21 July 2010

Vespers Not Vespas

Being at religious services often makes me feel uncomfortable because I do not follow any religious beliefs. Being a freethinker does not necessarily mean a lack of spirituality, as this blog may reveal to you if you have not been here before. I just like being.


In the privacy of my home, I like to listen to beautiful, spiritual music, and this year is a very important anniversary for my husband's heritage. Four hundred years ago, in 1610, Claudio Monteverdi, a native of Cremona in northern Italy, wrote his famous Vespers for the Blessed Virgin. My husband's paternal grandfather was born near Cremona in the 1890s.

Even without a religious belief, language is not really necessary to understand the spiritual basis of beautiful music. It is why vespers in a language other than English can mean more to me than any words in a language I can understand verbally. Music can often say something that words on their own cannot.

With so much noise in the world, from cars and motorbikes, and even vespas, not to mention more modern forms of music, and aircraft and machines of various kinds, there is an inner stillness that can be experienced, a timelessness and, paradoxically, a feeling of quietness from listening to beautiful, sacred music.

As a young man, Monteverdi left Cremona and went to Mantua under the patronage of the duke of the latter city, Vincenzo Gonzaga. The duke was only five years older than Monteverdi and it was in Mantua that the composer wrote his Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.

I have several recordings of Monteverdi's music but I am yet to choose a copy of the vespers that would be suitable for my reflective needs. Here, though is a video from youtube of the first part of the work. John Eliot Gardiner is the conductor.

My husband and I briefly visited Mantua after a short trip to Cremona in 2007. Before that, we had been in Venice. I am glad we travelled when we did, too. Even with a car, the journey was very tiring. What might travelling have been like for Monteverdi and other musicians and artists in the 1500s and 1600s?

In 1613, Monteverdi moved to Venice to work at St Mark's Basilica, where the above mentioned video was recorded in 1989 (if you know of the great opera singer Bryn Terfel, you may recognise him in the recording as a much younger man, of course).

Even without cars and vespas, Venice today is too noisy for me because of the crowds. I find it difficult to relax amongst throngs of chattering people, even in a cathedral. I need silence and calmness before I feel ready to listen more deeply to the art of sacred sound.

The vespers of Monteverdi, for me, signify transition. Monteverdi's wife had died only three years before the vespers were published. He had a traumatic transition from being a married man to being a widower. The vespers are a transition from the hours of day to the hours of night. Moving from Cremona to Mantua was a transition, as was the later move Monteverdi made to Venice.

The music for the Vespers for the Blessed Virgin also contains significant transitions, from the music of the renaissance to the music of the baroque - from the old to the new. The music contains elements of both. Culturally, the old can never truly be replaced by the new, only transformed. Now, I just want to sit still and listen.


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