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Ten years and eleven discs after its triumphant inception, Robert King’s complete recording of Vivaldi’s sacred music reaches a worthy end. The Gloria, RV589 – this is the ‘famous’ one, beloved of choral societies the world over – provides a suitably ebullient opening to a recording which also includes the lyrical Ostro picta sublimely sung by Carolyn Sampson and the Gloria by Ruggieri – the work from which Vivaldi stole many of the best ideas for his own settings of the same text.
Of great significance also is the first recording of the newly discovered Nisi Dominus, RV803 – Vivaldi’s ‘latest work’, as it were. Discovered in a Dresden library in 2003, this opulent setting is for three soloists, strings, continuo and five extraordinary solo instruments (including the fantastical ‘violino in tromba marina’ – the eighteenth century’s equivalent of the modern ‘jazz violin’?). As a historical discovery, this new work is important; as the keystone of this final disc in a ground-breaking series, it is perfect.
Raised as a violinist, Vivaldi probably wrote little or no church music until the second decade of the eighteenth century. But his travels with his father as a ‘jobbing’ player often placed him in situations where commissions for sacred works might have occurred. Such was the probable origin of the earliest sacred work by him on which a date can be set, the Stabat mater, RV621 (‘RV’ numbers refer to the standard modern catalogue of Vivaldi’s works by Peter Ryom). Vivaldi had visited Brescia in 1711 to play in the patronal festival of the Philippine church, Santa Maria della Pace; among the compositions acquired by this church in the following year and listed in its account book we find the Stabat mater for alto and strings, commissioned for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, which in 1712 fell on 18 March.
In 1713 an event of the greatest importance for Vivaldi’s career occurred. Francesco Gasparini, who was choirmaster at the Pietà, the Venetian charitable institution for foundlings where Vivaldi worked as a violin master and orchestral director, went on a leave from which he never returned. Until as late as 1719 the Pietà failed to replace him, which meant that Vivaldi (together with a colleague, the singing teacher Pietro Scarpari) found himself invited to take over the main task of the maestro di coro: to supply the singers of the institution with a steady stream of new compositions which would attract a well-heeled congregation to the chapel services and so encourage donations and bequests. For reasons of decorum, mixed church choirs were not acceptable in Catholic Europe at this time, and since the Pietà’s male wards left the institution during adolescence to take up apprenticeships, it had no option but to train and use exclusively female residents as musicians. Remarkably, the choir was laid out exactly as a normal male choir, with tenors and basses in addition to the expected sopranos and altos. The tenor parts, which have rather high compasses, were certainly sung as written; the bass parts were probably also sung much of the time at notated pitch by a handful of women with exceptionally deep voices. In case of difficulty, the bass parts could be transposed up an octave without damage to the harmony, since they were nearly always doubled by instruments. Solo parts, however, were overwhelmingly for high voices: soprano or alto. More than the choir, the orchestra or even the composers of the music, these soloists were the ‘star attraction’ of music-making at the Pietà – their names recorded for posterity in the letters and memoirs of visitors to its chapel. The triumphant solismo of the contemporary opera houses could hardly fail to spill over into the sacred domain.
Little of Vivaldi’s church music composed during this period (1713 to 1719) circulated in Italy outside the Pietà’s walls, but some works reached the Habsburg domains in central Europe. A visitor from Bohemia, Balthasar Knapp, acquired a number before his return to Prague in 1717, and his collection appears to have been the nucleus of a modest Vivaldi cult which flourished in such centres as Prague, Osek (in north Bohemia), Brno (in Moravia) and even Breslau (in Silesia). Vivaldi’s sacred works were also known in the capital of Saxony, Dresden, where the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka took a few pieces into his extensive collection of church music.
The surviving works from this ‘first’ period account for just under half of the total. A similar number date from a ‘middle’ period stretching from the mid-1720s to the early 1730s. These include nearly all the compositions laid out for two ensembles (in due cori, as Vivaldi describes this form of setting). Whereas the earlier works are restrained in expression and generally quite simple in texture, this second group is characterized by flamboyance and contrapuntal ostentation. Many of these works appear to have a connection with the Feast of St Lawrence Martyr on 10 August; Vivaldi may have written them for the convent church of San Lorenzo in Venice (which every year celebrated its patronal festival with great pomp, commissioning music for Mass and Vespers from external composers), or perhaps for the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, whose protector was his Roman patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. What is certain is that these works were composed for male voices – the energetic writing for the bass voices in such works as the Dixit Dominus, RV594, would be unthinkable for a female singer.
Near the end of his career, in 1739, Vivaldi once again supplied sacred vocal compositions to the Pietà during an interregnum between choirmasters – this time for payment, since he was no longer its employee. Only four of the works are extant in complete form today. They exemplify very clearly Vivaldi’s turn, in his last years, to the fashionable galant style cultivated by younger Neapolitan composers, among them Vinci, Leo and Porpora.
A clear majority of the surviving works are for solo voice or voices. These include all the motets, introduzioni (an introduzione is a special kind of motet designed to precede the setting of a Psalm or a section of the Mass), hymns and votive antiphons, besides a few of the Psalms themselves. The remaining works are either – in the language of the time – pieno (for choir only) or concertato (for choir with one or more soloists). The supporting orchestra is most often made up merely of strings and continuo, but several of the compositions include wind instruments or obbligato parts. The vitality and idiomatic quality of the instrumental writing in these works is unrivalled in Italian sacred vocal music of the period.
A clear distinction must be made between the works on liturgical texts – texts which are unalterable and have their appointed place in the church calendar – and those on freely invented poetic texts (motets and introduzioni). The former mostly employ forms either peculiar to church music (for example, the so-called ‘church aria’ resembling the outer section of a da capo aria) or freely derived from instrumental music, while the latter follow secular models in their adoption of recitative and the da capo aria. A very few movements in the ‘liturgical’ works observe the stile antico based (at some remove, and not without modification) on the polyphonic language of sixteenth-century vocal music. Vivaldi seems to have had great difficulty in reproducing this style, since the specimens contained in his works include several instances of plagiarism.
The greatness of Vivaldi’s sacred vocal music resides not in its historical influence, for it seems not to have circulated very widely in his day and (unlike his concertos) not to have initiated any practice copied by other composers, but rather in its consummate artistry and high level of inspiration. If Vivaldi does not quite have the musical gifts of a Bach, a Handel or even a Pergolesi, he has a manner of expression which is entirely individual and unmistakable, even in his least substantial works. In his best movements one discerns an almost shocking radicalism: a willingness to strip music down to its core and reconstitute it from these simplest elements. There is also a powerful instinct for thematic integration at work; time and again, analysis reveals how the same simple ideas inform each movement of a composite work and impart unity to it. The often unexpectedly subtle word-painting testifies to the thoughtfulness which Vivaldi brought to these compositions. They can accurately be described as the bridge between his imagination as a musician and his conviction as a priest: the point on which all facets of his complex personality converged.
Michael Talbot © 2004