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Divine Theatre: Giaches de Wert

Giaches de Wert is famous for his madrigals and his influence on Claudio Monteverdi is often stated. But Wert also composed a significant body of church music.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633.

Photo: Gardner Museum

Rembrandt: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633.

From Flanders to Italy

Born in 1535, the Flemish composer Giaches de Wert was sent to Italy as a child, and never looked back.  Probably around the age of eight, Wert became a singer in the household of Maria di Cardona, Marchesa of Padulla near Naples. In about 1550, he moved to Novellara in the service of the Gonzagas, then on to Mantua and Ferrara, and soon, Milan where he worked at the governor’s court.

By 1565, Wert had married and had a growing family—at least six children that we know of. He settled back in Mantua with his family serving as the Maestro di Cappella at the Duke’s newly built chapel of Santa Barbara.  Despite a rocky start with a jealous rival, and his own wife’s scandalous affair with said rival, Wert kept the appointment and lived in Mantua for the rest of his life.

Madrigals and Motets

Giaches de Wert is famous for his madrigals. His influence on the madrigals of the younger Mantuan court musician, Claudio Monteverdi, is often stated. But Wert also composed a significant body of church music. While much of Wert’s sacred music was written for exclusive use at Santa Barbara and remains in manuscript, three volumes of motets published in 1566 and 1581 had wider provenance.

A new recording from the ensemble, Stile Antico, called Divine Theatre presents some of Wert’s sacred music from his second and third motet collections.

Vox in Rama is perhaps Wert’s most well-known sacred work. Its musical depiction of the text is stunning, with rich, falling chromatic lines: “A voice is heard in Ramah of weeping and great lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she will not be comforted because they are no more.”

Contrast this sorrow with the opening track on Stile Antico’s recording that nearly jumps for joy: Gaudete in Domino semper: Rejoice in the Lord always.

New Testament Narratives

There is much with which to compare Wert in the music of his near contemporary, Orlando di Lasso, or the slightly earlier, Cipriano di Rore. But one unusual aspect of Wert’s motets is his use of New Testament narratives rather than more traditional liturgical sources.  These epistle or gospel texts would normally have been read or intoned in a service rather than set to music polyphonically. However, Santa Barbara is known to have had a more liberal service—the Duke perhaps held some sway with the Vatican for this special dispensation. Whatever the reason, Wert enjoyed the musical freedom. A composer who excelled at word painting, the New Testament narrative texts allowed Wert’s dramatic style to come to the fore. The Roman road on which Paul had his dramatic conversion experience, the Canaanite woman with a demon possessed daughter, a near shipwrecked boat and a Savior speaking calm to some serious weather are all texts rife with possibility for musical storytelling at its best.

Ascendente Jesu

This last story is depicted in Wert’s Ascendente Jesu: The rising opening motive reflects Jesus climbing up into the boat with his disciples. When a storm gathers, wind and waves toss the boat in the water, and Wert’s rhythms become syncopated and rocky. The disciples are anxious, but Jesus is fast asleep depicted by Wert’s sudden moment of still homophony. Soon, the disciples wake Jesus up from his nap: “save us!” They say.  “We will perish!” Jesus rebukes the storm, and calm waters return reflected in Wert’s tranquil conclusion.

Stile Antico

Stile Antico does justice to Wert’s expressive and pictorial writing throughout the whole of their program. Founded in 2001, this is the eleventh recording of the twelve voiced conductorless ensemble.

Tr. 4, Vox in Rama audita est; Tr. 1, Gaudete in Domino; Tr. 9, Ascendente Jesu in naviculam
Stile Antico — Divine Theatre - Sacred Motets by Giaches de Wert (Harmonia Mundi, 2017)
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Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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