Two principal currents may be distinguished in 16th century Italian poetry: the “Petrarchan” and complementary “Bernescan”. The former, with its select vocabulary, subly refined in utterance and in its distinctive sentiments, was resorted to for all the demands of exalted and emotionally charged lyrical expression, whereas the latter was suitable for the jesting humours, realistic and even grotesque vitality. Both these tendencies are also reflected in the profane polyphonic music of the period and suffuse a great deal of artfully wrought and continuous writing (the madrigal) as well as the arioso, strophic character of the canzonetta, villanelle and similar forms.
Don Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605), a native of Modena, was deeply interested in the Bernescan repertory. He was active as maestro di cappella in the cathedrals of several towns on the plain of the Po (Salò, Modena, Correggio, Modena again), and finally also at the court of the Este family that had been installed in Modena since 1597. At the same time, an interesting result is created in his printed secular output by the attempt to organize the contents of each book according to unifying designs that place the individual pieces within a more or less consistent framework. Although there had already been attempts at structural cohesiveness – albeit tenuous and somewhat in the nature of a pretext – in a kind of Canzoniere volume, Vecchi’s books, however, evince a more sensible and unified overall design: a well-characterized landscape sketch (Selva di varia ricreazione, 1590), a theatrical piece (a comedy, L’Amfiparnaso, 1597), an episode from social life (the banquet and evening of entertainment, Il Convito musicale, 1597 and Le veglie di Siena, 1604).
L’Amfiparnaso is derived from the contemporary comedy, whether it was written or improvised. It is sub-titled “commedia armonica” (i.e. musical), while its title (literally “the twin-peaked Parnassus”) is an allusion to its being “composed of a two-fold novelty”, as stated in the Prologue, meaning poetry and music. Each scene is introduced by a recapitulatory triplet that functions as a tenuous connecting link, and a series of situations in dialogue, typifying the contemporary comedy, passes in review: conflicts between masters and servants, between lovers (young and old, including the mercenary variety), scenes of pathos, the serenade, the pawnshop scene in the ghetto. The stereotypical nature of the characters and situations made it easier for the listeners to patch together the individual scenes into a plausible whole.
Far from being, even embryonically, a forerunner of the sung theatre with which experiments were beginning to be conducted in Florentine circles during the same period, L’Amfiparnaso, with its polyphonic language, proposes a type of imaginary theatre in as much as the voice and the character do not coincide with one another, and each of them is projected by several simultaneous voices, thereby making any concrete representation impossible. It is treated as a “spectacle that is apprehended by the mind / into which it enters by the ears and not by the eyes”, as Lelio so nicely puts it in the Prologue, concluding with the eloquent invitation to the ideal spectator to “be silent, therefore / and instead of looking, now listen”. This did not, however, prevent Vecchi from sprinkling his essentially madrigalesque polyphonic writing with individualizing features: bars devoted to single voices, small contrasting vocal groups, sudden leaps in compass, opposing melodic-rhythmic devices and contrapuntal techniques, the introduction of characteristic stylistic elements (e.g. Jewish chanting), and a refrain denoting a particular character (like Isabella in the final scene). The emergence of these elements inside the densely woven polyphonic texture in which the poetic word spread themselves over the trellice formed by the combination of the various vocal parts causes at least the shadows of the protagonists now and then to appear fleetingly on the imaginary stage.
The same thing takes place in Il Convito musicale which, in addition, offers a fine example of a mixture of styles and the society games with which the “brigate” of friends amused themselves the most delightful illustration of this element is probably the mimicking of the sounds of instruments and the counterpoint of the animals.
The composer Ghinolfo Dattari was born and died in Bologna. He was employed as singer in the choir of S. Petronio in Bologna from 1555 to 1617. At the death of Andrea Rota in 1597, he was appointed as substitute maestro di capella, but two years later, when Pompilio Pisanelli was named maestro di capella, Dattari returned to his original post as singer. His published compositions consist of 34 Canzoni villanesche a quattro voci (Milan, 1564) and 30 Villanelle a tre, a quattro e a cinque voci (Venice, 1568). The delightful villanelle in this latter print, are variously pleasant, mournful and poetic, and are composed in popular balata style. The collection is dedicated to the Bolognese nobleman Count Giulio Pepoli, but each to the thirty pieces is also individually addressed to various noble “Most Magnificent and Illustrious” ladies and gentlemen of Bologna.
