When you think of traditional “Christmas music,” you probably think of something with (a) a lot of brass, and (b) a huge choir.
Claudio Monteverdi’s resplendent “Christmas Vespers” features both, in a wide variety of musical styles that, when combined, sound like a quintessential 17th-century Christmas. From celebration to solemnity and back again, these Vespers cover every base.
When Italian composer Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote them in the early 1600s, the Christmas Vespers — also known as the Vespers for the Blessed Virgin (“Vespro della Beata Vergine”) — were less about Christmas than they were about Monteverdi showing off his hand in writing different styles of church music.
He gratefully accepted a new job at St Mark’s in Venice soon after.
That the text and title feature the Christmas story is an added bonus — giving us an annual reason to dip our toes into this piece!
Whether you’re here for the stark beauty of a single voice singing plain chant, or for the glory of a full choir backed by an orchestra, the Vespers are for you.
Watch a performance led by John Elliot Gardiner at the sumptuous chapel at Versailles (video above), and listen to excerpts on our “Holiday Classical Mix” stream.
For more about this masterpiece and choosing a recording, see Lindsey Kemp’s review in Gramophone. Although from 2015, Kemp’s commentary provides a nuanced discussion of the context of the piece and a useful guide to choosing a recording.
For a more recent recording, try this recording of Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir; or, this one, produced by the BBC, which comes with a DVD.