Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books

If you have found yourself singing a Monteverdi piece in your choir, perhaps you might want to unveil the mystery behind its original formats and not put your whole trust in a modern editor.

In my experience, reading from the original is not only better for the environment (fewer pages) and historically fun (you do feel a lot more connected to the music when you sing from the original notation), but it is actually a bit easier and less hectic than reading from modern scores.

The good news is that many of Monteverdi’s pieces are available online at the International Music Score Library Project in their original formats. When you go to his composer page, look under the Collections tab for them.

These parts can look a bit foreign at first if you’re used to seeing round notes vertically aligned with all the others parts in a modern score. These parts typically have no bar lines, use strangely shaped notes and rests, are somewhat crudely printed, and use odd time signatures. In the immortal words of the early music musicologist Jan Herlinger, “Everything was strange and difficult to read before you learned how to read it!”

If you have never tried early notation before, Monteverdi’s music is a great place to start, since the music is usually quite clear and easy. So let’s start from the beginning of a part to learn this system.

The initial

The giant block initials tend to be very beautiful. They help guide the eye to the starts of pieces. After the initial, the second letter of the word will typically appear in the lyrics line in a capital letter. For instance, in a Kyrie, you will see a big K, then the first word on the line will be “Yrie.”

K initial

The clefs

The clefs tend to look a bit different than modern ones. The parts are distinguished by range by their clefs. The clefs move around a bit more than in modern notation so as to avoid having many ledger lines. A bass singer for instance should be comfortable reading what is called “baritone clef,” where the F line falls in the middle of the staff, instead of on the fourth one up. Since this kind of music is rarely in a particularly complex key (most commonly C), learning to read in these other clefs is not as daunting as learning to play an instrument from a C clef or something.

Monteverdi generally uses two clefs in his vocal parts: the F clef (for the lowest voices), and the C clef (for everything above it). Luckily in Monteverdi’s music, the clefs don’t change that often.


The F clef looks like the above, and the C clef looks like the below.Monteverdi-cclef

Modern sopranos sing the Cantus or Canto line typically, and with a C clef on the bottom line. The soprano clef (C on the bottom line) was used by high singers until only about the mid-nineteenth century.

The time signatures

There are two main time signatures that Monteverdi used: duple and triple. Duple time is shown with a C; triple time is shown with a circle. Usually the C or C with a line through it has the minim (modern day half note) or semiminim (modern day quarter note or crotchet) as the beat. The O or O with a line through it usually has the semibreve (modern whole note) as the beat. This is the way it was for many years prior to Monteverdi.

Duple and triple time signatures

The vertical line through the time signature typically just means to take it quicker than without the line. A circle with no line would be a slower three, while O with a line through it would basically be a fast three in one, where the dotted breve gets the big beat. These circle signatures almost always come with a three beside them.

The rests

These are the biggest challenge of this notation system. Typically, the first thing you will see is one of the kinds of rests that have now disappeared from our musical parlance. Here is a brief rundown:


Starting from left to right, the long one is called a long rest. It lasts for two breves, or for eight minims (which usually get the beat in C time). The second one is a breve rest, which lasts for a double-whole-note, or for four minims. The third one is a semibreve rest and lasts for two minims (it is the modern whole rest, which last for two half rests). The fourth one there is the minim rest. The fifth one is called a semiminim rest, and lasts for half of a minim (modern quarter note or crotchet). The sixth is a fusa rest, and lasts for a fusa, or half a semiminim (a fusa is an eighth note). Of course, there is also a semifusa rest, which is like a fusa rest, but with another flag, usually in the same line. These are remarkably rare.

Whenever there are more than two long rests, they are staggered in pairs so that they are easier to count in the heat of the moment.


Speaking of vertical position, these rests can fall on any line at all. This is largely an aesthetic choice. Typically, they will be close in height to the note nearest it. Thus, a leap of a fifth will place the intermediate rests almost in a line from one note to the next.


If you are counting carefully the above example, you might be wondering why he doesn’t just combine the two semiminim rests with the minim rest to make a semibreve rest. This is because rests do not cross the boundaries of beat groups, at least starting from the middle of a previous beat group. This makes it a lot easier to read actually.

