Although Monteverdi is best known for his innovations as a composer of madrigals and operas, the church positions he held, first at Mantua, then at the musically famous Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, provided ample opportunities to establish his skill as a composer of sacred works. A large portion of Monteverdi's church music from Mantua survives in a large collection from 1610, and his years in Venice must have produced an even larger body of sacred music. As large as they are, the two compilations of Venetian works -- the Selve Morale e Spirituale, printed in 1640 under the composer's supervision, and a 1651 publication released posthumously -- stand only as samples of numerous works. As evidenced by the Selve Morale e Spirituale, his output in the idiom covers a broad range of chronological styles, and his more modern sacred pieces often reflect the compositional practices being developed in his secular works. A series of disagreements with his Mantuan employer, Duke Gonzaga, had led the composer to seek work elsewhere, and in 1613 he was appointed maestro di cappella at St. Mark. His charge was to reestablish the legendary artistic reputation that St. Mark had earned in the sixteenth century under the direction of "Messer Adrian, Messer Ciprian, e'l Reverendissimo Padre Isepo" (Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, and Isepo Zarlino). He ordered new music to be printed, hired instrumentalists to play regularly for certain feasts, and sought new singers, particularly castrati, to augment the cappella's ensemble. Traditionally, St. Mark observed its own unique rites and followed a liturgical year that honored numerous saints of particular importance to Venice. What the Selve Morale e Spirituale appears to be, then, is a collection of works in a wide variety of styles, representing Monteverdi's output of Venetian sacred music, from which various combinations of individual pieces may be extracted and fashioned into the appropriate and liturgically complete services for various occasions. (The pieces happen to be arranged within the collection to provide a complete Vespers sequence, though they may or may not have ever actually been performed in this combination.) Within the collection, one finds older musical styles widely dispersed among more modern pieces: sacred madrigals, a Marian lament, and psalm settings in the stile concertato are found side-by-side with a rather antique mass and several salmi spezzati -- a rather simple and old-fashioned kind of psalm setting using two choirs. The compositional styles demonstrated by Monteverdi in his secular works occasionally find their way into his sacred pieces. The Salve Regina is full of quasi-madrigalistic text expression, with carefully crafted dissonances and chromaticisms highlighting the most poignant images in the text. The Magnificat calls for eight vocal lines and two instrumental obbligati, and features at its focal point a collections of duets separated by a stile concertato ritornello. The music for Beatus vir is in fact recycled from Chiome d'oro, a madrigal from Monteverdi's Seventh Book of Madrigals. Thus in borrowing from and expanding upon the stylistic innovations of his secular works, Monteverdi brought into his church music a new depth of expressive possibilities.
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Description by Jeremy Grimshaw