Although it is unclear why Monteverdi composed Vespers of 1610, one theory is that it was intended as an audition piece for musicians in Venice and Rome. Interestingly, it is Monteverdi's first sacred work. Regardless, the piece is very unique in several ways, which causes it to stand out in history. First, it is monumental in scale, for the time, requiring as many as ten choral parts, seven voice solos, and baroque orchestra. Secondly, Monteverdi did not include a set of plainchant antiphons to insert before each psalm, and there are two versions of the "Magnificat," allowing for each performance to be customized by its performers.
Click here to view a full score of "Ave Maris Stella"
Immediately, the inclusion of basso continuo localizes this piece to the baroqe. In the first stanza, Monteverdi uses a very forward-thinking hymn style of writing. In many ways, the two phrases are mostly contropuntal homophony, but where polyphony sneaks in, it quickly sneaks back out. The exception would be the moving lines that, because of their harmonic functionality, feel more like a Bach chorale than something earlier, such as organum. Harmonic motion in fourths seems to drive the piece toward cadential moments.
In stanzas two and three, Monteverdi shifts to a triple meter, and a clear ritornello is written between the orchestra and chorale. Interestingly, melodic material in the Soprano is in diminution of the first stanza, creating the feeling of a cantus firmus. Stanzas four and five continue this trend with a Soprano soloist, and stanza six with a Bass soloist.
The final stanza then returns to the choral material in stanza one in its duple meter and is finalized with a nice, extended Plagal cadence.
Compared with Cruda Amarilli by Monteverdi, this piece has the consistency of following Monteverdi's seconda prattica, by allowing the text to remain dominant to the music. Although, dissonances are created in Vespers, they do not have the same intensity, which I believe is merely due to the fact that the text of "Ave Maris Stella" does not call for it. Also, the interest in text in Cruda Amarilli is focused on created an affect rather than clarifying its meaning for liturgical purposes, as is the case with "Ave Maris Stella".
Another similarity is the texture of the two pieces. The rhythms of both are simple and in a steady tempo that is driven harmonically. The relationship of the voices, however, is a bit different in each example. In "Ave Maris Stella," Monteverdi clearly writes the melody in the Soprano voice revealing it as the most important. Contrastingly, Monteverdi treats all voices equally, more or less, in Cruda Amarilli.
For more information, see Adam Ford's article on Monteverdi- Cruda Amarilli.
I chose this piece to hang on to choral music as long as possible. I was surprised to find out in my research that, in general, this piece draw much inspiration from earlier traditions than Baroque. I did not realize that Monteverdi basically went through a reflective stage in his writing of sacred music.
Bonds, Mark Evans. A History of Music in Western Culture. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2013.
Carter, Tim and Chew, Geoffrey. "Monteverdi, Claudio." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 25, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/44352pg8.
Fenlon, Iain. "The Monteverdi Vespers: Suggested Answers to Some Fundamental Questions." Early Music. no. 3 (1977): 380-387. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3126093 (accessed February 24, 2014).