About the Mass

Monteverdi's Messa da Capella appears in a posthumous collection (1650) of earlier Venetian sacred music. The composer's Selva Morale (1641) had been a collection of his latest sacred pieces in the most up-to-date styles, but the 1650 collection seems to have reached back for earlier, more contrapuntal music.

"The term 'da capella' distinguishes a style in which voices and instruments play the same parts, in contrast with 'concertato' in which instruments play parts distinct from those of the voices (as in the 1610 Vespers)," Dr. Mahrt explains, "It does not, however, specify whether instruments are to be used (doubling the voice parts), and so we will sing it unaccompanied, allowing the contrapuntal features to be heard more clearly.

"In this piece Monteverdi juxtaposes two distinct musical styles: thoroughgoing counterpoint and text-based homophony. The contrapuntal sections are intensely so, involving thoroughgoing imitation in the manner of a fugue. The text-based sections sensitively set the rhythm of the words, sometimes in an almost dance-like style. The text-based style is strikingly affective, and represents the new Baroque approach to the Mass text — still seen in the Masses of Mozart — with the Christe, Qui tollis, and Benedictus now serving as the focal points of expressive setting.

"Monteverdi would have called this contrapuntal style 'prima prattica' or Renaissance style, but he now handles it in a Baroque way, since it is founded upon a descending tetrachord (G-F-E-D), giving the texture the impression of being based upon a ground bass. This affective style is clearly Baroque, stressing the rhythm of the words and alluding to dance rhythms. Thus — underneath the skin of what appears to be an old-style Mass — is a juncture of Renaissance and Baroque that is at once contemplative and dramatic," Dr. Mahrt says.