versatility to prospective employers — was presented by Green Mountain Project at St. Paul Church in Harvard Square this past January. On Dec. 7, the Cantata Singers, under music director David Hoose, will perform the Vespers in the very same church, as part of its 50th anniversary season.
Hoose chose St. Paul, he explains, because of the acoustic. The Cantata Singers’ previous performance of the Vespers, in 1992, took place in Jordan Hall. But for this performance, he wanted “more reverberation” than Jordan Hall affords, or even Harvard Square’s First Church, Congregational, where Cantata often performs. After attending a Tallis Scholars concert at St. Paul last December, he decided that the church “gives a sense of great space, and it just felt right, an appropriate place for this piece.
Hoose’s instrumental ensemble will be about the same as Green Mountain’s — he mentions “two violins, two violas, a gamba, a violone, a cello, three sackbuts, and two cornetti,” plus an array of continuo instruments. But whereas Green Mountain performed the Vespers with 14 voices, Hoose will have close to 50. “It’s the Cantata Singers,” he points out, adding that the chorus will be a little larger than the usual 44 because everybody on the roster wanted to sing this work.
Monteverdi: “Vespro della Beata Vergine”
That doesn’t mean the Cantata performance will be less authentic than Green Mountain’s. Monteverdi didn’t specify an exact number of voices and instruments. He didn’t indicate which parts should be sung by soloists and which by a chorus, or whether the instruments should double the voices. He didn’t make it clear whether the motets and the “Sancta Maria” sonata that follow the five psalms were meant to replace the plainchant antiphons that form part of the Vespers liturgy. These matters are hotly debated by scholars, notwithstanding that we don’t know when or where the piece was first performed. We’re not even sure it was performed in the composer’s lifetime.
Hoose acknowledges the huge questions the Vespers raises. “In 1992,” he recalls, “we did the ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and the Magnificat transposed down a perfect fourth” — which some scholars insist is the only right way. “This time,” he continues, “we’re doing them up where they’re notated. Both present challenges, for the listener and for the performers. The low pitch takes everybody into the basement; the high pitch just takes them into the stratosphere. And despite everyone fighting over this as if it were the Mideast crisis, there’s not an obviously correct solution. You base your decision on the group you have, the acoustical space, the spirit you want to suggest in the performance.”
He emphasizes that this is a musical decision. “You have to make a musical decision. You rack your brain about it, your ear, your heart. Some people would say that the answers you come up with have to be the answers for all time. I don’t believe that. But whatever they are, they don’t change the essential communicative spirit of this piece. And to me, that’s miraculous.”
It’s not just the conductor who wrestles with these questions. Soprano Hannah McMeans joined the Cantata Singers in the fall of 2012, after moving to Boston from California. (She’s also now a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.) She explains that the chorus played a part in the decision to perform the “Lauda Jerusalem” and the Magnificat as notated. “David gave us both the higher key and the copy transposed down, and we tried it in both, and the chorus sounded more brilliant in the higher key, so that’s why he chose to keep it there. It’s not so high up in the stratosphere for the sopranos that it’s impossible to sing. I think it’s more difficult in the lower key for the lower voices — it’s way down in the basement. I think the higher key strikes a good balance.
McMeans had never sung the Vespers before; in fact, she’d never heard the piece, not even on a recording. Nonetheless, she’ll be featured in the sublime soprano duet of the “Pulchra es.” “One of the most challenging things about singing this early music,” she says, “is that a lot of the details are not notated in the score. Especially on the longer held tones, it’s up to the performer to embellish with a trill of some sort, a goat trill, or some kind of an appoggiatura. It’s left up to the interpretation of both the performer and the conductor.
In the end, though, this Vespers won’t be about performance details. In rehearsal, McMeans says, “David encourages us to look at how Monteverdi sets the words.” Hoose himself says that it comes down to “trying to imagine what it is that Monteverdi wants to communicate. And I think what he wants to communicate is words. And texts. This piece is doing the same thing that a Bach cantata is doing, expressing a set of beliefs. And it’s not a set of beliefs about whether you should have three cornetti or two cornetti. It’s about what that psalm means to him, and what its place is in his religious understanding.
“You can’t run roughshod over what the composer might have imagined his piece would sound like,” he acknowledges. “But it’s a fluid process. The one thing that doesn’t change, I think, is the optimistic glowing heart that’s in this collection of 13 movements.”