Breve rests act a little differently in triple time, but they are actually a bit easier to follow. A breve rest takes care of a dotted-breve worth of rest. So in cut circle time, each breve rest will feel like a beat, and each long rest will feel like two beats. We will practice these once we have notes down.

The notes

The notes are not terribly different from the modern notes, only they are shaped differently and tend to go faster than what it looks like when put in round notation. Here are the notes:


Going from left to right, the first one is a long, which lasts for two breves. The second is a breve, which lasts for two semibreves. The third is a semibreve, which lasts for two minims. The fourth is a minim, which lasts for two semiminims. The fifth is a semiminim, which lasts for two fusas (the plural is often fusae, but I don’t mind keeping things English). The sixth is a fusa, which lasts for two semifusas. In other words, each of these is the length of two of the following note.

Unlike in today’s expectation, the minim tends to get the beat in C time. One rarely runs into anything smaller than a semifusa because everything is up a rung in proportion from modern notation. Semifusas/sixteenth notes fly by when the minim/half note gets the beat.

Let’s practice a bass passage in duple with the Kyrie of the Mass a 6 in illo tempore, performed by the King’s Consort. Note the baritone clef.


Now let’s try triple with a recording of the Consort of Musicke’s rendition of the chorus part of Volgendo il ciel. Follow along a couple of times by ear, then give it a spin if it is in your range. If it is too low, try it up an octave.


I admit I use a different clef than what Monteverdi used, but it means the same thing. I copied it from a Lassus part book. Remember that the breve rests in circle time last the entire dotted breve. A long rest will feel like two measures. Listen to how it works out in the recording.

The direct

Monteverdi’s partbooks all use little helpers called directs (Latin: custos), which are little squiggles at the end of a staff that indicate where the next note occurs in pitch. The direct helps those who read music by interval see on one line what the interval is, instead of having to remember the pitch from the previous system.

The direct on the first line tells the eye what the interval is to the note on the next line.

Cadential coloration

In printing, breves and semibreves will often be filled in to indicate a cadence with the other voices. Just sing them as if they are not filled in.



Very rarely you will see two notes attached to each other, usually to save space or make clear that a new syllable does not start on the second note. While they are typically shaped like breves and have a stem, they sing just like any notes. If the stem is on the upper left side of the pair, just sing them as two semibreves. If there is no stem at all, sing them as two breves. This is quite rare, but is a vestige of an earlier practice. So far I have only seen it in a run near the end of Beatus vir in Selva morale e spiritualeligature

The ligature over ſu of ſuos sounds exactly like two semibreves. It would sound exactly the same if it were four straight semibreves.

Word underlay

How do you know when to change syllables? It is actually quite consistent in Monteverdi’s music for it to be pretty clear. More times than not, the printer will try to keep the syllables of a word close together to look like you are reading out of any book, with notes over it. If the word has four syllables and you see four notes evenly spaced over it, it will be obvious which syllable goes to which note. For a melisma, the printer will put space after the held syllable until the next syllable starts.

Sometimes, it is not as clear, such as in the triple time practice above. “Movete’al mio bel ſuon” puts “te’al” on what would appear to be any of the notes between the third and the sixth note. In these cases, the rule of thumb is to wait until the last note of the melisma to add the syllable (as the singers in the recording do). So in this case, “ve” gets four notes, “te’al” gets the first semibreve in the next measure, and so forth.

What does “ij” mean?

Those are ditto marks, or literally just a lowercase Roman numeral 2 (which at the time traditionally ended with the low dangling i, the j, for aesthetic reasons and to clearly indicate the end of the numeral). They indicate to repeat the immediately previous text. Having “ij” there saves space, since the notes don’t have to be spaced out with the words at all. They do pose the greatest challenge for singers who don’t know the language they are singing in, but there is no shame in writing in what the first word is so you know where to repeat the text in the heat of singing. You have to figure this out from how many notes the ij covers. The printer will generally only do this when there are as many notes as in the first time. If it is a different configuration of syllables to notes, the printer will repeat the words in full to make it clear.

