Ensemble Caprice, a baroque ensemble which performs on period instruments, was founded by acclaimed conductor, composer and recorder soloist Matthias Maute and has become known for its innovative and [...]
Vivaldi: The Return of the Angels
They spoke about it
Following Ensemble Caprice’s first recording of Vivaldi’s sacred music ( Gloria! Vivaldi and his Angels) we return to Vivaldi’s Venice and find ourselves yet again within the confines of the Ospedale della Pietà orphanage where, beginning in 1703, Vivaldi, the Red Priest, not only taught the orphan girls violin and singing (!), but also composed many of his most dazzling concertos as well as a substantial part of his highly inspired corpus of sacred music.
To this day, it seems almost unbelievable that these very demanding scores could be successfully performed by young women. However, their concerts must have been of a very high standard, judging from the celebrity status they enjoyed throughout Europe.
Of course the picturesque scenario of young women performing in church undoubtedly fired the imagination of countless listeners who would come from far and wide to hear the orphans perform musical miracles in Venice.
In 1720 an English traveler, Edward Wright, gives us the following account of those events:
Every Sunday and holiday there is a performance of music in the chapels of these hospitals, vocal and instrumental, performed by the young women of the place, who are set in a gallery above and, though not professed, are hid from any distinct view of those below by a lattice of ironwork. The organ parts, as well as those of other instruments, are all performed by the young women. They have a eunuch for their master, and he composes their music. Their performance is surprisingly good, and many excellent voices are among them. And this is all the more amusing since their persons are concealed from view.
It was both absurd and comical for Wright to assume that the composer was a eunuch, but it shows how the imagination of the male listeners got carried away when hearing those celestial angelic sounds produced by an invisible female orchestra and choir.
After having met Vivaldi in Venice in 1739, a French jurist, Charles de Brosse, reports that
…about forty girls take part in every concert. I vow to you that there is nothing so diverting as the sight of a young and pretty nun in white habit, with a bunch of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, conducting the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable.
Further proof of the incredible quality (and attraction) of these concerts is provided by no less a celebrity than the sophisticated French philosopher (and part-time composer) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in 1743 had nothing but praise for the achievements of the young girls:
Every Sunday, vocal music for a large chorus with a large orchestra, which is composed and directed by the greatest masters in Italy, is performed in barred-off galleries solely by girls, of whom the oldest is not twenty years of age. One can conceive of nothing as voluptuous, as moving, as this music.
Knowing for instance that J.S. Bach only heard his own sacred music sung publicly in church by boys and men and never by women, we can only assume how much the titillation of these exciting rumours about the female choir and orchestra in Venice must have stirred the imagination of music lovers north of the Alps.
During the course of the present recording, we move from Vivaldi’s description of war to his musical depiction of the joys of peace.
Juditha triumphans from 1716 is the best known of the Vivaldi oratorios (of which only four have survived). Subtitled Sacrum Militare Oratorium, it relates the gruesome Old Testament story of Judith, a beautiful widow chosen by God to put an end to the life of the Assyrian general Holofernes – who was out to destroy her hometown – by decapitating him.
At the time the oratorio was composed, the Republic of Venice was engaged in its 6th war against the Ottoman Empire and despite its ultimate triumph in 1718, the situation looked rather bleak two years earlier after two successive crushing defeats by the strong Ottoman army. In a typical baroque crossover mingling religious and worldly matters on the same battlefield, the oratorio Juditha triumphans was obviously aimed at strengthening the war efforts of the Venetian Republic.
We know that this oratorio was performed at the Ospedale della Pietà, with an all-(young)-woman cast on both vocal and instrumental parts. It could only have added to the already wide range of exotic sensations when the overwhelmed listener heard these young women in nun’s habits engaging in musical warfare.
Gloria, RV 588
However, let us not forget that Vivaldi’s talent also radiated its light upon the depiction of peace. The intense plea Et in terra pax (from Gloria RV 588), with its gripping harmonic tensions, serves as a worthy final statement for this recording, where war is gradually replaced by the hope for peace.
Psalms, Concertos, Motet
On the road towards peace we encounter brilliant psalm settings with powerful rhythms in choir and orchestra (In exitu Israel RV 604, Laudate Dominum RV 606), two virtuoso concertos for multiple soloists (RV 566 and RV 563) and a beautiful solo motet O qui coeli terraeque serenitas RV 631, praising serenity in heaven and on earth.
Vivaldi entertained a close relationship with Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe, both as a performing artist and as a composer; indeed, his pieces were frequently performed at court. One of his illustrious colleagues in Dresden, Jan Dismas Zelenka, was obviously inspired by Vivaldi’s sacred music when he composed the heart-rending lament Misera Madre in which Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross is set for high-voice choir. It becomes quite obvious from the striking dissonances in this piece that the transition from war to peace is not always an easy one…
And just as our plea for peace is here put forward with music from the past, we fervently hope that peace will reign in our present time and the future: Et in terra pax!
© Matthias Maute, Montreal, 2011
Matthias Maute – conductor
Soprano I: Gabriele Hierdeis, Jacqueline Woodley, Dawn Bailey
Soprano II & Tenor : Shannon Mercer, Hélène Brunet, Marie Magistry
Alto I : Laura Pudwell, Scott Belluz, Erika McBurney, Megan Zantingh
Alto II & Basse : Josée Lalonde, Maude Brunet, Kristin Hoff
Violin I: Olivier Brault, Tanya LaPerrière, Sari Tsuji
Violin II: Lucie Ringuette, Jacques-André Houle, Ellie Nimeroski
Viola: Pemi Paull, Jennifer Thiessen
Cello: Isabelle Bozzini, Elinor Frey
Double-bass: Nicolas Lessard
Recorder: Matthias Maute, Sophie Larivière
Flute: Sophie Larivière, Grégoire Jeay
Oboe: Matthew Jennejohn, Kathryn Montoya
Bassoon: Anna Marsh
Trumpet: Alexis Basque, Amy Horvey
Theorbo: David Jacques
Organ & harpsichord: Erin Helyard
Timpani: Philip Hornsey