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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Vivaldi in Church

In some respects the composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) needs no introduction. His more than 400 concertos are fertile ground for concert and radio programming, and among these The Four Seasons are among the most recorded pieces of music of all time. Yet there is a major part of Vivaldi’s output which gets much less attention and I want to focus on this here. I’m referring to Vivaldi’s considerable output of sacred music, among which are one or two well-known pieces and dozens of gems which deserve to be better-known.

The renewed interest in Vivaldi’s sacred music in the 20th century can look back to one particular event. A Vivaldi week was held in the medieval Italian city of Siena in 1939, and under the direction of the Italian conductor and composer Alfredo Casella, the world heard the first modern performance of the one sacred work by Vivaldi which has gained widespread fame, a setting of the Gloria now known by the catalogue number of RV589. [listen]

(RV stands for "Ryom Verzeichnis", or Ryom Catalogue, a catalogue of all Vivaldi's known works arranged by the Danish musicologist Peter Ryom. It was published in the mid-1970s.)

True, Casella’s edition of the famous Gloria, which was widely-used until relatively recently, was an “elaboration” of Vivaldi’s score, with all sorts of changes made to it which nowadays would not be tolerated. (The video linked above is of the authentic version.) But still, the 1939 performance made the world aware that Vivaldi wrote more than concertos. His sacred music was being rediscovered. The operas would have to wait a little longer...

Portrait of a musician presumed be Antonio Vivaldi (1723)

Some 50 sacred works by Vivaldi have survived. Others are known to have been written but are now lost. Between 1994 and 2003 the Hyperion label released a ground-breaking ten volume CD set of Vivaldi’s complete sacred works (including one work - RV803, mentioned later - which was rediscovered just as the final volume was being made). While I highly recommend these recordings, they are not available to hear online for free, so the recordings linked here are performed by others. Most of the background information in this post, though, is drawn from the extensive notes in the Hyperion recordings, written by the renowned Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot.

Vivaldi’s composition of church music spanned roughly the last 30 years of his life. Few of his works of any sort can be dated accurately but his earliest datable sacred work is a setting of the Stabat Mater for alto and strings, written in 1712 for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin at the church of S Maria della Pace in Brescia. Vivaldi, then in his mid-30s, was travelling in the area with his father as a freelance violinist and this was clearly a one-off commission, but the work is amazingly intense for someone much more adept at writing for instruments than voices. [listen]

In the following year, 1713, the choirmaster of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, Francesco Gasparini, went on leave (from which he never returned). The Pietà was a charitable institution for female orphans, one of four in Venice at the time, which placed a great emphasis on musical training for its charges. Vivaldi had been working at the Pietà as violin master since 1703 and of course was not only a teacher but a composer of instrumental music, mainly concertos, for the institution. In Gasparini’s absence, Vivaldi started to compose sacred music for the Pietà as well, and the period from 1713 to 1719 could be called Vivaldi’s “first period” as a sacred composer.

Santa Maria della Pietà, Venice. The present church was built just after Vivaldi's death and is not the building he worked in.

These works for the Pietà were designed for the girls and women of the institution to sing. Mixed church choirs were simply not permitted in Catholic Europe at the time so the question arises as to who sang the tenor and bass parts in the choirs. The answer is simple and has been proven by recent scholarship beyond reasonable doubt: the girls did. Vivaldi’s sacred works written before 1719 have tenor parts which any girl with a low voice can sing, and we must remember there were adult women at the Pietà as well, not just children. The bass parts could have been handled by girls and women with exceptionally deep voices or sung up the octave without damaging the texture; the bass parts are always doubled by the bass instruments of the orchestra. Modern performances use mixed choirs in this music as a rule as they work perfectly well with a normal disposition of tenors and basses, such as in this setting of the psalm Beatus Vir. Vivaldi set this text more than once but this version (RV598), for choir, orchestra and three soloists would have perfectly fitted the forces of the Pietà. It’s important to note also that Vivaldi’s works for the Pietà favour almost exclusively high voices - sopranos and altos - for the solo parts. [listen]

During his time at the Pietà, Vivaldi established the practice of inserting a Latin motet for solo voice and strings before a larger setting of a sacred text such as the Gloria (in a Mass) or the Dixit Dominus (at Vespers). The motets were Introduzioni (Introductions) and they have been aptly described by some writers as concertos for voices. The motet for solo voice and orchestra was an established Italian form in the 18th century, being a sequence of arias with intervening recitatives, with the last movement nearly always being a setting of the word “Alleluia”. One of the last such works to be composed in Italy was Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate in 1773. JS Bach’s cantata BWV51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, is a German language version of the same sort of work, dating from 1730.