Old spellings

Generally, the text should read as normal, but with a few old practices. The first is the use of the long s. If you see what looks like an f, but it doesn’t have a strike through or only half of one, it is an s. These only happen initially and medially, but never finally.

The second is that there are a great deal of apostrophes used than one would see in modern Italian. These tend to be in the place of spaces to indicate as clearly as possible that the two syllables should be blended into one note.

The third is that there are often tilde marks over vowels. These indicate that there is a hidden n or m after the vowel. The tildes are mainly to save space. The following letter is usually n, but if the following consonant is a labial one (b or p), it will be an m. “Cãtate” is the same as “cantate” and “grẽbo” is “grembo.”

The letter u will sometimes be printed as a v, usually at the start of a word. Thus usce becomes vſce for instance.

In Latin, the word “et” is usually written with a ligature “&” (which you can see the E on the left and the t on the right, if you’ve never noticed that before). Pronounce “&” as “et” in Latin pieces.

Often, the ae ligature (as in saecula) is printed as an e with a hook underneath, as in “ſęcula” instead of “saecula” or “sæcula.”

Where are the bar lines?

Monteverdi sometimes uses bar lines in triple-time pieces to group off each of the measures, since the dotted breves are going by quickly. It is good to have them sometimes to keep that steady larger beat going.

In duple meter, however, there is no confusion by having no bar lines. This works out because each minim gets a beat and does not sound too different at any place in the understood measure. In fact, having no bar lines means that you don’t even think about that larger beat and are only focused on the notes.

This is particularly useful for his prima prattica music, like his Missa a 6. In the Christe section of the Kyrie, I feel the piece having faux triple sections that start and stop without warning. In modern notation, it would appear like a bunch of tied notes and untied notes in seemingly random order. This way, you lean into the long notes and let the little ones lead to them more organically.


These pieces are much more satisfying in the original, and I have found that reading from these parts forces me to sing them better. The slight ambiguity of word underlay (even if there is generally one correct answer) forces you to focus heavily on where the words’ accents fall. This makes the music sound like it should: a clear expression of verbal thought in music. Seeing every syllable hyphenated off and clearly marked to every note in a modern score eventually makes me not care so much about where the word stresses are, especially with the added confusion of bar lines.

Give this stuff a try. Let me know what you experience. Send along any questions you have and I’ll try to answer them.

3 thoughts on “Monteverdi Unfiltered: How to read Monteverdi part books”

  1. Great tutorial! Cadential coloration is also a cue for ficta application, and of course for the Italian Baroque, also a visual reminder that it is a good place for vocal improvisation.

  2. You speak about ligatures – or tied notes – briefly. What about cadences in which at least one voice has a series of unattached notes on one pitch and one syllable (as in the Kyrie of the Messa a 4 da Capella SV 257), as in the following series: breve breve semibreve. Are those held as one long note, and thus would they be notated as tied notes across bar lines in modern notation? Or are they rearticulated (especially if there is a harmonic change in other voices)?

  3. How are errors in part books rectified in performance? Again the Messa a 4 da Cappella (SV 257), the final cadence of the Gloria appears to be incorrect for Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The 5th note from the end in all 3 voices comes in too soon for what is happening in the Soprano line, which results in D-F-A in the lower voices and an E in the soprano.

    I have seen this “corrected” in two different ways. The first, and simplest is by adding the value of a breve to the 6th note from the end (keeping C-G-C in the bottom 3 voices while Soprano’s suspended F resolves to the E).

    The second, which seems more convoluted and results in alterations to pitch, changes the note values of the 2 notes following the suspended F (E and D) to a minim and a semibreve respectively (rather than 2 semiminims as written in the part book), so that the Soprano D coincides with the D-F-A of the bottom 3 voices rather than completing the resolution of the suspended F. Then, the E (which was the resolution of the F suspension in the soprano) is left out entirely, moving on to the B♭-B♭-D-F, which ignores totally the potential D-F-A-F in the final cadence.

    The first option above seems the most logical and least complicated.

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