FL 2 3099

Vivaldi: Motets for soprano

Release date October 06, 1997
Album code FL 2 3099
Periods Baroque

Album information

Despite extensive travels throughout Italy and Germany, travels made necessary by the presentation of his operas, Vivaldi remained for nearly forty years at the service of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà di Venezia. He became maestro di concerti at the Ospedale soon after his ordination in 1703, and he left the institution circa 1740 for a trip to Vienna, where he died a year later from an “internal inflammation.” As part of his early functions at the Pietà, il prete rosso (as he was known thanks to his red hair) had to write a few concerti each month and conduct the orchestra—composed of the young orphaned girls whose education was taken care of by the state—to which was later added the post of maestro di violino, which consisted of teaching the violin, the cello and the viole d’amore, among other instruments, to these probably unevenly talented young girls. Also in duty at the Ospedale was a maestro di coro, whose function included composing masses, motets and the psalms sung at Vespers—the Laudate pueri is such a psalm—and to perform them at Christmas, at Easter, and during the feasts of Annunciation and of Our Lady of the Visitation, to which the Pietà was devoted. After the departure in 1713 of Francesco Gasparini, Vivaldi became the interim maestro di coro, a position he held until the arrival of Pietro Carlo Grua five years later and for which he received extra salary. These circumstances again occured in 1726 and in 1738, making Vivaldi’s production of sacred music span his entire lifetime. Unfortunately, many of these sacred works, left unpublished, have been lost, and it is difficult to precisely date those that have been preserved. This production, which may have not been entirely written for la Pietà, is extremely varied, in terms both of style and instrumentation : we find psalms or movement of masses for solo voice, double chorus and double orchestra, as well as motets for solo voice and strings. While the masses and psalms may have resounded under the vaults of Saint Mark’s cathedral, the more modest works, by no means less virtuosic, were sung by Vivaldi’s young students, but also, perhaps, by prima donnas or castrati in parish churches or in Venetian convents. As was common at the time, Vivaldi’s sacred compositions for solo voice were not void of operatic traits : putting secular charms at the service of faith and its mystery, they often utilized both bravoura and cantabile arias, as well as assertive or languid dance rhythms. Baron Pöllniz tells that in Venice “one goes to church more to satisfy one’s ear than one’s piety,” and that the public’s interest in music is extreme ; the historian Pompeo Molmenti, in his history of Venice published at the beginning of our century, informs that “women, at times, cried, screamed or swooned when hearing the solemn sacred chants or the voice of some famous cantor.” Others accused 18th-century sacred music of being somewhat mundane—Mozart did not escape such criticism—but it was in accordance with the times to associate the pleasure of the sense with the instruments of redemption. Vivaldi’s faith was sincere, and his piety no doubt somewhat theatrical (as is often the case with the Latin temperament), which, at least, is what we can surmise from the sole testimony on the subject, that of Ludwig Gerber, who mentions in his 1792 Lexicon that il prete rosso always had his rosary in his hands, and that he only laid it down when came time to compose. Among the most interesting works for solo voice is the Laudate pueri R.600 for soprano, strings and continuo, one of Vivaldi’s three settings of this psalm. The work was written perhaps around 1717, thus a few years Gasparini’s departure, and can be seen as a suite of short movements in which a certain measure of contrast is achieved through the variety of vocal virtuosity and means of accompaniment. For example, while in the first verse, instruments and voice are very much imbricated, in the second movement, we find a large-scale arioso accompanied by a repeated-note motif in the strings, and without continuo ; the sixth movement contrasts different tempi, and in the Gloria the solo violin converses with the voice. To give the whole a cyclical character, the Sicut erat in principio (“as it was in the beginning”) returns to the words and music of the first verse, and the works ends with a fugal Amen, both virtuosic and lyrical. Surprisingly, the verdict on Vivaldi’s vocal music, as can be seen through the testimony of different witness, was far from unanimous. Joachim Quantz, who much admired his concerti, blamed him in later life for letting opera have a bad influence on his instrumental music, while Tartini’s grievance was that Vivaldi wrote for voice in the same way that he wrote for strings, even though he should have known that “a throat is not a violin neck” (many will also accuse Bach of writing too instrumental a vocal music and too vocal an instrumental music). Johann Mattheson, in his treatise Der vollcommene Capellmeister published in 1739, offered this judgment :”although he was not himself a singer, Vivaldi, in good manner, did not transpose in his vocal music the large intervals of the violin,” a praise repeated by Charles Burney, who noted that the composer “was too well acquainted with the voice to treat it as an instrument.” These commentators, no doubt, did not have access to the same Vivaldi works, and we can say that each tells part of the truth. Indeed, there are times in which the voice soars in the most natural manner, and others in which it borrows elements from the violin’s virtuosity, such as motifs with large leaps or semiquaver passage-work. This is particularly noticeable in the first movement of the motet Sum in medio tempestatum in which is evoked the fury of the waters and the winds in a manner recalling that of the two concerti—for violin Opus 8 No. 5 and for flute Opus 10 No.1—that bear the title La tempesta di mare. Indeed, vocal virtuosity is noticeably present in Vivaldi’s motets of non liturgical source. Written for solo voice (soprano or alto) and string orchestra, this genre, reinvented by 18th-century Italy, was described by Quantz in his 1752 treatise as a “sacred cantata with solos in Latin, consisting of two arias, two recitatives, and ending with an Alleluia, usually sung during mass, after the Credo, by one of the best singers.” We may note that Vivaldi, as Mozart will do years later in his famous Exultate jubilate, omits the introductory recitative, going instead immediately to the heart of the music. Only twelve of these compositions have survived (they were perhaps part of a group of thirty pieces for which Vivaldi received payment in 1715). More than in his other sacred music, Vivaldi here uses all traits of opera and bel canto : the arias are da capo, and the reprises may be ornamented. Each aria translates the atmosphere, going from melancholy to passion, suggested by the text of each stanza, and asks, on the part of the voice, for agility, evenness, suppleness and color. A few motifs illustrate in a more precise manner the meaning of certain words, as, for example, the motif in the first sentence of O qui coeli terraeque which places the earth one octave lower than the heavens ; the same writing technique is used in the fifth verse of the Laudate pueri, this time sustained by the strings. Finally, the Alleluias which close the works allow the voice to soar with truly instrumental freedom. According to musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon, it is Vivaldi’s sacred music, more that his numerous concerti, that is at the heart of the composer’s artistic thought. Even if one does not entirely share his opinion, one must agree with Robbins Landon when he sees in the recent interest in Vivaldi’s sacred music a second discovery of the genius of Il prete rosso. ” Venetian churches are places for high-society meetings, where, under the clear frescos of Tiepolo, we come to listen to beautiful music, look at pretty women, clown with a dog during the sermon, read a gothic inscription on the tomb of a captain, make noise or love, and taste, when we can taste it, the superior voluptuousness of giving pleasure the savor of sin. (…) Few days in which no musical solemnity takes place in the church, around a procession of doges, a heroic anniversary, a sacred feast, around all sacred or secular events of the Serenissima. More than the sermon, it is music that fills the churches; it is through music that one communes with God. Venice rushes to these ceremonies as to a free pleasure and a spiritual feast. ” Philippe Monnier, Venise au XVIIIe siècle, v. 1960

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