Dr. Denis Stevens

Dr. Denis Stevens, who died April 1, 2004, had in the course of his long life as musicologist, performer, and teacher written many articles and monographs. We hope in time to reprint many of these, making them available through downloading & printing directly from this website (see below) or, in the case of certain works, through Schola Antiqua Press, 407 Spring Valley Road, Lexington, Virginia 24450. (E-mail: blaclach@rockbridge.net)

Denis Stevens' Fragmenta autobiographica was published by Schola Antiqua Press in 2001. It is approximately 64 pages long, a large-size and handsome paperback. Out-of-print.

And Denis Stevens' Fragmenta altera was published by Schola Antiqua Press in 2002. It is 141 pages long, a large-size and handsome paperback with many illustrations, some in color. Edition limited to 200 copies. The book contains several essays by Dr. Stevens, including "Conductors and Continuo"; copies of 38 letters received by him from fellow musicologists and others over nearly fifty years' time; and three guest essays: "Costume in Italian Opera & Spectacle in the Age of Monteverdi," by Daphne Elizabeth Stevens; "On the Life and Poetry of Abbie Huston Evans," by Barbara Lachman; and "Rhythm in Western Sacred Music Before the Mid-12th Century," by R. John Blackley. Twenty dollars; postage is included. If you wish to order this item please contact us at ScholaAntiqua@embarqmail.com and we will respond quickly!

"Lost Traditions in Music," the Founder's Day Address given by Dr. Stevens at The Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d'Abernon, on April 21, 2002, was published by Schola Antiqua Press. Fourteen pages; $5 in the U.S., $10 abroad, postage included. If you wish to order this item please contact us at ScholaAntiqua@embarqmail.com and we will respond quickly!

Dr. Stevens made a new edition of Monteverdi's Missa "In illo tempore" (the only previous edition was the old one by Malipiero). Copies are available through the Schola Antiqua Press, 407 Spring Valley Road, Lexington, Virginia 24450.

And his edition of Cavalli's opera Pompeo Magno is also available through the Press. This opera, which was recently performed in Zagreb, has never been previously published.

There follow two articles, one on Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers 1610, the other on the enigma in Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations.


On Performing Monteverdi's Vespers

Many musicians, vaguely aware that this seventeenth-century choral masterpiece, rediscovered in the early twentieth, is readily available for our pleasure in singing and our enlightenment in listening, are nevertheless put off by the cabalistic obscurantism that now surrounds it, fostered by misinformed musicians and pseudo-musicologists. Their misunderstandings fall into several categories: instruments, singers, editions, transpositions, and politics. Not only are the blind leading the blind, but the deaf are leading the deaf.

1. Instruments. It is generally assumed that your first move, as conductor, would be to join an "auncient ynstrument clubb" in order to organize exponents of "baroque" string instruments, harpsichords, lutes, theorboes, and sackbuts. Nothing could be further from the true aim and object. Not one of these flukes ever formed part of the instrumentarium of St. Mark's Venice, where Monteverdi was director of music from 1613 until 1643. They were never used in the basilica for the simple reason that the size and acoustic would make any one of them sound like a mouse breaking wind, and that is not what the composer wanted. For major feasts, he made use of the two organs situated on either side of the presbytery, adding two portatives in other parts of the building, most likely near the pergola and the pulpit of nine lessons, where the singers stood, as you can see in Canaletto's sketch and picture.

There were no "choirs" placed on either side, in "decani-cantoris" fashion like an English cathedral. A maximum of ten singers, all of them powerful, would take good care of double-choir vespers. Nowadays, with feebler voices (no castrati!), we enjoy a bigger choir in order to share the music with a larger body. Let us not confuse our intention with Monteverdi's. More important still, one must avoid making "confusion worse confounded" by introducing instruments Monteverdi would not have liked. When in 1610 he auditioned a singer in Mantua, he took the candidate (as his letter to the duke tells us) to San Pietro and had him sing a motet to the organ. Note that he does not say "I took him into the church with a theorbo." Monteverdi wanted to judge the singer's capabilities in a spacious acoustic, with organ accompaniment, which is the best, as Luigi Zenobi assured us some nine years previously.

