The Christmas Vespers of Alessandro Grandi (Venice, 1630): live, high-definition video from our December 2013 concert in San Francisco.
Voices of Music
Hanneke van Proosdij & David Tayler, directors
There is a complete companion lecture for this concert:
Laura Heimes, soprano
Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano
John Taylor Ward, baritone
Elizabeth Blumenstock, baroque violin
Carla Moore, baroque violin
Lisa Grodin, baroque violin & viola
William Skeen, viola da gamba & baroque cello
David Tayler, archlute & theorbo
Hanneke van Proosdij, baroque organ, harpsichord & recorder
Our program is a reconstruction of a Vespers service for First Vespers on Christmas Eve. A Vespers service differs radically from the Eucharistic service of the Mass. It originated in the monastic Office Hours, recited every three hours around the clock. Vespers is the early evening service, but in actuality comprises two services: First Vespers on the vigil, or evening before the feast, and Second Vespers on the late afternoon of the feast itself. Like most of the Office Hours, the central part of the service is the recitation of Old Testament psalms. In a Vespers service there are five psalms, chosen according to the particular feast, such as Christmas, or the type of feast, such as Sundays, or feasts of the Virgin, feasts of Holy Martyrs, etc. For some feasts, such as Christmas, the series of psalms and some other texts is a bit different for First Vespers than it is for Second Vespers. All Vespers services close (except for short parting prayers) with another psalm-like text, the Magnificat, from the Gospel according to Luke in which the Virgin Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth of her joy at the news she is carrying the Christ child. Thus, the central part of the program tonight is the set of five psalms from the Latin Vulgate designated by the Church as those for Christmas Eve, Dixit Dominus, Confitebor tibi, Beatus vir, Laudate pueri and Laudate Dominum plus the concluding Magnificat.
But as you look at the order of pieces on tonight’s program, you will see that there are other compositions beyond the five psalms and Magnificat. The two that are integral to every Vespers service are, after the instrumental introduction, Deus in adiutorium, the Gregorian chant versicle and response that open every Vespers service, and a strophic hymn, prior to the Magnificat. In the program you will see an indication for the Christmas hymn, Jesu Redemptor omnium substituted by an organ hymn by Girolamo Frescobaldi, organist at St. Peter’s in Rome. In an actual Vespers service, the celebrant would have spoken the hymn text under his breath while the organist was playing.
The substitution of an instrumental piece for the hymn leads us to the final aspect of tonight’s Vespers service. From early in the history of the Catholic Church and its liturgy, the singing of each psalm and the Magnificat was accompanied by the singing of a shorter text, called an antiphon, at least before and after the psalm, and sometimes between verses as well. Even more than the psalms, antiphon texts were specific to the particular feast or type of feast. So even though the psalms for Christmas Eve are the same as the psalms for Sundays and male feasts, the antiphons for each psalm were unique to Christmas Eve only.
By the 16th century we encounter the practice of substituting for the antiphons assigned to a particular feast some other text in a polyphonic musical setting or even an instrumental composition. Where an instrumental piece was substituted for an antiphon, the celebrant would have recited the appropriate text sotto voce as mentioned above with regard to the substitution of Frescobaldi’s organ piece for the Christmas hymn.
For tonight’s program, Voices of Music has substituted a series of vocal motets and instrumental compositions by some of the most prominent composers of the period, including Grandi’s own maestro at St. Mark’s, Claudio Monteverdi, in place of the antiphons after each psalm and the Magnificat. While the Magnificat and its antiphon were the final major liturgical elements in a Vespers service, the service itself closed with a group prayer, called a collect, and a brief dismissal from the priest. We know that additional music was sometimes performed during these functions, especially for major feasts with elaborate music. Tonight we’ll hear a motet by Grandi for the collect, and this recreation of a Christmas service closes with the joyous Cantate Domino, “Sing to the Lord,” of Monteverdi. Of all Monteverdi’s surviving music, Cantate Domino is the closest to the style of Grandi, so it makes an ideal composition by the greatest composer of the 17th century to close a performance dedicated to the music of his one-time vice maestro di cappella, Alessandro Grandi.
–notes by Jeffrey Kurtzman