Bologna, during the 1560s, enjoyed one of its richest periods. In this second city of the Papal State, “a city which was rich, fat and civil”, feasts, tournaments, spectacles in private villas and theatrical performances followed closely one after the other. The villanelle, by its very nature of simplicity, intentionally arousing facile emotions – both melancholic and cheerful – was seemingly the perfectattire for the festive occasions. The theatrical or dramatic elements contained therein are readily perceptible to both the performer and the listener and viewer. The irony of ‘La carta o Togna’, the amusing exaggeration of ‘Io vidi un gran miracolo”, the solemn atmosphere of ‘Ahi dolce sonno’, the amorous reproach of ‘Amore l’altro giorno’, and the dolorous and weary words at the end of ‘Mentre ch’io miro’, are a few of the emotional component employed by Ghinolfo Dattari to achieve ‘perfection in delight’.
Amongst Handel’s later Oratorios, Joshua was one of the most successful. Of those composed after Samson, only Judas Maccabaeus received more performances during the composer’s lifetime, and much of this popularity was due to the insertion after the first season’s performances of ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’, first written for Joshua.
Handel began the score of Joshua on 19 July 1747, just two weeks after completing Alexander Balus, and Act I was completed eleven days later. Act II took an even shorter time, finished on 8 August, and the whole work was completed by 19 August. The premiere took place at Covent Garden on 9 March 1748 and was followed by another three performances. Mrs Delany, who had proved such a good diarist of Handel’s financial state in previous years, had moved to Ireland with her husband, but turning to Handel’s bank statements we see that after the first concert he deposited £300, after the second £200 and after the third another £100. We do not know how much he paid his orchestra, although he withdrew £990 on 19 March, but by the start of May he was in a position to deal in annuities to the tune of £4500, suggesting that this particular Lenten season had been a great success at the box office.
Joshua certainly rated highly with Eliza Heywood who, writing in Epistles for the Ladies, (1749) was:
transported into the most divine Exstacy. I closed my Eyes, and imagined myself amidst the angelic Choir in the bright Regions of everlasting Day, chanting the Praises of my great Creator, and his ineffable ‘Messiah’. I seemed, methought, to have nothing of this gross Earth about me, but was all Soul! - all Spirit.
In Dublin after a rehearsal for the first of three annual performances in 1751, conducted by Bartholomew Manwaring for the charity of the Hospital for Incurables, Mrs Delany wrote to Mrs Dewes that she was ‘charmed with it - never heard it before’. An open letter from ‘A Virtuoso’ was printed in The General Advertiser of 13 March 1749 appealing for a revival of Joshua to satisfy ‘a Number of your Friends’, but Handel did not, in the event, oblige until 1752, when he made a number of alterations, including expanding the overture by adding the fugue and courante from the Solomon overture. In 1754 he gave a further single performance, inserting five movements, four of which were based on the Occasional Oratorio. Further performances took place in Salisbury in 1754 and in Oxford in 1756, and there were performances in London, though probably not under Handel’s direction, in 1755 and 1759. Later generations did not ignore the work, for Joshua was heard at the Three Choirs Festival in 1759, 1769, 1773 and 1781, at the Oxford Music Room in 1766, 1768 and 1773, in Salisbury in 1771 and at least four times in Winchester between 1770 and 1783. In the nineteenth century it was heard in Berlin in 1827 and 1832, and the Sacred Harmonic Society performed the work in London in 1839, setting the fashion for performances in Holland, Germany and England. Only the later twentieth century seems largely to have ignored the work.
Joshua was one of a quartet of oratorios written consecutively between 1746 and 1748 which have heavily militaristic overtones. The first of these was the Occasional Oratorio, performed three times at Covent Garden in 1746 and three more times in 1747. Judas Maccabaeus followed in 1747, extraordinarily popular in receiving at least 33 performances during the composer’s lifetime, and Joshua and Alexander Balus were premiered at Covent Garden on March 9 and March 23 in Handel’s 1748 oratorio season. It seems clear that, following Judas Maccabaeus, Handel and his librettist Thomas Morell were intent on repeating the formula of a Jewish hero and triumphing choruses that had been so successful, adding this time the romantic sub-plot that Judas had lacked. Scarcely recovered from his efforts on Alexander Balus, Morell took his libretto from a bloodthirsty account in the Old Testament ‘Book of Joshua’, condensing the campaigns against Jericho, Ai and the five Kings into one dramatic block, and enlarging the parts taken by Othniel and Achsah to provide the romantic foil necessary to break up and contrast with an otherwise almost continuously warlike story.
