From Zero To Hero: Seraphic Fire's Viral Monteverdi When the ensemble was turned down by record labels, Seraphic Fire's members released its recording themselves. In just a few days, it was the sixth-best-selling classical album on iTunes.

From Zero To Hero: Seraphic Fire's Viral Monteverdi

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One place where the classics library is alive and well is iTunes. That's where Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi is enjoying top-10 status among classical music albums with a new recording of his 1610 masterpiece, "The Vespers of the Blessed Virgin."

What makes this surprising is that this is an indie recording by a little-known, Miami-based professional choir called Seraphic Fire. Jeff Lunden decided to check it out.

JEFF LUNDEN: Seraphic Fire made its debut a little over seven years ago, but classical music critic Greg Stepanich says it's become an essential part of South Florida's music scene performing works from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

Mr. GREG STEPANICH (Classical Music Critic): Every concert that they do is not just sort of like, well we're going to put some stuff on here that people will like. It's all thought out intellectually. And then when you go hear it, it's vocally brilliant.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "A Procession Winding Around Me")

LUNDEN: The group's founder and conductor is Patrick Dupre Quigley. Under his leadership, Seraphic Fire has sung with the New World Symphony and...

Mr. PATRICK DUPRE QUIGLEY (Founder; Conductor, Seraphic Fire): We recorded with Shakira on her album "Oral Fixation 2," and recorded a sort of Gregorian chant-esque track to open that disk.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "How Do You Do")

LUNDEN: A couple of years ago, when Seraphic Fire received a $25,000 grant, they decided to tackle a big project: recording Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610," one of the greatest choral works of all time. So they teamed up with the Western Michigan University Chorale and recorded it in a little, stone chapel in Kalamazoo.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Magnificat")

LUNDEN: Quigley says this famous piece has a kind of utilitarian history. Around 1608, the middle-aged Monteverdi was unhappy in his position with the Gonzaga family at the court in Mantua. So over the course of the next two years, he compiled a large book of his compositions, which included the Vespers, and dedicated it to the pope.

Mr. QUIGLEY: The Vespers is, in essence, a job application - or at least, the lore tells us.

LUNDEN: And it worked.

Mr. QUIGLEY: Eventually, the position at St. Mark's in Venice came open the basilica there and he assumed the directorship there, and the rest is history.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Magnificat")

LUNDEN: Quigley says the piece is often performed in a grand manner, with brass and strings.

Mr. QUIGLEY: Most of the recordings, and most of the performances that one hears of this piece, tend to be a large, Baroque-Renaissance-in-the-middle-there-orchestral accompaniment with double choir and soloists.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Magnificat")

LUNDEN: But in the score, Monteverdi suggests it can be done in a smaller way.

Mr. QUIGLEY: When we take a step back and look at the words that Monteverdi himself wrote in the print, we see that the word optional is used a whole heck of a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: So instead of a large orchestra, Patrick Quigley chose to use only three instrumentalists. He calls the piece revolutionary, juxtaposing large, overlapping choral sections with intimate moments for soloists, in what would then be considered a contemporary popular style - like this piece, the "Nigra Sum."

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Nigra Sum")

Mr. QUIGLEY: Basically, the text is: I have been laboring in the sun, but I still hold my beauty. And it's a very sensual text. And the tenor, instead of singing in any sort of sacred style, any sort of chant-esque style, this is a vocal line - which is written with this rhetorical up and down that was so popular in madrigals and theatrical music at the time.

LUNDEN: Quigley says Monteverdi also illustrates the text in the choral parts.

Mr. QUIGLEY: There's a moment in the "Dixit Dominus," where it talks about this flowing water. And Monteverdi, in order to show the cascading water of this small river rushing to become a torrent, he sets each of the choral voices in three, which then overlap each other differently. And you have this feeling of undulation.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Dixit Dominus")

LUNDEN: When the recording was finished, Patrick Quigley shopped it to several record labels, all of whom turned him down. Even though they liked it, they said...

Mr. QUIGLEY: We're at that point in the recording industry where we just can't afford to take a gamble on someone that we know nothing about.

LUNDEN: So Seraphic Fire released the CD themselves, and placed it on iTunes. When it came out last week, it was a featured selection. Quigley took a screenshot, put it on his Facebook page, and tagged everyone who was on the recording.

Mr. QUIGLEY: And everyone started to share this with all of their friends on Facebook and saying, look, you know, we got featured on iTunes. Well, by the end of the day, someone noticed that we had moved into the 18th best-selling classical album on iTunes.

LUNDEN: And within 36 hours, it was number six. Quigley says the viral explosion has been gratifying for many reasons, but most especially because so many of the people who downloaded it were unfamiliar with Claudio Monteverdi.

Mr. QUIGLEY: Introducing a younger audience to this 400-year-old music - I mean, it was one of those fantastic things that happens only through the Internet.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of Seraphic Fire singing "Dixit Dominus")

CORNISH: For Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Thanks for listening, and have a great evening.

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