We know Monteverdi as, among other things, the composer of the “Vespro della Beata Virgine,” commonly known as the “Vespers of 1610.” It is by many leagues his most renowned piece of sacred music, and one of the great liturgy settings of the 17th century. Yet treating the “Vespers” as a stable, discrete work is deceptive. Since it entered the canon, debates over its nature, purpose, even its actual component parts have arisen, persisting to this day. This provides opportunities for fresh thinking and rediscovery, not only about this piece but also about the context that gave rise to it.
Leading the charge in exploration is the Green Mountain Project, a special project of the New York-based vocal group Tenet, led by artistic director Jolle Greenleaf, and violinist and conductor Scott Metcalfe, who directs Boston’s Blue Heron. Since making its auspicious debut in 2010 — the 400th anniversary of the “Vespers” — this collaborative has sought to illuminate Monteverdi’s essence as a liturgical composer, as well as his creative milieu. Not only has Green Mountain (the translation of Monteverdi’s name) presented ear-opening annual performances of the Vespers itself, but the group has also “reconstructed” hypothetical Vespers settings, exploring other avenues the composer might have pursued.
These projects, such as the “Vespers of 1640” from 2012, have given listeners the chance to hear lesser-known Monteverdi works in a new context, alongside music by some of his contemporaries. The ensemble’s newest undertaking is “Vespers of St. John the Baptist,” which Green Mountain was scheduled to premiere at St. Jean Baptiste Church in New York earlier this week, and which arrives at St. Paul Parish in Harvard Square on Sunday.
As was the case with the “Vespers of 1640,” Metcalfe (who assembled the program) has taken the basic format of a polyphonic Vespers service as it would have been heard in Northern Italy, early in the 17th century — an introduction followed by a set of psalms particular to the feast day in question, interspersed with motets and instrumental pieces, and a closing magnificat setting — and filled the structure with works by Monteverdi and other composers active at the time, such as Gabrieli and Cozzolani. The “Vespers of 1610” was a veneration of Mary; by pegging this one to St. John the Baptist — whose feast day is June 24 — Metcalfe was able to program an entirely different set of psalms.
“This is not meant to be a reconstruction of anything that would have happened then,” Metcalfe says. “What we’re doing is a concert that borrows this interesting form as a way of putting a lot of polyphonic psalms that we sometimes have heard in complete isolation, putting them into a context that’s more like what they would’ve been heard in, in a way that helps create a kind of a new concert form.”
It’s worth dwelling on a couple of those ideas, the first being that this project isn’t a literal reconstruction. That’s an important point, because in the early music world, historical accuracy, reenacting the past as faithfully as possible, is taken to be the goal. Notwithstanding the fact that this aim is in most cases impossible, it also ignores the second point, which is that what was a liturgical ritual 400 years ago is now a concert program, something altogether different.
That fact is so obvious, so integral to our lives as performers and listeners, that we barely even pause over it now, but Metcalfe thinks it’s worth pondering. “What are we doing in a concert?” he says. “What are these 21st-century concerts for? If we do a lot of sacred music in the beginning of the 21st century, mostly performed by people who are not Catholics for people who are mostly not Catholics, and it’s not a service, then what are we doing, really?”
The answer, he continues, is central to a project like Green Mountain. Its undertakings form a kind of historical exchange, wherein the horizons of earlier worlds and those of our own come into rapport. We listen back through the centuries, but bring the frame of our own time to it.
“What we’re doing is borrowing historical models and forms and engaging in a kind of dialogue with old music, and using them in our own kind of cultural world,” Metcalfe explains. “We don’t have big polyphonic Vespers [services], but we have public concerts — they’re not liturgical events but they can be spiritual events. They’re great entertainment for some people.”
He adds that spirituality and entertainment often went hand-in-glove in Monteverdi’s time, as they do now for modern concertgoers. He quotes an account by the Englishman Thomas Coryat of a musical event heard in Venice in 1608, which stretched over Saturday night and Sunday morning. These are, presumably, Vespers and Mass, but those words appear nowhere in his description. Instead, he contents himself with describing the music, “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. . . . I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.”
“All of these motives are mixed up,” Metcalfe says. “And we don’t have to be purists or impose any limits on people’s motivations for going to hear music. I’m a big believer in heterogeneity at every level.”