Handel’s extraordinary speed of composition must have tested Morell to the limit, and the result is perhaps more a series of incidents than a developed plot. But the characters are strong, with Joshua a commanding (if at times insufferably conceited) hero, Caleb a suitably patriarchal leader nearing retirement from the battlefield, his daughter Achsah a concerned, sometimes reproving character, betrothed to Othniel who is finding it hard to strike a balance between playing the young warrior and the devoted lover. There is an additional part, small but vital, for an Angel, named in a later score as having been sung by a tenor, but widely assumed to have been played in the earlier performances by the more expected soprano or boy treble.
As with many of Handel’s oratorios, later performances saw many revisions to the original score for all sorts of reasons, not always musical. The version of the 1748 performances, one concession being the inclusion of Handel’s undated (1752?) alteration to the second half of ‘Hark! ’tis the linnet’: this is the only change he later made which does not affect the original sequence of movements. Handel had surprisingly few boys to sing the top line of his choruses, though with voices breaking so much later in those days we can assume that some of them would have been powerful singers, but his solo singers usually joined in the tuttis (which must have made for an exhausting evening’s work). Our twentieth century choir needed no such assistance, but our Angel soloist follows historical precedent and sings in the choruses too! At three points in the score Handel indicates that brass fanfares are to be inserted, giving a short rhythmic cue over which the players (led by the principal trumpeter) would have improvised the necessary music.
Handel’s lavish scoring of the oratorio suggests that he was financially secure in his performances, for the large orchestra contains pairs of flutes, trumpets and horns, and timpani besides the expected strings, oboes and bassoons, and following eighteenth century accounts we have included harpsichord, organ and archlute as continuo instruments. Handel’s most powerful writing in Joshua utilises the brass and timpani to the full, with music of great effectiveness. With dramatic incidents such as the tumbling walls of Jericho, the razing by fire of the city, Joshua stopping the sun and moon in their tracks and his rousing an army of depressed troops, not to mention the triumphal return of the warrior after battle, here was heroic material to stimulate any composer. Perhaps not surprisingly, the destruction of Jericho in the second Act leads Handel into one of his greatest thunder choruses, and one which impressed Haydn at a large-scale performance in Westminster Abbey in 1791. He is reported as having:
long been acquainted with [the] music, but never knew half its powers before he heard it, and he was perfectly certain that only one inspired Author ever did, or ever would pen so sublime a composition.
Similarly the ‘Solemn March during the circumvection of the Ark of the Covenant’ which precipitates the destruction is one of Handel’s finest, startling in its huge solemnity, and Caleb’s following aria ‘See the raging flames arise’ a marvellous piece of drama. Othniel’s ‘Place danger around me’ too is a splendid Handelian aria. Joshua was also the original source for the chorus ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’, which was only added to Judas Maccabaeus once its potential was realised after the first performances of Joshua. But the quieter, more contemplative moments too deserve mentions, with Caleb’s resigned aria ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’, the hymn-like chorus which follows from it, the chorus of defeated Israelites ‘How soon our tow’ring hopes are cross’d’, and Othniel’s ‘Nations who in future story’ all examples of Handel’s lyrical style at its best. In between the triumphs and disasters of battle, the scenes with Achsah lend further contrast, providing arias ranging from the wistful ‘Oh, who can tell’, through the birdcalls of ‘Hark! ’tis the linnet’ to the joyful, ever-popular ‘Oh had I jubal’s lyre’.
Act I - The single-movement orchestral ‘Introduzione’ is one of Handel’s shortest openings to an oratorio, lasting for just four lines of the score and leading straight into the opening chorus. Handel was clearly anxious to get on with the action. ‘Ye sons of Israel’ dispels any thought that the work is on anything but a grand scale with the Israelites rejoicing at the conquest of Canaan and their miraculous passage over the river Jordan which ends forty years in the wilderness. ‘In Gilgal, and on Jordan’s banks proclaim’ is introduced by an unaccompanied vocal entry - the first of many that form a thread running throughout the oratorio. Joshua enters, self-assured to the point of conceit, his confidence bolstered by the flattering tongue of the warrior Caleb, whose aria ‘Oh first in wisdom’ continues the jaunty, confident vein. Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, brings a dramatically necessary change of mood, contrasting the suffering of captivity in Egypt with the joy of arrival in Canaan in her wistful aria ‘Oh, who can tell’ whose prominent parts for solo violin and cello are reminiscent of La Resurrezzione. The calm interlude does not last long, for Joshua returns, giving orders in his recitative ‘Caleb attend’ to set up a monument in Gilgal to ensure that future generations are aware of the Israelites’ miraculous escape. Joshua introduces, with an unaccompanied phrase, the chorus ‘To long posterity we here record’, full of vivid effects of the floods rolling back and forth which hark back to Israel in Egypt. The theme of flowing water continues in the aria ‘While Kedron’s brook’, with Joshua’s lyrical thread punctuated by orchestral dotted rhythms.
