Slightly Drawn-Out Documentary on the Creation of a Great Choral Masterpiece
To mark the creation of Monteverdi's VESPERS, a great choral work of 1610, the BBC sent actor Simon Russell Beale to Mantua, Cremona and other medieval Italian cities to investigate the composer's life. With the help of chorus-master Harry Christophers and his group The Sixteen performing extracts from the work, we learned a lot about the difficult life of a composer in Italian society at that time.
Monteverdi spent much of his early life in the employ of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, who was not only highly extravagant but enjoyed having pieces of music composed for him. An eccentric personality at best, he paid Monteverdi a pittance while expecting the maximum of creative endeavor from the composer. While Monteverdi frequently complained about his state of servitude, he could not escape the Duke's employ until the Duke had passed away, and his son Francesco decided that he - the Duke - has no further use for Monteverdi's services.
Monteverdi moved to Venice, where he became Master of Music at St. Mark's Cathedral, a job he held for thirty years. He died after a return visit to Mantua aged seventy-six.
The live performances of his VESPERS proved beyond doubt his genius as a musician. He was one of the originators of a musical style that would eventually mutate into opera - both ORFEO and the VESPERS contains dramatic as well as choral elements. Russell Beale proved an entertaining guide - as a musician himself, he well understood what Monteverdi was trying to do.
Yet there was a sense in which this documentary had been stretched out to fill the one-hour slot. There were plenty of musical performances, but the interviews with some of the musicians and singers involved in those performances proved somewhat spurious. Viewers get rather tired of hearing how "great" or how "difficult" individual works are to perform. It is up to the performers to negotiate such difficulties and communicate the beauties of the music to listeners or viewers.
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