Adriaen WILLAERT (c. 1490-1562). Vespro della Beata Vergine
Joris Verdin · Capilla Flamenca - English liner notes



When Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) published his famous Vespro della beata Vergine in Venice in 1610, there was no doubt that he had created a monument in sound, one that would astonish the listener with its ingenious combination of styles and sumptuous orchestration at the very least. Its roots, however, go back deep into the 16th century; Monteverdi was actually continuing a tradition that had been launched by none other than Adriaen Willaert (c. 1490-1562), with his Vespro della Madonna, part of his I sacri e santi salmi (Venice, 1555). This tradition is the inspiration for this recording, in which Capilla Flamenca has recreated a Venetian Vespers dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Vespers is one of the liturgical Hours or offices that are celebrated at defined moments of the day. In accordance with its Latin etymology (vespera meaning evening), Vespers were held between 5 and 6pm. In common with the other liturgical Hours, Vespers followed a strict formal pattern: the opening verse Deus in adiutorium was followed by five psalms, a reading of a lesson or capitulum, a hymn, a Magnificat with antiphon, prayers and the concluding Benedicamus Domino.

Such consistency in the liturgy had an important consequence for composers, as they were then required to distance themselves from the age-old Gregorian chants with their unison melodies. The composers’ skills were applied to the integration of these fixed requirements into a polyphonic frame and thus created the necessary variety of texture for the listener. Willaert found and perfected this balance in his compositions like no other composer of his time.

Five psalms, the Dixit Dominus (ps. 109), Laudate pueri (ps. 112), Laetatus sum (ps. 121), Nisi Dominus (ps. 126) and Lauda Jerusalem (ps. 147) lie at the heart of Vespers and therefore at the heart of this recording also. Thanks to Willaert, Vespers settings became much larger in scale: Willaert integrated polychoral techniques as practised in the Northern Italian cities of Treviso, Padua and Bergamo into the Vespers psalms. There were three different ways of performing these psalms in contemporary practice:

• The so-called alternatim technique, in which Gregorian chant and polyphony alternate with every verse, otherwise known as salmi senza risposte.
• An alternation between two groups in four parts — salmi con le sue risposte — in which one group is made up of solo voices and the other by several voices to each part. Each verse is an entity in itself and is separated by a caesura from the following entry.
• The salmi spezzati contain a short overlap between the verses, with one group singing its concluding cadence as the other group begins the following verse. The two groups only sing together from a certain point after the end of the Gospel reading, from the Sicut erat in principio onwards; the eight-part writing here used creates a clear feeling of climax.

The works recorded here are all to be found in the volume Di Adriano e di Iachet i salmi appartenenti alli Vesperi that was published by the printer Antonio Gardano in 1550 and are either salmi con le sue risposte or salmi spezzati. It is interesting to note the collaboration between Willaert and the French composer Jacques Colebault, better known as Jachet de Mantua (1483-1559) in the salmi con le sue risposte (Dixit Dominus, Laetatus sum and Nisi Dominus) that is also mentioned in the volume’s title, with Jacquet composing the primus chorus and Willaert the secundus chorus. They had collaborated on earlier occasions, with Jacquet de Mantua not only appearing in Willaert’s Hymnorum musica (see below) but also providing a composition in Willaert’s volume of motets for 6 parts that was published in Venice in 1542.

The majority of the psalms are conceived polyphonically with only sporadic use being made of homophonic passages. Other techniques are also used to create a sense of variety against the background of the Gregorian chant: Willaert writes a passage in ternary measure to the words "Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto" in Laetatus sum, whilst Jacquet expands his setting of the same words in Nisi Dominus to five parts and also incorporates a canon.

The performance of polychoral settings of the Vespers psalms in Venice in Willaert’s time was reserved for the most important moments of the Venetian liturgical calendar. The Basilica of St. Mark was after all the Doge’s private chapel, who naturally made use of it on important feast days to add to the glory of his position. Much has been written as to where the singers actually stood in the basilica, the current consensus of opinion being that the various groups of singers were placed in several locations. Recent research has revealed that they were also placed at the high altar as well as in the middle of the church, although the most frequently used positions were in the two raised hexagonal galleries known as the pulpitum magnum cantorum and the pulpitum novum lectionum. In Bartolomeo Bonifacio’s Ceremoniale (1564) we read that the singers were required to move over to the second gallery if the Doge had been installed in the first gallery. In contrast to what has often been thought, given the musical alternation between the choirs, a physical separation of the various groups was not strictly necessary; the alternating passages between the solo group and the choir automatically provided a differentiation in the acoustic.

Other works composed in honour of the Virgin Mary have been interspersed with the five Vespers psalms on this recording. After the introductory Deus in adiutorium, sung in a sober faux-bourdon style, we hear the seven-part motet Benedicta es coelorum Regina from Willaert’s Musica Nova (Venice, 1559). This monumental volume is made up of motets and madrigals for four to seven parts and can without any exaggeration be described as Willaert’s magnum opus. The majority of the works that it contains were composed around the 1540s and were available only to a small group of connoisseurs. Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, to whom the volume had been dedicated, finally decided to have the volume printed and thus made it accessible to a wider audience. The greater part of the works in the Musica Nova are characterised by an extremely dense texture that at first listening creates a somewhat hermetic impression; it is mostly only after repeated listening that these works reveal their true riches. This is particularly true for the seven-part Benedicta es coelorum Regina, concealing as it does a three-part canon. Clear cadences that separate the verses from each other are few in number, giving the impression that the work is one unbroken flow of sound that comes to rest only at its very end.

After the five Vespers psalms we hear the hymn Ave maris stella in a version from Willaert’s Hymnorum musica (Venice, 1542). As is the case with most of these hymn settings, verses in Gregorian chant alternate with verses set polyphonically. The Gregorian origins of the polyphonic writing remain nonetheless clearly audible, as we can hear in the first verse: the familiar hymn melody is heard in the upper voice in augmentation. The number of parts used varies by the verse: after sections in three and four parts the number of voices grows to five for "Virgo singularis" and to six for the concluding "Sit laus Deo Patri". Willaert continues the tradition of the alternatim technique in the Magnificat that now follows. The Gregorian melody is presented in the tenor line and is also often echoed in the other voices, which make much imitative play with it.

In contrast to Monteverdi’s setting of the Vespro della beata Vergine, an extensive collection of instruments was not used during the middle of the 16th century. The organ was certainly employed, but did not accompany the choirs, who most probably sang a cappella. This tradition is respected in this recording. The organ is here used for the performance of works by Willaert and his colleague Annibale Padovano. Annibale Padovano (1527-1575) was organist of the Basilica of St. Mark and so would have worked closely with Willaert before his departure for the court of Archduke Charles II in Graz in 1565. Both men were prominent in the development of instrumental music. Padovano’s toccatas are to be found in the posthumous volume entitled Toccate et ricercari d’organo (Venice, 1604). Works by Willaert include three and four-part works from two important volumes. The ricercari from his Musica Nova (Venice, 1540) — not to be confused with the above-mentioned eponymous collection of motets and madrigals dated 1559 — and the Fantasie ricercari contrapunti (Venice, 1559) are highly imitative in character; their polyphonic texture makes them seem vocal in style in general and in motet style in particular.