Monteverdi’s Selva Morale e Spirituale is without doubt a very complex body of works to approach, understand, and perform. Published in 1640 in Venice, it is a great collection of sacred music which was not intended to be performed from top to bottom, but to be used in sections in church services. It contains many different genres, from a complete mass for four voices, different motets and psalms, to five madrigals (the ‘moral’ works of the collection) which begin the first of three volumes.

Frontispiece: first edition of <i>Selva Morale e Spirituale</i> © IMLSP: Public domain
Frontispiece: first edition of Selva Morale e Spirituale
© IMLSP: Public domain

Claudio Monteverdi had been appointed maestro di cappella of San Marco, Venice, in 1613, and remained in this job until his death in 1643. Before arriving in Venice, he had served the Gonzaga court in Mantua, writing many works for them including his famous L’Orfeo, his Eighth Book of Madrigals, or his first collection of sacred music, the 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine. Although he was no longer serving the Gonzaga family at the time of the publication of Selva Morale e Spirituale, he did not forget his previous patrons and dedicated the collection to Eleonora Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Mantua, Vicenzo Gonzaga. Thus, the Lombardy city would always be present in his life and works.

The collection is usually organized into five different sections: the first includes the five madrigals and spiritual canzonettas mentioned above, with text by the Rennaissance poet Francesco Petrarca; the second contains music for mass, with the complete Messa da capella a quatro voci; the third is an large collection of psalms for vespers, linked to the fourth which contains canticles and hymns for the same vespers. The fifth section is most varied, with a motet, a psalm for voice and accompaniment.

Claudio Monteverdi - Engraved portrait from <i>fiori poetici</i>, 1644 © Wikimedia Commons: public domain
Claudio Monteverdi - Engraved portrait from fiori poetici, 1644
© Wikimedia Commons: public domain

One can observe many styles of polyphonic treatment across the whole work, from the prima prattica, or old practice, where authors such as Monteverdi had to follow strict rules when writing for different voices, to the seconda prattica, where the words are more important than the music, thus the music has to be in service to them. With this seconda prattica we can find very chromatic and dissonant passages, such as in Salve Regina, in which Monteverdi wanted to paint the music with the meaning of the words and transmit the affect of each moment.

Monteverdi managed to include elements of secular music, such as the use of the same bass line and violin parts in Beatus vir as in the madrigal Chiome d’oro from his Seventh Book of Madrigals, published some years before. He even included a sacred version of the famous Lamento d’Arianna, the outstanding Pianto della Madonna.

Because of the complexity of the work, not many ensembles have made recordings of the work. It has only been in the new century when groups such as Cantus Cölln or The Sixteen have approached the work. Some groups such as La Venexiana include Gregorian chant in an amazing 3 CD version published by Glossa.

Monteverdi had established himself as the most important chamber music and opera composer in 17th century Venice. This publication gave him the status of the most recognized sacred music composer, and shows us, one more time, the genious of the composer born in Cremona in putting into music some of the deepest human emotions, and moving swiftly from the secular to the sacred field of music.