MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 1

(This is the eighteenth part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 2, part 14 (conclusion of Chapter 2)

Chapter 3

Monteverdi’s use of the cornett in his 1610 vespers collection

Title page of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers

Title page of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers

There are eight places in the fully concerted version of Monteverdi’s vespers music of 1610 which call for cornett: the respond Domine ad adiuvandum, the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, and six of the twelve sections of the Magnificat. Each piece of the collection represents a particularly fine example of an early seventeenth-century genre of music, and the pieces scored for cornett are no exception. As Jeffrey G. Kurtzman explains, the Vespers of 1610 “are on an unparalled level of musical splendor in the exploitation of vocal and instrumental colors and virtuosity, in the complexity of structures and textures, in the variety of styles and techniques, and in the magnitude of individual pieces.”[1] This chapter will explore the symbolic use of the cornett in the Domine, the Sonata, and the Deposuit potentes de sede from the Magnificat. It will be seen that, although Monteverdi’s symbolic use of the cornett in the Vespers of 1610 follows many traditional themes, he also uses the cornett in a much more personal way than was evident in his Orfeo.

Domine ad adiuvandum

Scored for six voices intoning the chant in a falsobordone style, together with six instrumental parts (cornetts play the top three lines) stylized as a faux trumpet fanfare, the opening respond Domine ad adiuvandum is the first piece of Monteverdi’s vespers. [2] The instrumental consort functions in two musical ways: to provide ritornelli (not in a trumpet fanfare style) that separate the vocal material into three parts, and to provide this fanfare-like material, which frames the simple and stark choral material while it is being sung.

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Example 1. Domine ad adiuvandum (opening excerpt, instrumental parts only)

As has been noted previously by many authors, the fanfare-like figure that the cornetts and violins play at the beginning of Domine ad adiuvandum is an elaboration upon the trumpet fanfare that Monteverdi used in the Toccata at the beginning of his Orfeo. John Whenham describes the Orfeo Toccata in the following way:

Its musical material consists of a drone for the two lowest parts, above which three instruments (or groups of instruments) play a series of flourishes which may be derived from authentic military signals. The Toccata functions as a call-to-attention, a sign to members of the audience that the opera is about to begin and that they should take their places. The trumpets of the instrumental ensemble are to be muted. This has the effect of raising their pitch by a whole tone, and the tonality of the Toccata from written C to sounding D, the tonality of the prologue.[3]

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Example 2. Toccata from Orfeo (opening excerpt). From Claudio Monteverdi, L’Orfeo, score, ed. Edward H. Tarr (Paris: Editions Costallat, 1974). Original written in C, but here written in D to indicate the fact that the mutes transpose the trumpets up to the sounding pitch of D.


Monteverdi’s cornettists for the vespers in all probability had already played this fanfare in the 1607 production of Orfeo.[4] There is at least one other record of a trumpet fanfare introducing a Mantuan musical production. John Whenham explains that “a similar instrumental introduction was used (and thought of as ‘usual’) in the performance of Guarini’s Idropica at Mantua in 1608: ‘The torches being lit in the theatre, the usual sign of the sound of trumpets was given within the stage; and as the trumpets began to sound a third time the great curtain which masked the stage disappeared.’”[5] Just how frequently this fanfare was played for public functions in Mantua is not known, but the idea, advanced by some writers, that the Orfeo Toccata was the politically-identifying fanfare for the ducal crown of Mantua is, in my opinion, a plausible theory.