A plucked instrument would not have sustained the singer's voice. An orchestra of cutdown Guarneris and sawed-off Strads would have achieved nothing in the vast interiors of Italian churches. For Monteverdi, the violin and its companions were modern instruments, only recently invented in opposition to the viol, whose tone was soft and delicate. He and his contemporaries needed an instrument with powerful tone to match that of the singers. Today's music directors have no idea of  the sheer amount of sound demanded by those old buildings. They would have had no use whatever for our holier-than-thou college chapel choirs. What they wanted was professional singers like those celebrated in John Earle's Microcosmography: those that roared "deep in the choir, deeper in the tavern." When Paolo Peren auditioned in St. Mark's, he filled the entire building with his robust tones.

If you were in Venice just after 1610, and had purchased a set of part-books of Monteverdi's Mass and Vespers, you might have gone looking for a shop selling violins, since these are specified in the score. You enter the shop, and the dealer says, "Violins? Very newfangled instruments! I can offer you only four different kinds: a Gaspar da Saló, a Maggini, a Ventura da Linarolo, and an old Amati. I warn you, they are all loud instruments, used in dance music and church music." Having decided, you then ask for "sackbuts and cornetti," but the shopkeeper cannot help. "The sacqueboute is a French instrument. Here we call them 'tromboni' or 'trombe squarciate,' literally 'pulled-apart trumpets' like the one discussed in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, which talks about a man who drew out an arm's length of tubing and thrust it back again." Cornetti present no problem, although they often do today. If cornetti are unavailable, oboes will prove a good substitute. One pseudo-musicologist blamed me for "using oboes," but I never "use" oboes. I use Kleenex.

My advice then is to make good use of the instruments around you: violins, violas, cellos and basses, oboes and trombones. Organs you must have in abundance, "to make the harmony more magnificent," as the old Venetian writers tell us.

2. Voices. As loud and lusty as possible. We are no longer allowed castrati, and Stravinsky's disappointment, made clear in an interview he had with the pope, is well known. But we could encourage voice-production that projects, and pronunciation that allows one word to end before the next one begins. If you shudder at this approach, try it in a large and resonant building. You will find that the gaps are all generously covered. Avoid countertenors unless they are of the louder and more penetrating kind. Avoid having a tenor in evening dress sing "Nigra sum." According to the biblical text, this is a duet between the Shulamite maiden (contralto) and King David (baritone). No matter if the tenor complains "this ought to be my solo." Are you, or are you not, director of music? If you wonder at Monteverdi writing solos for contralto and baritone on the same stave, remember that he came at the end of a long tradition of dialogues, where there were many examples of such notational sharing.

Countertenors can certainly be put to use in the choir, since they make a good blend with contraltos and provide an edge to the tone. Combine mezzo-sopranos with sopranos to provide a wide range of powerful sound. Same with tenors and baritones, for a few of the latter give substance to the tenors' lower register. Solo baritones of considerable weight will not overpower the two violins in the Magnificat, provided modern orchestral violins are used. If "baroque" violins take part, don't expect to hear them in "Quia fecit mihi magna."

3. Editions. Some will be cheaper than others, some will be dearer. Make certain that the edition you choose is by a well-established and experienced Monteverdi scholar who knows how to provide a critical commentary showing what corrections to the 1610 print have been made. Since it is possible to "pirate" an edition, watch carefully for pirated commentaries. Suspect very strongly editions with added plainchant. Monteverdi probably didn't use any. I made use of some in my first edition (early 1960s) because the shortage of facilities in Westminster obliged me to forgo the interval, cut five items, and balance up with a few minutes of plainsong to bring the total timing to 75 minutes. The work should now be performed uncut and with particular attention to the "stereo" latent in the two choirs, vocal and instrumental.

