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Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Vivaldi's women

Instrumental and vocal sacred music
La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: October 2021
Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Fox-Gál
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & James Waterhouse
Release date: August 2022
Total duration: 70 minutes 21 seconds

A vibrant collection of some of the more unusual works penned by Vivaldi for performance by the figlie di coro at Venice's famous Ospedale della Pietà, this recording also stars a newly commissioned viola d'amore made to a design penned by Stradivari in 1716.

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Apart from a short period (1717-19) spent in Mantua under the patronage of Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, Vivaldi never held a full-time post in church or at court; for a composer of Vivaldi’s talent and standing, this was most unusual. The Electress of Bavaria wanted to bring him to Munich as Kapellmeister but her husband claimed that Vivaldi would be too expensive (it is rather more likely that he saw no need to replace Pietro Torri who had held the post since 1692). Vivaldi himself coveted a post at the Imperial court in Vienna, but this was an ambition that would remain unfulfilled. Of course, it is possible that the freedom to arrange his duties as composer, violinist, impresario and teacher actually suited Vivaldi. Viewed in this light, Vivaldi’s career bears many resemblances to that of a freelance musician today.

That said, he was employed for significant periods by the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian institution (founded c1340) that cared for unwanted children, often illegitimate or physically disadvantaged. The Pietà’s performers were taken from a group of women (not normally, contrary to popular belief, girls) known as the figlie di coro, who sang and played the violin, violin in tromba marina, viola, viola d’amore, cello, violone, viol, double bass, theorbo, mandolin, harpsichord, organ, oboe, flute, recorder, chalumeau and clarinet. In addition, the women were also expected to teach the younger members of the figlie di coro.

It was during the seventeenth century that the Pietà developed a strong reputation for its musical performances, engaging the finest composers and teachers of the day. It was important to ensure that the standards were high; after all, these entertainments were most popular with Venetians and visitors alike whose donations provided a welcome extra source of revenue. Indeed, the Pietà considered the figlie di coro to be so important that its members would often be treated to a superior standard of living with access to more food, olive oil and firewood (particularly during the winter months).

Despite his celebrated status, Vivaldi’s position at the Pietà was never totally secure. Equally strange was the Pietà’s decision to constantly overlook Vivaldi for the post of Maestro di Coro, a position that he filled temporarily for four years (1713-17) when the current Maestro, Francesco Gasparini, left on sick-leave. Given the sacred riches that survive from this period, including two settings of the Gloria, a Magnificat, a Dixit Dominus, the oratorio Juditha Triumphans and several motets, this is most perplexing. The Pietà was to call on Vivaldi to deputise as Maestro di Coro again in 1726 and in 1737-39; on both occasions, Vivaldi fulfilled his duties with aplomb.

The vast majority of Vivaldi’s sacred ouput was probably written for the Pietà, whose storecupboard of esoteric instruments Vivaldi used to great effect in works such as Juditha Triumphans and the setting of Nisi Dominus (Psalm 126) for three voices presented here.

This work was composed as part of a Vespers service that Vivaldi supplied to the Pietà in 1739. The manuscript copy appears to have originated in the Venetian copying house of Iseppo Baldan, the same house where Vivaldi’s nephew Carlo Stefano Vivaldi worked in 1754-55. By the 1750s, Vivaldi’s music had fallen out of fashion and Baldan, famous for his forged attributions, sold this work (and at least four others—to convince any sceptics, one of these works, a setting of Psalm 111, Beatus vir (RV795) is a reworking of Vivaldi’s earlier setting (RV597)—by Vivaldi) under the name of Baldassare Galuppi, then a composer very much in vogue. The work was perfect for the Pietà, scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto (termed Tenore in the manuscript) soloists, and an orchestra of tenor chalumeau, violin in tromba marina, viola d’amore, cello and organ in addition to the usual strings and continuo. As well as timbral experimentation, Vivaldi was also keen to try out new musical forms such as the Introduzione, a type of motet but without the customary concluding Alleluia. Nearly always written for solo voice, strings and continuo, the purpose of the Introduzione was to introduce a much larger work for soloists, chorus and orchestra; in the case of Cur sagittas, cur tela, cur faces, this larger work was a (now lost) setting of the Gloria. It is probable that this piece was not destined for the Pietà on account of the reference to St Lawrence (a saint whose feast day was not celebrated there); even so, due to the exceptionally low register required of the soloist, the vocal part has more in common with some of the ‘tenor’ roles sung by the women of the Pietà than music that Vivaldi composed for castrati. As well as the impressive coloratura required in the opening aria, this work tests the singer’s sense of drama, particularly in the recitative. Vivaldi probably intended for this recitative to conclude the work before changing his mind to include a second and final aria whose cantabile qualities serve as a superb foil to the dramatic coloratura of the opening number.

