Monteverdi Vespers

Last night I attended a lovely performance of Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610" by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. Some reflections:

  • These vespers are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and in addition to the normal psalms and Magnificat included in Vespers, there were a number of shorter hymm pieces, taken from the Song of Songs, or compiled at some other point in the middle ages. One, the Audio coleum is particularly fun in its use of the "voice of God" answering a praying tenor -- to achieve the effect, the Collegium's tenor was hiding behind a screen, answering the tenor's questions. It's also scandalously close to heresy, with lines like "quae semper tutum est medium inter homines et Deum", "who [Mary] is always a sure mediator between man and God", and "Omnes hanc ergo sequamur, qua cum gratia mereamur vitam aeternam,", "So let us all follow her by whose grace we may gain eternal life." Just a little bit beyond hyperdulia, one might think...
  • In the same section, the final invocation is even more interesting, because where there's usually a Trinitarian invocation at the end of the psalm or canticle, we hear this:
    Praestet nobis Deus Pater
    hoc et Filius et Mater,
    cujus nomen invocamus,
    dulce miseris solamen.

    May God the Father grant us this,
    And the Son and the Mother,
    on whose name we call,
    sweet solace for the unhappy.

    What's fascinating here is the elision between the Spirit and the Virgin Mary, or at least the ability to swap one in for the other in a liturgical text. Much research has done on the way, especially after Trent, Mary took over a number of roles within the Catholic imagination traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit. My Episcopalian partner and I have had a number of discussions about the way in which this "Mariolatry" is, probably in the most technical sense, idolatrous and/or heretical. At the same time, though, I have to wonder about the way in which this provides an excellent example of the working out of a theological question by the sensus fidelium of the church as a whole; the joining together of these three notions/concepts/persons, namely, Mary-the Holy Spirit-the Church, seemed to respond to a need to describe the experience of being brought into relationship with God through Christ in a situation where the theology of the Holy Spirit wasn't capable of satisfying that need. When the Holy Spirit was limited to a dove flitting around the edges of Catholic iconography (the much-maligned pun of "Two Blokes and a Bird"), the imagery wasn't able to hold its own weight in relationship to the Father and Son. Mary steps into the gap to talk about the way the church responds to God's offer of grace (logically, since she's the first one to do so as that grace is offered in Christ), and to give Christians a voice for the human response to God. We who often label ourselves as "progressive" or "liberal" Catholics, in distinction from "traditionalist" or "conservative" Catholics, would do well here to notice how the history of the sensus fidelium prevents these sorts of binary oppositions; there are many times that the "sense of the faithful ones" seems to push the church in a direction that appears from the outside world to be "liberal", but this isn't always the case...good proof that the Spirit isn't actually a liberal or a conservative, raising questions about whether we should be or not.
  • Finally, and this was for me the most enjoyable part of the piece, musically and theologically, was another added canticle entitled "Duo seraphim", attributed, in the liner notes, to the appropriate passages in Isaiah 6:3 and 1 John 5:7-8. Enjoyable in the sense that, beyond the glories of his glorias and the excitement of the Magnificat, this little bit seems to hearken back to Augustine in its attempt atTrinitarian theology.
    Duo seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum
    Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth:
    plena est omnis terra gloria eius.
    Tres sunt qui testimonium dant in coelo:
    Patre, Verbum, et Spiritus Sanctus:
    et hic tres unum sunt.
    Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
    Plena est omnis terra gloria eius.

    Two Seraphim were calling one to the other:
    Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts:
    the whole earth is full of his glory.
    There are three who give testimony in heaven:
    the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit:
    and these three are one.
    Holy Lord God of Hosts.
    The Whole earth is full of his glory.

    What was so fun about this piece was the fact that the voices reflected the text; the first three lines were a tenor duet, imitating the two angels calling to each other with the praise of God. And then, in the second half, beginning with the word "tres", a third tenor entered into the mix, joining the first two in singing. One's first reaction might be to see this as a cheap musical gimmick, but when you get to the line "et hic tres unum sunt", one hears what, I think, Monteverdi might have been getting at. (Caveat: I don't know if Monteverdi was a serious believer or simply making a buck, which might push one towards the "gimmick" side of the equation....) The three voices sing that line together, in harmony, which is exactly one way to try to imagine the trinitarian perichoresis...like Augustine in the De Trinitate, Monteverdi has presented (stumbled upon?) an analogy from our experience of what "three-in-oneness" might be like. Well done.

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