Othniel, a young warrior (betrothed to Achsah) appears on the scene at the same moment as an angel. His aria ‘Awful, pleasing being, say’ is not Handel’s most memorable (but he compensates later in the work with some marvellous writing for his alto soloist) but the pace of the drama is quickly restored as the Angel presents his credentials. Joshua is (for a change) suitably reverent and, in a dramatic accompagnato, the Angel delivers his bloodthirsty message that Jericho must be destroyed, giving the comforting assurance that victory will be easy. No time is wasted, and in the splendid aria ‘Haste, Israel, haste’ Joshua commands his followers to carry out their destructive task. The results are immediately heard in the chorus ‘The Lord commands, and Joshua leads’. After such warlike thoughts it is again time for a pastoral interlude: Handel obliges with a gem, the accompagnato ‘In these blest scenes’ where Othniel, wandering through quiet countryside, is on his way to meet Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, to whom he is betrothed. Her entry ‘Oh Othniel’ is quite exquisite. Morell’s excuse for Achsah’s solo ‘Hark, ’tis the linnet’ is somewhat manufactured, but Handel’s response to the text, full of bird calls from solo soprano, flute and violin, is delightful. The two lovers dally a little longer in the duet ‘Our limpid streams’, but the scene is shattered by a warlike trumpet flourish, made all the more dramatic as this is the first time we have heard the brass. Othniel makes clear his desire to seek Achsah’s hand as soon as Jericho has been destroyed, and the chorus close Act I wishing their hero luck in the coming conflict.
Act II - In Act II Joshua has been laying seige to Jericho for six days. He orders the final trumpet blast. Handel’s ‘Solemn March during the circumvection of the Ark of the Covenant’ (adapted from Muffat’s Componimenti) is as awe-inspiring in its solemnity as it is in its sheer volume, and leads into the splendid three-section chorus ‘Glory to God’. Solo trumpet and horn echo the preceding March, Joshua praises God, the massed choral and orchestral forces reinforce him and, with insistent dotted rhythms in the orchestra, the walls begin to totter. But it is for the middle Adagio section ‘The nations tremble’ that Handel reserves his finest effects. In a musical score which is black with notes the awe-struck chorus cower, the brass blast chilling low fanfares, the strings vividly represent the tumbling walls in rapid scales and the timpani thunder. Jericho crashes down, and Caleb is triumphant in his command to lay waste to the remainder of the city and its populace, remembering though to command the sparing of Rahab, who had been sympathetic to the Israelites’ cause. ‘See, the raging flames arise’ reverts successfully to the type of operatic aria originally written for Montagnana: the rapid scales representing the flames which add to the destruction of Jericho are contrasted with the ‘dismal groans and cries’.
Once again it is Achsah who tries to bring the Israelites down to earth, attempting to convince them that their triumph will not last. ‘To vanity and earthly pride’ is a contrast to what has gone before, its simple melody added to by delicious harmony at ‘The firmest rock’. In the solemn ‘Almighty ruler of the skies’ Handel is again inspired, as the entire company of Israelites, including ‘High Priest, Priests, Chiefs, Elders and a full assembly’ celebrate the passover and praise God for their deliverence. Over a ground bass the voices of the chorus enter one by one, led by Joshua, joining together with the whole orchestra in great magnificence at ‘His glory did on Sinai shine’. Achsah’s reproving advice however is not heeded, for Caleb announces that disaster has struck: overconfident soldiers sent to test the defences of Ai have been repulsed, and Israel mourns. Handel’s appetite for a tragic chorus appears to have been inexhaustible for, in the type of movement which appears in half a dozen oratorios, but is no less effective here for that frequency, flutes and strings introduce a ‘Chorus of defeated Israelites’ - ‘How soon our tow’ring hopes are cross’d’.