In addition to the many fine vocal works, Vivaldi also contributed many concertos that could be used to replace parts of the liturgy in church services. Amongst these are almost certainly all of his concertos for violin and obligato organ, presumably designed to show off the magnificent instrument that the Pietà had purchased in 1708. This unusual combination of solo instruments (there also exists a concerto for the same combination of instruments by another Venetian monk, Diogenio Bigaglia—the only example of a work with this instrumentation by another composer of which the author is aware) was used by Vivaldi on no fewer than seven occasions, as well as in the concerto for violin, oboe (or cello) and organ and the surviving fragment for 2 violins, 2 organs and 2 orchestrasv (there also exists a fragment of a concerto for 2 organs and 2 orchestras, RV793).

Just as unique are his three concertos for violin in tromba marina, an instrument that in all likelihood was largely developed by Vivaldi himself. It probably had three strings (G, D & A) and a modified bridge that could imitate the rattle of the tromba marina, a single-stringed instrument that can be traced back as early as the 12th century and which was still in use during Mozart’s youth. It was commonly used in convent chapels as a substitute for brass instruments as it was deemed inappropriate for nuns to play trumpets. This explains the German nomenclatures 'Nonnentrompete' ('Nuns’ trumpet') and 'Marientrompete' ('Our Lady’s trumpet'); it is probably from the latter that the Italians derived the term 'tromba marina'.

The surviving evidence suggests that the violin in tromba marina was unique to the Ospedale della Pietà; with one exception (Nicola Porpora used the instrument in a setting of a Laudate pueri Dominum when he was briefly Maestro di Coro at the Pietà in 1741/2), all the surviving music for the instrument was written by Vivaldi. In addition to the three solo concertos and the obligato in the Nisi Dominus, the instrument is also used in a concerto for two violins in tromba marina, 2 recorders, 2 chalumeaux, 2 mandolins, 2 theorbos and cello, strings and continuo.

The Pietà’s account books show payments made to Matteo Sellas (a Venetian luthier who supplied quality instruments to Vivaldi’s star pupils such as Anna Maria) for old violins (and violas) to be fitted with tromba marina bridges and supplied with strings. As the Pietà must have had an ample supply of standard gut strings for its orchestra, it is fair to assume that these strings were made of a different material. We have opted for wire strings wound in brass (a common material used in harpsichord strings) such as those that were already being made in Bologna in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Anna Maria was described by one visitor to the Pietà as ‘the finest violinist in Europe’; in addition to the many virtuosic concerti that Vivaldi composed for her, he also supplied her with concertos for the viola d’amore, her involvement sometimes being suggested through the stylised title 'Concerto per viola d’AMore'. It is interesting that there are no surviving Venetian violas d’amore, and it is likely that Vivaldi had to search further afield for these instruments, perhaps looking to places such as Cremona where Stradivari is known to have promoted the instrument. Vivaldi himself was a recognised virtuoso and gave a viola d’amore recital that was very well received in Cento in 1717 whilst returning from Bologna; the instrument he played on that occasion was described as having 6 strings and 6 sympathetic strings, exactly the kind of instrument that Vivaldi uses in his concertos (and that we are using here). It was very unusual to find instruments with 7 + 7 strings in Italy, although there is a portrait of Tartini holding just such an instrument (this is particularly strange as Tartini is not known to have composed anything at all for the viola d’amore).

As well as composing immensely difficult concertos for the likes of Anna Maria, Vivaldi was also required on occasion to produce didactic works for the younger and less advanced members of the figlie di coro. Just such a concerto is the Concerto in F, a work included in a compilation of 6 concertos by various composers published in London by Walsh & Hare under the title Harmonia Mundi, the Second Collection … in 1729. The work has gone largely unnoticed for many years as the London publication attributes this and the following concerto to Albinoni; neither work is by him. We are extremely grateful to the Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot for alerting us to the existence of this concerto and for generously sharing his findings. His forthcoming article about the concerto presents a mass of irrefutable evidence in favour of Vivaldi’s authorship; he highlights the existence of an inventory from the Slovakian monastery of Podolínec where an incipit for this concerto appears with the description 'Concerto a 5 Authore Vivaldi'; he also draws the reader’s attention to various compositional devices used in the concerto that were not only favoured by Vivaldi but were actually unique to him. For me, the clinching point is the slow movement whose cantabile solo made up of Vivaldi’s typical odd phrase-lengths (given to the leader of the orchestra) is superimposed over the soloist’s arpeggios; this is music that simply could not have been written by anyone else.

