Nicola Porpora: Vespers for the Feast of the Assumption

A Reconstruction of the 1744 Service at the Ospedaletto in Venice
Edited by Kurt Markstrom
Collegium Musicum Yale University. Second Series: Volume 21. Y2-021
Full Score (2015), A-R Editions. xxiv + 300 pp.
ISBN 978-0-89579-818-3

This massive volume contains Kurt Markstrom’s conjectural reconstruction of a Vespers service for the Feast of the Assumption – one of the major celebrations of the famous Ospedaletto, where he was maestro di coro – and contains all of the required elements: five psalms, a Magnificat and two settings of the appropriate Marian antiphon “Salve regina”, as well as plainsong versions of “Deus in adiutorium”, the hymn (“Ave maris stella”) and all the psalm antiphons. In keeping with the Venetian theme, the choral music is scored for divided sopranos and altos with strings and continuo. Three of the movements are not dated 1744 – “Laudate pueri” is from the next year and in the same style so makes an ideal match; the settings of “Dixit Dominus” and the Magnificat, however, exist as sets of parts in Naples (the other material is all in the British Library in London) and scored for standard SATB choir. To make them match, Markstrom has simply transposed the male parts up an octave (taking his lead from indications in another Porpora autograph score where the reverse process is indicated) This is all very well, but in his thorough notes, he himself concedes that they are conceived in a slightly different style. More of an issue for me – although the editor does not share my concerns – are the contrasts in key centre; the sequence runs (all major keys) F, A, A, D, D, B flat, or four sharp keys framed by two flat ones.

A further issue for me is that fact that for the two framing movements, Markstrom prints two separate bass parts. More than once, he says this is because the organ part has figures, and that he wants to be able to show where the keyboard and string parts are at variance. One of his examples is the beginning of movement 11 of “Dixit Dominus”. Since it is impossible to say what actually was in the cello and “contrabassusse” parts, it is difficult to be critical but the whole thing is something of an academic exercise anyway – surely, given that the “soprano 2” part is actually the original tenor part transposed up an octave, the continuo part ought to have been altered, too, so the lower part of the “divisi celli” (what?!) should actually be the upper; what the score currently suggests is that the alto 1 part (doubled by violin 2) is in counterpoint with a second voice heard in octaves! It’s called invertible counterpoint for a reason.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a magnificent achievement. Porpora’s music deserves to be better known. This fine edition inspired Martin Gester to perform the Vespers at the Ambronay Festival to great public acclaim, and one hopes that performance materials (choral scores and instrumental parts) being available on request from the publisher will encourage others to seek it out. There is something wonderful about close-harmony female voices doubled at “the real pitch” by instruments that gives this already beautiful music a magical lift.

Brian Clark