Monteverdi's Christmas Vespers and its meaning today

Monteverdi's Christmas Vespers and its meaning today
The lullaby sung by young Mary to her son Jesus about the fate that awaits him brings to mind the mothers of Yemen, Syria and Palestine, who sing similar laments.
5 min read
03 January, 2019
Monteverdi's motet was a fitting prelude to the Pope's message on Christmas Day [Getty]
As epiphany and orthodox Christmas approach (January 6 and 7), I ponder the meaning of the season and the state of the world.

It was a season that began for me with a performance of Monteverdi's Christmas Vespers presented by Early Music Vancouver.

Everything old is new again it seems, and early music is now being enjoyed by many aficionados of new music, its polyphonies and strange dissonances resonating with a fresh generation.

But as I listened to the lush tones of Monteverdi's Vespers, its modernity and relevance became increasingly apparent.

The lullaby like motet canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna, a lament sung by young Mary to her infant son Jesus, about the fate that awaits him:

Close those divine eyes
As other babies do,
For soon a dark veil
Will shut out light in the sky
Ah my dear heart, ah my heart
Lulla, lullaby.

The Vespers' plaintive calls for peace, unity and joy – as with other seasonal liturgies and carols – seemed poignant in the face of so much that is contrary to the Christmas canon.

Monteverdi's motet was a fitting prelude to the Pope's message on Christmas Day, calling for the world to remember Yemen, Syria and Palestine, whose mothers sing similar laments on a daily basis

Monteverdi's motet was a fitting prelude to the Pope's message on Christmas Day, calling for the world to remember Yemen, Syria and Palestine, whose mothers sing similar laments on a daily basis.

This gracious face
Now ruddier than a rose
Will be spiled by spitting and blows
With torment and great sorrow.

And yet the dramas of the holy land are played out, not in grand concert halls but in theatres of war, and televisual operettas, where newscaster/priests offer Mcluhanesque communion for remote controlled masses.

At midnight mass, on Christmas Eve in my city, prayers for peace were said by well meaning Anglicans. But no one mentioned Bethlehem, the occupied birthplace of Christ. No one mentioned the war. As if there were no connection between liturgies and empires, amazing grace and arms sales, consumers and crusaders.

Why such a disconnect? I wondered, as I watched the Queen's Christmas message, RAF planes gleaming as they flew over peaceful English skies and the virtues of brotherhood extolled, as Yemeni children were murdered by British bombs.

The same question had been posed to me by the Chaldean patriarch in Baghdad, at the height of the late 90's no fly zone bombardment, who wryly noted that "when the (US and UK backed) bombs fall on Iraq, they do not distinguish between Christian and Muslim".

In many ways in Monteverdi's time, there were closer connections between "Muslim" and "Christian" worlds, especially in Venice (where he spent most of his career) a cosmopolitan commercial hub and meeting point for "East" and "West".

His opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda about a crusader knight who slays a masked "infidel" at the gates of Jerusalem, only to discover it is the woman he loves, Clorinda, a Saracen warrior maiden, speaks to the pyrrhic victories of war, but also to its collateral connections.

The early music instruments I watched onstage were testaments to that – the lutes and therobos inspired by exposure to the Arabic oud. And for centuries, European composers were influenced by the janissary music of Ottoman military bands, and some contend, by Mevlevi Sufi music. Even Musical scales and notation, say scholars like Rabah Saoud, were derived from Islamic civilisation.

It was the Crusaders who brought back many of the fruits and spices from the blood soaked holy land used in the Christmas cake that looms large in our childhood holiday memories.

Christmas is for children, after all, and the childlike hope of transformation of ourselves and our world by hope and prayer, by yearning for reward for our "goodness" delivered via seasonal incantations. It is about magical thinking.

The first Christmas I remember I was almost three. It was the last one before my father left and I remember it being full of spice and wine and enchantment. After he left, I became fearful that my mother would leave me too, so I developed a series of "magic words" I would have to tell her, before she left for work. One phrase was "don't forget to come and pick me up (from daycare)".

So we say the magic words, every Christmas, and sing songs of peace and brotherhood, even as the bombs fall, perhaps out of fear of abandonment by God or Santa Claus. Perhaps in a desperate hope of bridging the gap between the holiday ideal and its reality, in our own families and the family of man.

Any ritual that slows down our fight or flight instinct long enough to make us ponder our common humanity would seem a worthwhile moment of communion, and a relief from the tyranny of materialism and Facebook fuelled holiday frenzies.

At the Monteverdi Vespers, I observed that performing sacred music in a non-religious environment makes it all the more sacred.

My mind freed by the magnificent music, I concentrated on the words, the magic words whose incantations, one hopes with all one's childhood fervour, might still change things and offer protection.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.