As so much of Vivaldi’s sacred output seems to have been created whilst deputising for others, one can only imagine the riches that would have poured forth from his pen had he been given a church post. The quality of the music contained within his sacred oeuvre is breath-taking and it is a great tragedy that the evidence points to a large tranche of this repertoire having been lost over the years. Was it his famously difficult character that prevented him from obtaining such a post, or maybe a reputation—ill deserved—that came with being a virtuoso violinist who composed concertos by the hundred with thrills and trills? It is interesting on this last point to note how few of the great composers since 1750 have been violinists. One can only hope that the time is now ripe for Vivaldi’s genius as a church composer to be fully recognised.

Adrian Chandler © 2022

The ‘Crystal’ viola d’amore
The viola d’amore was an instrument that achieved popularity during the 17th and early 18th centuries. As far as I am aware, the earliest mention of the instrument is made in a letter from Ritter of Hamburg to Prince Wilhelm IV in 1649. Other early accounts of the instrument include that of John Evelyn whose diary records details of a visit he made in 1679 to a musical entertainment where he heard a viola d’amore being played; he claimed that he had ‘never heard a sweeter instrument or more surprizing …’. That Evelyn’s d’amorist was German is not a huge surprise as most of the earlier repertory for the instrument—not to mention its appearances in works of art—hails from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia.

The viola d’amore is played like a violin but is actually a member of the viol family, possessing a flat back, wide ribs and sloping shoulders whilst the sound holes are usually made to represent a flaming sword, a symbol of Islam. Indeed, the viola d’amore’s origins are more Middle Eastern than European, supporting the theory that the term ‘viola d’amore’ is a corruption of la viola del moro (the Moor’s viola) and that the subsequent distortion to la viola d’amore (the viola of love) happened later, inspiring countless carved scrolls in the style of Cupid’s head. One of the most curious aspects about the instrument (that is also found in some Middle Eastern stringed instruments) is its double set of strings. The first goes over the top of the bridge (like a violin) and is bowed, whilst the second travels from the pegbox, under the fingerboard and through tiny holes at the bottom of the bridge; known as sympathetic strings, these are tuned to the same pitch as the bowed strings and vibrate in sympathy.

The city of Venice served both as a geographical staging post for musicians entering Italy from the north and (more historically) as one of the gateways between Europe and the Middle East. Vivaldi’s interest in the instrument should therefore come as no surprise. We know that he was already playing the viola d’amore by 1708, as the Pietà’s records show payments made to him for viola d’amore strings in 1708 and 1709. His earliest known compositions featuring the viola d’amore are the oratorio Juditha Triumphans (1716) and the early setting of the Nisi Dominus (RV608) which probably dates from around the same time. The six solo concertos (with one variant) were probably written from the late 1720s onwards, with the concerto for viola d’amore and lute being composed in 1740.

Although Vivaldi’s output for the viola d’amore appears small when compared to that written for the violin, it is still an important part of his oeuvre and an area that we wanted to explore, creating a need for us to buy an instrument. Today, most of the surviving instruments are Germanic and would struggle to operate at the high pitch used by Vivaldi (and La Serenissima!) on account of their large size. Italian violas d’amore were typically smaller and used fewer strings, generally 6 bowed and 6 sympathetic strings (instead of the German 7+7); this corresponds exactly to the description of an instrument used by Vivaldi during an impromptu recital on the viola d’amore in Cento in 1717.

Surviving Italian instruments from this period are few and far between, and there are no records of any Venetian instruments (which is strange given Venice’s geographical location). If Vivaldi had been looking to buy a viola d’amore, an obvious place to procure such an instrument might therefore have been Cremona, where makers such as Stradivari and the Amati family were based. Whilst no d’amore by Stradivari exists, the designs for an instrument that he made in the year preceding Vivaldi’s concert in Cento do survive. Thanks to the incredible generosity of Michael and Felicia Crystal, we have been able to commission American luthier Dan Larson to make an instrument according to Stradivari’s design. Vivaldi’s women is its first project; future plans include the concertos of Vivaldi and the sonatas of Ariosti.

Adrian Chandler © 2022

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