The music-type ought to be easily readable, and translations of the Latin texts of motets should be given at the foot of each page. This is essential, because the soloists need to know the meaning of individual words. In the choral numbers, on the other hand, knowing the general sense is usually sufficient. The audience ought not to feel that an unknown language stands between them and the emotional impact of the music.

4. Transpositions. About 1975 it suddenly became "fashionable" to transpose certain items. Happily it was no more than a fashion and has now been largely dropped. The music was transposed because various misguided foreign scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century had totally misunderstood a periodical article. The rebuttal of this article, which followed as surely as sunshine follows rain, confused matters further. By the time a third and fourth article had appeared, the situation had become hopeless. Nobody realized that it was the clef that had to be transposed, not the music. The (C-) clef needed transposing because it was desirable to avoid ledger-lines. Simple as that. The entire plot was rumbled by an English lady musicologist. Her male colleagues went on milling around in the quagmire. In consequence, hundreds of CDs can be thrown away, because a record company rarely has a musicological adviser. They operate on fashion, hunches, and sheer stupidity. They become infected by an unclean spirit, and like the Biblical swine run violently down to destruction. It can be very difficult to avoid evil spirits in musicology.

5. Politics. As an excellent exposé of politics in music, Albert Dunning's Die Staatsmotette should have been translated into English, but never was. The interactions between music and politics require further study. In the case of Monteverdi's Vespers, they are of tremendous importance. Member of a cathedral choir since early youth and already a composer of church music in his teens, Monteverdi wished to continue in that same vein when he began his appointment at Mantua. But his pleas to the Gonzaga went unheeded. Write operas, ballets, secular entertainments! Church music is not needed: we have Gastoldi at the chapel of Santa Barbara. Monteverdi was overworked almost to the point of death. During a grave illness, something spurred him into action. He did recover and return, but not to music for entertainment. He started work furiously on a setting of Mass and Vespers, using psalms he had been carefully collecting. In a final burst of inspiration, he turned to the fanfare from Orfeo and reused it as the brassy backdrop for his "Domine ad adjuvandum."

It was like thumbing his nose at the Gonzaga. "Yes, you will hear entertainment music, but it will be in a religious context!" He dedicated the work to Pope Paul V, and undoubtedly it was first given in Rome, where he had many friends. When the Gonzaga heard about it, they summarily dismissed him and his brother, and to add injury to insult, they had the composer and his family pursued by thugs to a lonely spot near Sanguinetto, on the road to Venice. He lost nearly all his money and his best clothing. The scene is vividly recounted in his letters.

An evil spirit crept into this episode, too. A meddling radio fellow, refusing to have anything to do with accepted Monteverdi scholarship, set up his own chestnut stall and put it about that the Vespers were written for the chapel of Santa Barbara. Musicologists who should have known better followed the tainted trend and dug up acres of plainsong for the feast of Santa Barbra. All of this twaddle was duly published and broadcast with a parade of abominating balderdash and po-faced poppycock. The musical world will take some time to recover, for what with this kind of red herring and with tenors masquerading as musicologists, assurance must be doubly sure if we and the composer are to survive. Fortunately I have a recent book, Monteverdi in Venice (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2001), that tells the whole story. And remember, no fancy instruments are necessary for a successful performance of Monteverdi's Vespers. He would have rejoiced in the strong tone of modern violins, since the "baroqued" violins all came well after his time.

[Professor Stevens' revised 1995 edition of Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is a full/vocal score with preface in English, French, German, and Italian, and critical notes and motet-text translation; it is available from Novello & Co. Ltd, 8-9 Frith Street, London W1V 5TR (£8.95). Dr. Stevens first conducted the Vespers in 1961 at Westminster Abbey before an audience of 2,000. Comments or questions may be addressed to him at Morden College, London SE3 0PW.]


