On 24 June, the feast of St John the Baptist, I was taken to Vespers in the church of SS Giovanni and Lucia where I heard the most perfect music I had ever heard in my life. It was directed by the most famous Claudio Monteverdi, maestro di cappella of S. Marco, who was also the composer and was on this occasion accompanied by four theorbos, two cornettos, two bassoons, one basso di viola of huge size, organs and other instruments all equally well handled, not to speak of ten or twelve voices. I was delighted with it.
(constantijn huygens, 1620)
A competent and credible performance, good enough that the audience could experience the work. The instrumental forces approximated an authentic ensemble. True, the bowed strings were all modern, except for a viol da gamba [sic] played beautifully by a woman unnamed in the program. But there were theorbos, a portatif organ, harpsichord and, most interestingly, three cornettos. The cornetto was on the verge of obsolescence even in Monteverdi’s time. It looks like a warped oboe without any keys, but it is played with puckered lips, like a trumpet. In fact, it sounds a lot like a thin-voiced trumpet.When used in ensemble with the trombones Wednesday, it produced a beautiful, archaic sound . . . there were seven solo singers, some of whom specialize in early music, and all of whom had the technique and stylistic knowledge to sing Monteverdi convincingly . . . All in all, a fitting season opening for the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
(richardt odd, 1998)
In these two reports of performances of Vespers music by Monteverdi, separated by more than 350 years, there are striking resemblances between the things that each writer chose to mention and those they did not. Both are fascinated by the performing forces, singling out certain instruments for particular comment – names, numbers and unusual, even exotic, features. Each mentions the singers as well, but generically, not as individuals. There are hints at the skills of the musicians but neither writer chooses to focus on the music he heard in terms either of its content, structure, meaning or genre (sacred music), nor its relationship to the event at which it was heard – in the first case as part of a service in a church and in the second, a performance in a concert hall. Instead, they both engage with Monteverdi's music as something that happens, a visual as well as an aural experience for an audience focused on the performers, rather than with the music as ‘composition’ or sound object.