Claudio Monteverdi (1567 —1643)

...Selva Morale e Spirituale ... "Moral and Spiritual Wilderness" seems to be a poetic hint at "moral bewilderment". Or put another way, "going from the wild to the hopeful, from 'vanitas' to eternal joy.." ~ Bronisława Falińska...

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), an Italian musician who bridged the Renaissance with the Baroque, published his first collection of music (a set of madrigals for three voices titled Sacrae cantiunculae [Sacred Songs]) when he was fifteen.After several turbulent years with the House of Gonzaga, the princely family in Mantua, Italy, he found respect and recognition with his appointment as the director of music at the famous Basilica di San Marco in Venice. San Marco, a church of particular significance in the history of music, has had a long and distinctive tradition of church music going back to the early Middle Ages. When Monteverdi assumed his position there, the music program at the Basilica was in poor condition. Over the years, however, Monteverdi was able to restore, if not surpass, its past splendor.

All of the pieces selected for our program are drawn from Monteverdi's Selva Morale e Spirituale, a collection prepared for print in 1640 when the composer was already 74 years old. This collection of sacred music, one of the largest of its kind, contains compositions written over the course of many years, all during Monteverdi's tenure at San Marco in Venice.

 

What is the meaning of this title? Knowing that "Selva" is an old Italian word for "forest” does not lead us much closer to the correct interpretation of the phrase. The key to its understanding is the kinship between the Italian "selva" and the Latin "silva" as in the phrase "Silva rerum." Literarily "forest of things", Silva rerum refers to a literary genre – an all-encompassing family chronicle, at times of enormous proportions, documenting life events, customs, traditions and preserving many kinds of documents: letter, speeches, occasional poetry, short stories, anecdotes, jokes, philosophical essays, etc.

The tradition of writing such sprawling dates back to Silvae by the first century Roman poet Publius Panius Statius and was popular between the 16th and 18th centuries throughout Central Europe, especially in Poland The primary meaning of "Selva" is, thus, a very large collection of diverse materials. Indeed, this is precisely how Monteverdi's anthology can be described: a chronicle of his creative life in the area of sacred music whose scope of styles, compositional techniques, and textures is simply breath-taking.

Our discussion of the title would not be complete without mentioning some other semantic undertones that the word "Selva" brings forth. One possible English translation of the title phrase, "Moral and Spiritual Wilderness" seems to be a poetic hint at "moral bewilderment". Or put another way, "going from the wild to the hopeful, from 'vanitas' to eternal joy.." to quote Bronisława Falińska, a performing singer, author and language specialist, to whom I owe this insight.

 

The two first pieces from Monteverdi's Selva, both for solo voice with accompanying instruments, are based on the hymn Sanctorum Meritis Inclita Gaudia [Sing o Sons of the Church], which, according to the Roman Breviary, was used at the First and Second Vespers in the Common of the Martyrs. It was found in several 10th and 11th-century sources, none of which reveal its author. The regularity and symmetry of its musical phrase reflect the simple strophic structure of the hymn. The sense of regularity in music is also enhanced by the composer's indication "stesso metro" [steady beat], which could never be taken for granted in the Early Italian Baroque style.

The third vocal solo from the Selva, a solo motet titled Ab aeterno, is a much more complex work. It is based on a text from the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 8:23-31) which describes the beginning of the world. The bass solo is written in a florid and ever-changing style, testing the singer's vocal range over more than two octaves: from the bottom C to a high F. An impressive tour de force for the bass, indeed! The fourth of Monteverdi's compositions, Confitebor tibi Domine, concludes the first part of the concert. It is a charming setting of Psalm 111 written for five voices and the continuo.

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