His Enigma Solved!

Liveryman Professor Denis Stevens writes: If you have a friend who prides himself on his musical knowledge, try this one: "Tell me the solution of Elgar's Enigma---and no wild guesses, like "God Save the Queen," or a Mozart symphony, a Brahms sextet, or (heaven forfend) "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

Although I was concerned with the Enigma code-activities during World War II, the Elgar connection surfaced only a few years ago when I was consulting English periodicals in America. One of the more recondite, The Muisc Review, contained a long and thorough piece by Theodore van Houten, "You of all people": Elgar's Enigma (Vol 37/2, May 1972).

In the latest book on the Enigma, this article is tossed aside with a few dismissive words. Apparently nobody read it thoroughly, which is a pity because it contains the true and only solution, well documented and illustrated. Will you go to the British Library and look it up? Or shall I save you the trouble…?

Have you ever watched people in a train or a plane "reading" a magazine? Flip, flip, flip go the pages, until it's clear that the reader isn't even looking at the ads.

What happened at the premiere of the Enigma in 1899? Did the audience look at the Pear's Soap ad instead of studying the program notes? If they had read the notes, fed to the annotator by Elgar himself, they would have seen "The principal theme never appears."

Of what use is that? If it never appears, how can anybody grasp it? But one or two people knew Elgar's punning way with words.

That first clue to the Enigma theme could be rephrased as "The principal theme, 'Never,' appears."

If you know what it means, or if you sense words behind a musical motif, it's easy to hear "nev-er, nev-er" in the in the opening bars. You can hear it twittering away in the Dorabella section, and roaring like a lion in the finale, "NEV-ER, NEV-ER," played by the trombones as if accompanying a two syllable word.

But what is "never," and how can one guess it?

Dorabella didn't even try, when she asked Uncle Edu for the answer to the riddle.

He merely said, "I thought that you of all people would guess it." Guess, because her name was Dora Penny, and the "tails" of a new Victorian penny showed Britannia ruling the waves, with a departing ship and a lighthouse.

Britannia, the symbol by which Elgar stood and lived, explains the fervent patriotism that had already found an outlet in Caractacus, dedicated to Queen Victoria.

If people had considered Elgar's grateful acceptance of Pax Britannica and the security that Britannia had to offer, it would be simple to sing through Arne's song asking that Britannia be allowed to rule the waves, for then Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

You object to the "principal theme" being found in the middle, not at the beginning? You think that I, a medievalist, renaissance, and baroque man, should keep out of 19th-century music? Not sop! A similar enigma occurred in 15th-century music.

It took 500 years to discover the secret of the Masses named Caput. The chant on which the works are based is evidently plainsong, but none of the experts could find the original chant. Although they hunted indexes for "caput," thinking that this would lead them to the solution, it didn't.

A musicological genius discovered it while looking at a medieval processional in the Huntington Library at San Marino, California. His name was Manfred Friedrich Bukofzer, then teaching at Berkeley.

Having the "caput" theme firmly locked in his brain, he was staggered to find it again in the Processional of the Nuns of Chester, at a point near the end of the Maundy Thursday antipohon Venit ad Petrum. This ends with an elaborate melisma (flourish) on the last word, "caput." For the last shall be first, and the elusive theme was traced to the middle of the antiphon, setting to music the final word.

The discovery was published, in a volume entitled Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950), but it never became common knowledge.

My first commercial recording was of Dufay's Missa Caput, but I later found out that Dufay had composed only the Kyrie. The remainder of the work was written by an anonymous 15th-century English composer. The plot had thickened, but the truth of the discovery remained unassailable. So, too, I think, will be the Britannia of Elgar's Victorian penny. His message for us, across the millennium, is this: Trust in Britain, and you will never be slaves.

This article appeared in Preserve Harmony, Newsletter of the Musicians' Company for March 2000.