Joshua, seeing such dejection, rouses the miserable troops, reminding them of their success at Jericho. ‘With redoubled rage return’ is a marvellous aria, made all the more effective as it swings into the chorus ‘We with redoubled rage return’. Seeing confidence restored to the masses, Othniel’s mind returns to other matters, and, seeking ‘breath’ he goes off to find Achsah, for soldiers need things other than war to balance their diet. The catchy tune of the gavotte ‘Heroes when with glory burning’ was used by Handel no less than seven times before it appeared in this context. Achsah too is pining for Othniel: her aria ‘As cheers the sun’ is a marvellous piece of craftsmanship, with the strings’ ‘falling show’r’ gradually reviving the ‘tender flow’r’ until the downward scales have taken over the whole movement. Caleb is furious seeing Othniel wasting his time with Achsah and, sending his daughter away, stirs Othniel back into warrior-like action with the news that the Gibeonite allies are endangered by a Canaanite league under Adoni-zedeck, King of Jerusalem. ‘Nations, who in future story’ has a quietly noble melody. Joshua is delighted by the united scene he now sees, and once again, two ‘Flourishes of warlike instruments’ introduce military action.
‘Oh thou bright orb’ is one of Handel’s most original movements. Over a soft accompaniment of violin semiquavers Joshua, seeing that bad light may stop the battle, commands the sun to stop in its course: as it does so, all orchestral movement ceases, with the violins holding their high A for nine bars. Then, addressing the slower-moving moon, represented by the violas, he commands that too to halt. Now the whole string section is motionless, and the chorus exclaim in wonder ‘Behold! the list’ning sun his voice obeys’. Over increasing choral movement the sustained high A still continues, first in the oboes, and then, for nine long bars, in a solo trumpet: disbelieving nineteenth-century orchestral editors re-scored Handel and spread this thirty-second ‘tour-de-force-de-poumon’ between two players! At ‘They yield, they fall, they die’, the solo trumpeter, too, gratefully expires (Handel evidently had a sense of humour), and then the tutti brass enter for ‘Before our arms the scattered nations fly’. Once again the enemy are routed and flee and, as section by section the voices and instruments expire, Act II ends quietly.
Act III - Act III begins with Joshua’s position once again that of a hero now guaranteed a position in history. In ‘Hail mighty Joshua’ Handel gives the fugal entries at ‘And grateful marbles’ a notable rising theme. Achsah too is delighted in her cheerful aria ‘Happy, O thrice happy we’. Joshua proposes to divide the conquered territory amongst the tribes and is reminded by Caleb of his part in the conquest of Hebron: Joshua immediately gives this land to Caleb and his Judaean tribe. Caleb however is starting to feel his age, and Handel produces another jewel with the hymn-like ‘Shall I in Mamre’s fertile plain’ whose theme of noble resignation is enhanced by the chorus’s entry ‘For all these mercies we will sing’. Othniel reminds Caleb that one city remains unconquered. Caleb announces that it is time to hand over military matters to a younger man and, as an inducement, the hand of Achsah will be the reward for whoever can subdue the remaining city of Debir. Othniel can hardly believe his good fortune, and in the splendidly rousing ‘Place danger around me’ (as lively an alto aria as Handel ever wrote) he goes off to war. The Israelites pray for him in battle in the moving slow chorus ‘Father of mercy’ and no sooner have they completed their prayers than Joshua enters to tell the good news that Othniel has been victorious.
The public reaction to ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ when it was first heard in Joshua was one of ecstasy: Handel too knew that he had scored another bullseye. Its great success ensured that he inserted it into revivals of Judas Maccabaeus. Its formula was simple, with a three-part procession: in the first verse a ‘Chorus of Youths’, accompanied by organ ‘tasto solo’ alternate and combine with two horns: in the second verse a semi-chorus (or possibly originally two soloists, mistakenly attributed by Chrysander as being a ‘Chorus of Virgins’) are accompanied by two flutes and organ, and in the third, formal verse the entire company, minus the horns, join together. Handel’s instruction to the ‘Tamburo’ (military side drum) was quite specific: ‘ad libitum; the second time warbling’.
Achsah now is delighted too, for Caleb gives his blessing to Othniel and her marriage, and she exults in the famous aria ‘Oh had I Jubal’s lyre’. The melody dates from nearly forty years earlier, first used in the settings of Laudate pueri dating from 1706 and 1707, and then used again the year after Joshua in Solomon. (Morell’s libretto read ‘Oh had I Jubal’s sacred lyre’ which manuscripts show Handel set for a couple of phrases before he realised there was a better scansion available by missing out the ‘sacred’). Before the final exulting chorus we are allowed one more gentle love duet, ‘Oh peerless maid’, before Caleb, now as an elder statesman, announces the final chorus. ‘The great Jehova is our awful theme’ begins in block chords as a solemn hymn but quickly switches to a fugal texture. The block chords return for the end, with the final massive ‘Halleluia’ dominated, significantly when we remember their important role in the work, by ringing brass fanfares.
