The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, August 31, 2004


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The BBC Proms season has almost completely passed me by this year. When I was a teenager, and used to come with a friend of mine and get drunk listening to Messiaen, sitting in the balcony for 3 quid, it seemed like the world's greatest music festival, and that it was a pleasure to live within easy travelling distance of it. But since I moved back to London 5 years ago, I've steadily gone to fewer and fewer Proms each year, until this year I'm barely going to one - and that's tonight. I've loved Monteverdi's Vespers for years. One of the most moving holidays I've had with milady was to Venice - for me this was a pilgrimage to San Marco to see where, as far as I'm concerned, modern music history was born. There can't be a single building on earth responsible for so much. The architecture of San Marco, full of balconies, side chapels and alcoves encouraged several generations of composers to introduce antiphonal effects into their music, setting groups against one another, creating tension and drama through the opposition of ensembles. A few decades down the line and the concerto, one of the central forms of Western art music was born. Without San Marco, you might say, we wouldn't have many of the best works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bartók or Stravinsky.

OK, that's drastically over-simplifying the point, but there are still very few occasions when you can (even naively) trace the origin of an art form to a single place, and that makes it special.

Monteverdi's Vespers, while not composed in Venice, were written largely with San Marco in mind. Monteverdi was after the job of capellmeister at San Marco - possibly the most prestigious musical post in Italy - and Vespers was his job application. Unsurprisingly it did the trick.

Tonight's concert is going to be a little odd for me - I can't remember the last time I went to a concert of non-contemporary music; still less a concert of early 17th-century music. Still, the Vespers are audacious in places (the opening chorus is simply chanted on a monochord, almost like Xenakis, or Glass), and Monteverdi's film-cut structures can sound Stravinsky-like, so I won't feel too lost.

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