Monteverdi Vespers by candlelight

With the QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble. The choir is grateful to the Symonds Group and the Bridge House Trust for providing financial support for this concert




Monteverdi: Vespers

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There are probably few works that have engendered more academic controversies than the work presented tonight. It derives from a publication issued by Claudio Monteverdi in Venice in 1610, containing not only the liturgical music for Vespers (including two alternative Magnificats but also a Mass and several motets.

The scholars have long raged over such basic questions as:

  • Is the ‘Vespers’ a work at all, or merely a loose collection of movements?
  • What does the (long and ungrammatical) title of the publication actually mean, and how does it assist in answering questions about the contents?
  • Leaving aside the Mass setting, how much of the remaining publication was intended to be performed within a Vespers service?
  • In what order should the pieces be performed?
  • How many singers and players should take part, and in what movements?
  • What plainchants are suitable to accompany the composed movements, and at what pitch should they be sung?
  • At what pitch should the work (or individual movements) be performed?
  • Should performers embellish the music any further than the composer has already done?
  • What occasioned its composition, or indeed its publication?
  • Where was it performed, and by whom?

This is not the place to embark upon a lengthy discourse on these questions, of which there have been as many answers as there have been specialists of the period. For example, it used to be argued that the motets (arguably the most seductive parts of the work) were not intended as part of Vespers at all.

In order to comprehend some structure in the music you will be hearing tonigh4 it is worth understanding in basic terms what was (and is) comprised in a service of Vespers, at least insofar as the main musical contributions are concerned. Leaving aside the various sections of the service chanted by the priests, the service includes no less than five psalms, a hymn and a concluding Magnificat. Before and after each psalm, and the Magnificat, are antiphons appropriate to the particular feast being celebrated. We have chosen to use those suitable to the November feast of the Presentation.

The controversies described above have largely been concerned with the status of the ‘occasional’ works in the 1610 publication (the motets and the sonata), which are not part of the rubric for Vespers (and certainly not the Mass), but were printed interleaved with the liturgical movements. The texts are poetic (although at least semi-Biblical) and emphasise the sensual or dramatic. Monteverdi lives up to the words with some almost operatic solo and ensemble writing, utterly contrasting with the more formal liturgical music. We are following a recent theory, according to which (in something of a return to square one) these movements were after all intended to be heard precisely in position that they appear, as interludes between the psalms. And we treat the Vespers as a single whole, to be digested at one sitting.

As for the style of the performance, we are employing instruments appropriate to the period. The pitch is roughly a tone higher than today’s concert pitch, following what is thought to have been common at the time in Northern Italy. Furthermore, we will be singing two of the movements (‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and ‘Magnificat’) a full fourth lower than is printed: this practice (based on the specific notation used in those movements) is now almost unanimously agreed by scholars, although by no means always employed.

Our own personal ‘take’ on the work involves using space as well as the usual musical textures of rhythm and melody, harmony and counterpoint. In other words, you will not only hear singers and players from all corners of the church, but the choir will continually be reforming in different performing ‘shapes’, the better to elucidate the fascinating structures of the music itself. A good example is in ‘Lauda Jerusalem’, where the chant is carried throughout by a central group of tenors, while two opposing groups of three voices each weave a tapestry of interlocking and antiphonal lines. And as the music given to the instrumentalists comes more to the fore in the latter parts of the ‘Vespers’, they accordingly take up centre stage.

It would be impossible to present an ‘authentic’ Vespers, although several groups have tried in the past. For a start, we are in an Anglican (albeit Anglo-Catholic) church, and no priest is officiating. The time of day is probably wrong. We are not subject to the privations of life in early seventeenth-century Italy. And we are listening with ears that have already heard Bach, Wagner, Stravinsky, and perhaps even Eminem.

So the best we can do is to honour the glorious concerted music Monteverdi has provided by clothing it in the sort of garb in which it sits most happily: plainchant. After all, it is a striking feature of the psalm settings that they grow out of plainchant, the traditional music of the Catholic Church. So the compromise is a ‘semi-liturgical’ presentation: one in which, broadly speaking, the composed settings are given some ‘hinterland’, but without forgetting that this is a concert, not a service. For instance, the magnificent ‘Magnificat’ is the last thing that you will hear, although it would be far from the last thing that you would hear in a Vespers service. But it is almost impossible to resist, on a dark November Tuesday evening in London, leaving the ears ringing to the full resplendent sound of concerted voices and instruments concluding one of the most remarkable artistic contributions to the early Baroque.

Sam Laughton

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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).