The joy of old music

Mention music to a group of people born in this century or the late 20th and chances are, you won’t hear the name of Claudio Monteverdi. Tastes do change with time, and quite a lot of time has elapsed since Claudio was composing his latest hits, yet much of what he wrote is still around today.

Monteverdi first drew breath in 1567 Cremona, Italy, son of a barber-surgeon and chemist, according to Brittanica. He lived for 76 years, during which period he wrote lots of music, mostly madrigals and church music. He was brilliant and talented. As a teenager, he produced several books of both secular and sacred music. He’s probably best known to music scholars as the most important developer of the opera, which was new in his lifetime.

Monteverdi was 46 when he accepted an invitation to become maestro di cappella, or director of music at St. Mark’s in Venice. Brittanica: “Although Monteverdi had not been primarily a church musician, he took his duties extremely seriously and within a few years completely revitalized the music in the basilica. He hired new assistants . . . wrote much church music, and insisted on daily choral services.”

Oh, he wrote “much church music,” all right. Advanced choirs of today sing some of his best, including his towering vespers, and his masses and motets. A chamber choir in which I sing is just now rehearsing the Sanctus movement from his Messa a Quattro Voci da Cappella (Mass for Four Voices). We are scheduled to sing it in worship on Sunday, October 28.

Singers will attest to the challenges of doing justice to this master’s outstanding work, but what a joyful experience. Think of it, we’re singing music written 368 years ago, text older than that. The Sanctus’ text translates to “Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth (hosts of heaven). Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.” People of faith still praise their maker with these words today, just as they did centuries ago.

Some things never grow old. I’m thankful for that and for Monteverdi’s rich contributions to the lives of millions, then and now.


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