The “invention” of opera is the historic achievement of the Florentine “Camarata”, a group of aristocrats, artists, and scholars who in about 1580 came together with the common interest in a “Renaissance” of the ancient drama. Their theoretical preoccupation with the Greek tragedy, inspired by neo-Platonic humanism and by courtly pastoral drama, gave rise to the idea of a musical-poetic-scene overall art form, in which music – as the stylized declamation of the acting persons and of the ancient commenting chorus – was entirely subordinate to the word. From this theoretical conception, from the outset already at odds with the allegedly over-refined polyphony, a theatrical-musical practice evolved. This again, after many preliminary forms of instrumentally accompanied solo song, resulted in a musical declamation concentrated rigorously on text declamation and text expression: the “stile recitativo”.
The librettist of the first Florentine operas, Ottavio Rinuccini, as a Camarata member the most energetic pioneer of the neo-ancient drama, reduced the flowery lyricism of courtly favola pastorale to a language capable of composition, and aimed at economic, elegant simplicity and at clear uncomplicated dramaturgy, where the grand materials of rediscovered ancient tradition are represented as images of basic human situations. His “Dafne” (1594, composed by Jacopo Peri and Marco da Gagliano) still bears the generic title of favola pastorale – in “Euridice” (1600, composed by Peri and Giulio Caccini) the “tragedia” already appears as the prologue person, while “Arianna” (1608, composed by Peri and Monteverdi) is an ancient-style tragedy. The Medici court, however, adapted the new dramatic genre to suit its own purposes by making it the focal point of representative court festivities: “Dafne” was performed 1597-1599 in the house of Jacopo Corsi, head of the Camarata, then in 1600 went to the Palazzo Pitti. “Euridice” had its premiere in the same palace for the wedding of Maria de Medici and Henry IV of France on 6th October, 1600.
The composer members of the Camarata – Peri, Caccini, Gagliano, and Emilio de’ Cavalieri, who was active in Florence only until 1600 – approached their new tasks as laid down by the aesthetics of the Camarata and by Rinuccini’s texts, in very different ways. The fact that Peri was the most radical amongst them and the actual protagonist of the stile recitative is shown by “Euridice”, his only completely preserved opera. It also shows, however, that Peri’s radicalism was not an excuse born of musical inability, but the expression of a consistent stylization: the score – annotated only with the singing parts and ground bass, thus leaving harmonious completion by ground bass instruments and participation of melodic instruments to improvisation and arrangement – unfolds all the essential aspects of the drama in soloist monadic style, while choruses and enclosed numbers are restricted to a minimum. However, this speech-song is anything but monotonous; on the contrary it draws from the retracing of moderate pathetic and enhanced expressive declamation an astonishing degree of differentiation: the dramatic and emotional climaxes, in which voice intonations are emphatically super-elevated, contrast all the more effectively with the basic attitude of recitation, hardly marked by any melody above static chords. In such moments simplicity and strength of expression have a truly ancient grandness and the unused freshness of something entirely new. Not only the historical significance but also, and above all, the liveliness of “Euridice” rest precisely in this simple grandness and strength of expression, and in the freshness of its media.
'À 5 instrumenti e 6 voci'. It is a sobering thought that this gloriously exuberant setting for Vespers of Psalm 121 (Psalm 122 in the Book of Common Prayer) would probably have been lost for ever had it not been for the intervention of Monteverdi’s publisher, Alessandro Vincenti, who included it in the Messa a quattro voci e salmi of 1650. Most of the setting is based on a four-note ostinato – the first four notes of the ‘Ruggiero’ bass with which Monteverdi began his setting of the same text in the Vespers of 1610.
Where the 1610 setting is one of Monteverdi’s most complex and intellectually challenging pieces, however, here he seems to take a simple delight in overcoming the restrictions of the ostinato, introducing variety not only through melodic invention but by introducing a number of obbligato instruments – violins, trombones and bassoon. There are echoes of the well known Beatus vir setting in the opening violin melodies, and of the semiquaver roulades of the great seven-part Gloria. There is humour too, perhaps, in the seemingly endless sequences with which Monteverdi sets ‘ascenderunt’ in verse 4 and ‘Amen’ towards the end of the setting. The ostinato is presented in triple time in verses 8 and 9 and abandoned for the beginning of the ‘Gloria Patri’, but returns in its original metre to round off the setting.