article 39: The Lost Screed

My old esteemed friend John Koster noticed one of my typical blanket statements the other day. While raving against obtrusive continuo playing I stated that all sources mandate weak organ registrations, even though I knew better. Prof. Koster perspicatiously pointed to Monteverdi’s explicit registrations for the smaller, 6-part Magnificat for choir and organ in the Sanctissimae Virgini Versperae of 1610. Performances of the whole cycle – which are, by the way, nonsensical; the pieces are meant to provide a selection for any particular day – always use the far more impressive 7-part work with orchestra.

I had always considered the smaller of the two a unique exception that proved the rule. I saw the organ part as a kind of “piano score”, taking the place of an orchestra. Its amazingly varied and fast-changing registrations include 4’ and 2’ principals, as well as the vibrating vox humana or fifara and the mechanical tremulare. I considered writing a small piece on the subject, but thought it might be wise to check the original Bassus generalis, the continuo part for the whole book, including the preceding “Gombert Mass” In illo tempore, the master’s nod to the prima prattica.

Imagine my shock when I found similar registrations in the Big Mag! The organo pieno – i.e., the full chorus of principals – is even prescribed for the closing Sicut erat. I was flummoxed, if that’s the word I’m looking for. John also sent an article on the subject of these registrations by the late L. F. Tagliavini (Rivista Italiana di Musicologia, Vol. 2, Nr. 2), which included a couple of extracts from prefaces of the era advising organists to avoid adding registers.

The only explanation I have for this anomaly is Monteverdi’s extreme penchant for varied instrumental color, as evidenced, for example, by the score for L’Orfeo. That courtly Renaissance intermedio has been taken as an example for later commercial Venetian operas and their economical scorings, with incalculably disastrous consequences. Poppea, Ulisse and works by contemporaries and followers of Monteverdi have been encumbered by “orchestrations,” most notably those by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, which have perverted public taste beyond redemption. Back in 1973 I asked Gustav Leonhardt what he thought of the practice. He averted his face and hissed, “Vrezelijk...” – horrible. That he would break an iron rule (“never criticize a colleague”) showed the depth of his revulsion. When I conducted Ulisse for the first time in Amsterdam in 1990, Harnoncourt himself asked me if I “had found a religion?” – which showed how stung he was by the controversy. I dodged the question. The perversions by René Jacobs have since become referential, and massed continuo groups provide employment for itinerant musicians.

Similarities between the two 1610 Magnificats raise the question: was the 7-part version a complete rethinking of the older one with organ accompaniment alone? Did Monteverdi more or less reflexively include similar registrations? (The reader will have noted that I am squirming to explain something I dislike, and that I mourn the stillborn article: “The first Klavierauszug”.)

One additional note regarding what the Germans refer to as the Marienvesper. John Koster kindly sent me an excellent online score. The Bassus generalis adds vocal lines in the more complicated solos and duets as an aid to following, which would be nearly impossible without them. (In the past, as noted by Tagliavini, these had absurdly been classed as organ obbligati.) In the splendid tenor solo concerto Pulchra es, the organ part shows a vastly different version from the Sextus, the part for the singer. The latter has very long pauses for continuo solos. The Bassus generalis not only adds ornamentation, but fills up almost all of the pauses with extra music for the soloist, repeating passages of the text. This the version that is always used. I think it can only be a second thought on Monteverdi’s part, resolved upon after he heard his organist at Santa Barbara in Mantua make a hash of the long continuo solos.

August 31, 2021

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