Listening Recommendation | Harper's Magazine

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Listening Recommendation


Claudio Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine (The Vespers of 1610)

Friday afternoon, I went with a couple of friends to the monastery of San Marco in Florence, a magical site where art and religious introspection merge into one. It’s filled with magnificent frescos by Fra’ Angelico – especially his “Last Judgment.” Even the individual cells of the monks have murals, remarkably crisp and fresh. And there is a magnificent glazed ceramic by Andrea della Robbia off the courtyard. The peace of the vita contemplativa is all about this place; the change from the bustle, noise and gas exhaust of a late spring day to the introspective focus and quiet of San Marco is astonishing. A visit is food for the soul.

Quiet would no doubt be the rule, as it was for the severe Dominican monks who lived there. But walking the quadrangle at its core, music came into my head: it was Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.

I heard them for the first time more than twenty years ago, on a visit to the Northern Italian town of Bergamo, stepping into a church in which this amazing devotional music was being performed. In these vespers you hear the rise of a new era – the polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance merges suddenly into the rich instrumentalization of the Baroque – especially in the glorious brass bookends that open and close the vespers, but also in the entrancing setting of Psalm 121 (Laetatus sum), among other pieces.

These vespers are for the history of music what Fra’ Angelico’s works were for the history of art. Figures assumed plasticity, depth and color not known before; humanity is elevated, though in a strict context of divine worship. Human knowledge and art are making a great step forward.

Then one turns the corner to the cell of Giorlamo Savonarola, and remembers that even with these advances came bigotry, pig-headedness and religious prejudices – a step to the side, or even backwards. What America is experiencing today.

I have linked to the Boston Baroque’s performance, which is a sonic feast, easily the best I have ever heard. Though it’s hard to top the experience of hearing this work in its proper frame, a Romanesque or Renaissance church in Italy’s north – that’s a thing to plan and pray for.

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