About 20 of Vivaldi’s solo motets survive, all of which are for either soprano or alto voice. It’s possible in many cases to connect them with the larger works they were intended to introduce. This is a motet called Ascende laeta, written around 1715. It’s one of the few which doesn’t end with an “Alleluia”. [listen]

Scholars tell us that this motet was designed to introduce the Dixit Dominus RV595. While a large later setting of the Dixit by Vivaldi had been known for some time (the famous one for double choir, RV594), this setting for single choir was only discovered in the late 1960s and has been dated to before 1717. Three movements from this work are Vivaldi’s reworking of music by earlier composers (much as Handel often did) but it’s a stunning piece. [listen]

Antonio Vivaldi

The “middle period” of Vivaldi’s sacred compositions spans the mid-1720s to the early 1730s. The more restrained and simply laid-out works of the Pietà period now give way to much more flamboyant and extravagant works which were written for churches other than the Pietà’s chapel. The most obvious characteristic in these later works is the greater prominence given to male voices among the soloists, but into this period also fall the works Vivaldi designed for double ensembles. In many cases there are two choirs rather than one; in some chases there are even two orchestras. The better known of Vivaldi’s Dixit settings (RV594) is one such work, calling for two choirs and a single orchestra. The orchestra has prominent parts for trumpets and oboes and the whole is festive and joyous. Certainly the bass parts of each choir, singing the word “sede” completely on their own in the first movement, would have been unthinkable for the female voices at the Pietà.

Later in the psalm the text speaks of the judgement of the heathen. At this point Vivaldi gives full reign to his theatrical flair. The trumpets announce the judgement with amazing virtuosity, and in the fast section (which speaks of dead bodies and wounded heads) there is stunning antiphonal interplay between the two choirs.

The psalm ends, as liturgically all psalms must in the Catholic tradition, with the lesser doxology (Gloria patri, Glory to the father, etc). The second half of this in RV594 is in fact Vivaldi’s most complex surviving example of contrapuntal writing, with eight completely independent choral parts and at times more independent parts in the orchestra. Considering that this psalm, Dixit Dominus, is the first of five psalms and a Magnificat which would have comprised a vesper service, and the fact this psalm alone takes nearly 25 minutes to perform, it must have been part of a spectacular vesper service indeed! [listen]

Some of Vivaldi’s sacred works from this period require two orchestras as well as two choirs. The opening movement of the response which opens Vespers - Domine ad adjuvandum - is an excellent example. The dazzling interplay - between orchestra 1 and choir 1 on one side, and orchestra 2 and choir 2 on the other - shows Vivaldi’s skill at not only juggling large forces but in writing music which is genuinely involving for the listener and above all interesting. [listen]

My favourite of the Vivaldi double choir works is the Beatus Vir RV597. Again, Vivaldi set this psalm text several times but this C major setting must surely have been intended for a grand Vesper service which opened with the music we just heard as it too uses two orchestras as well as two choirs. Aural distinction between the two orchestras is achieved by the use of oboes in orchestra 1 but not in orchestra 2.

Again, this psalm takes about 25 minutes to perform and the text is divided into more than a dozen separate movements. One of these is that rare thing in Vivaldi’s church music, a tenor aria, and a tough one at that. The text speaks of the wicked gnashing their teeth, something Vivaldi catches wonderfully!

The ending of RV597 captures a similar excitement to the end of the Dixit Dominus we heard before but the entire work is worth hearing, without a doubt. [listen]

Ghezzi: Caricature of Vivaldi (Rome, 1723)

The third period of Vivaldi’s career as a composer for the church saw him, in a sense, come full circle. By 1739, two years before his death, he had long ended his formal association with the Pietà; he’d been travelling all over Italy and further afield, supervising productions of his operas. Yet in that year, while the Pietà was again without a choirmaster, Vivaldi was commissioned to write a few more sacred works on a freelance basis. Four works from this period survive and they show a focus on solo vocal writing which he had been cultivating in his theatrical career.

One of the most exciting things about Vivaldi’s music is you never know when something new is going to be discovered. This happened in 2003 when the Australian musicologist Janice Stockigt and Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot managed to find and accurately identify a previously unknown Vivaldi sacred work from this late period. A magnificent setting of the psalm Nisi Dominus (RV803) for soprano, two altos and a large orchestra (but no choir) was dated to 1739 and was certainly one of the late works composed for the Pietà. It is stunning from beginning to end. This link gives just the first movement, but all the other movements from the same recording can be found on YouTube as well. [listen]

Plaque in Venice commemorating Vivaldi's work at the Pietà

With so much Vivaldi sacred music available, what to end with? Well, we started with the well-known Gloria (RV589), let’s end with his other but much less well-known setting of the Gloria, RV588. This dates from around the same time as the more famous setting and even ends with a nearly identical last movement (which in fact is Vivaldi’s reworking of the last movement of a Gloria by another composer entirely, one Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, but that’s another story!).

The less-familiar Gloria also has another feature which is rather unique. The ending of its introductory motet actually dovetails with the opening chorus of the larger work, meaning that the two must be performed together to make any musical or textual sense. This is really beautiful music and the performance I’ve linked to here has the vocal score running in the video. It’s a work I wish we would hear as often as Vivaldi’s famous Gloria. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2007.

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