Graham Dixon advances this notion, in part based upon a theory of his that the 1610 Vespers were not Marian, but were written for Saint Barbara:

     The shared opening section of Orfeo and the 1610 Vespers now takes on a new significance. The scoring of the toccata in Orfeo for “Un Clarino con tre trombe sordine” strongly suggests that this piece must have had a particular ceremonial role in the context of the Mantuan court. The designations “clarino” and “trombe” are only exceptionally found in art music of this period, and the use of mutes suggests that these are outdoor instruments being allowed inside for a particular purpose. Monteverdi is unlikely to have taken a piece with a particular political connotation for the Gonzaga, and used it in a seemingly haphazard way outside court. It was not necessary for Monteverdi to supply music at all for this simple response, let alone such imposing music; no other setting of this text exists which even approaches Monteverdi’s in the scale of its conception. No day would have been more appropriate than that of Santa Barbara on which to emphasize the connections between the temporal and spiritual roles of the Renaissance prince, whose presence at Vespers was acknowledged as it had been in Orfeo.[6]


Vincenzo Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua and Montferrat from 1587 to 1612

Vincenzo Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua and Montferrat from 1587 to 1612

In this light, the cornett fanfare at the beginning of the 1610 Vespers is an acknowledgement of the patronage of the Gonzagas. The cornett assumes the symbolic role of the trumpet, not only because the thematic material played by the cornetts in the opening respond of the 1610 Vespers is nearly the same as the Orfeo trumpet Toccata (and, as a matter of fact, similar to many other trumpet fanfares of the time), but also because the cornett produces a lip-generated, trumpet-like tone quality.[7]  To Monteverdi, the cornett substitutes for the trumpet and, by transference, becomes a symbol of the political power and munificence of the Gonzaga family.

(Next: the cornett in Domine as a Substitute for the Trumpet)

[1]. Jeffrey G. Kurtzman, “Essays on the Monteverdi Mass and Vespers of 1610,” Rice University Studies, vol. 64, no. 4 (Houston: William March Rice University, 1978), 132.

[2]. In “The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 and Their Relationship with Italian Sacred Music of the Early Seventeenth Century,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1972), 24, Jeffrey Kurtzman emphasizes the importance of the simple chordal style called falsobordone, a four-voiced style popular for setting Psalm texts with the newer generation of native Italian composers, who were replacing the Franco-Flemish composers in important court and church positions in northern Italy by the end of the sixteenth century.

[3]. Whenham, “Five Acts: One Action,” 48.

[4].  It is important to remember that Monteverdi’s rubrics indicate that all the instrumentalists played the Toccata (including cornettists): “che si suona avanti il levar de la tela tre volte con tutti li stromenti, & si fa un Tuono piu alto volendo sonar le trombe con le sordine” ([The Toccata] is played three times by all the instruments before raising the curtain, and it is played a tone higher on account of the trumpets with mutes).  Italian quoted from Jane Glover, “A List of Monteverdi’s Instrumental Specifications,” in Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo, ed. John Whenham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 182. I am presuming that Monteverdi’s life-long friend, cornettist Giulio Cesare Bianchi (b. Cremona 1576 or 1577, d. ? Cremona in or after 1637), probably played in both Orfeo and the vespers of 1610, since he was the head of the wind ensemble at the Mantuan court from 1602 to 1612.

[5]. Whenham, “Five Acts: One Action,” 48.

[6]. Graham Dixon, “Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610: ‘Della Beata Vergine’?” Early Music 15 (August 1987): 387. Dixon posits that Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 were written for the feast of Santa Barbara between 1607 and 1609. Saint Barbara, being the patron saint of the ducal basilica of Mantua, was, by transference, a symbol of the ducal crown. Thus, a fanfare identified with the Gonzaga was appropriate also for Saint Barbara.

[7]. According to “Praetorius on Performance: Excerpts from Syntagma Musicum III,” trans. Hans Lampl and ed. S. E. Plank, Historic Brass Society Journal 6 (1994): 258, Michael Praetorius writes in his Syntagma Musicum III, which addresses the performance practice of concerted works (especially in the Italian style), “If one cannot, will not, or must not use the trumpeters . . . these compositions can nevertheless be performed quite well in town churches without trumpeters. . . . If other instrumentalists are available, however, all of this may be played on Geigen, cornetts, and trombones.” Note that Praetorius does not write “Geigen, cornetts, or trombones.” Thus, a reasonable interpretation of this instruction might be that the trumpet consort, when not available, may be replaced by the following group: strings, cornetts and trombones. And this is, indeed, what Monteverdi has done in his re-writing of his Orfeo Toccata.

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