As historians, we are often feeding off scraps, desperate to find the one piece of evidence that might clarify the chronology or clinch the case. But in
reality things may not have been so clear-cut. The only documented visit by Monteverdi to Venice is for a couple of days much earlier (in 1595) on his return trip from Hungary (where he and his musicians had performed a vesper service for Duke Vincenzo on the eve of battle against the Turks), though it is always possible he returned there later to oversee the printing of the 1610 print as well as his various books of madrigals. News of the special features of music in St. Mark’s circulated via visitors’ reports and musicians’ gossip, so that it may have been on his radar screen. It is not altogether fanciful, then, to approach the Vespers as an imaginative creation of an idea of Venetian music if not an imitation or expansion of its actuality. Martinengo died in 1613: suddenly there was an opening as maestro di capella at St. Mark’s, the most influential musical post in Italy. What we know for certain is that on August 19, 1613, the procurators of St. Mark’s voted unanimously to appoint Monteverdi to the post that he was to hold right up until his death in 1641. Having first looked at what he had composed (the 1610 print) they then listened to his music and what he could achieve with the cappella of St. Mark’s at his prova “ to their total satisfaction”. This was on the Feast of the Assumption (August 15th) and the payslips to the musicians refer to a Mass, not to Vespers.
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Returning to the 1610 print, there can be little doubt that in planning this, his first major publication of church music, Monteverdi and his printer Amadino had a vested interest in broadening its appeal as much as possible, searching for a wide market for the dissemination and performance of this music—both as a coherent liturgical sequence for any of the Marian feasts while making provision for individual movements to be extrapolated. Beyond that some scholars have seen it as Monteverdi’s calling card or job application—but to where? Rome? Certainly the prima prattica Mass seems tailor-made for the Sistine Chapel (and a manuscript copy survives in the Vatican library) while the Vespers were potentially attractive to any number of the college churches that featured elaborate music; yet Monteverdi’s visit to Rome in 1610 led nowhere. Mantua? Unlikely, since, apart from his exhaustion and illness following the production of his Arianna in 1608 and being passed over as possible maestro of the ducal chapel of Santa Barbara the following year, he could not wait to leave after “nineteen consecutive years.” Two years down the line, things had improved a little and in May 1611 there is a report of a solemn vespers “con bellissima musica di nuova inventione del signor Monteverdi” being performed in Sant’ Andrea, Mantua’s cathedral. Then barely a year later, he was dismissed rather summarily. That left Venice—always likely to be top of an ambitious musician’s list. In 1609, the procurators of St. Mark’s had appointed Giulio Cesare Martinengo as maestro of St Mark’s. So just as he may have been using the 1610 print not merely to impress, but to point certain things out to his Gonzaga overlords in Mantua, perhaps, given the news from Venice, Monteverdi was doing the same to the rest of the world—showing them just what they were missing. As Tim Carter put it to me in a recent letter, “...in other words, the 1610 Vespers bears several grudges and has numerous chips on its shoulders.”
No solid proof exists, then, that Monteverdi ever actually directed his Vespers in St. Mark’s, and I fully acknowledge, of course, that the Basilica is not the only fitting venue for experiencing this dazzling music that can work. Indeed, like Bach and his B minor Mass, it is quite possible that Monteverdi himself never heard it “complete” or as he dreamed it (and we know from his letters how he hated both composing against the clock and ill-rehearsed performances). Nor is that the only feature the Vespers share with the B minor Mass. The provenance of individual movements composed over several years before being assembled as a Missa tota (Bach) and Vespro della Beata Vergine (Monteverdi) suggest that both composers were aiming at a kind of summa—to encapsulate the full range of their invention and compo5