The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979
BY David M. Greene
Sacred Music, Volume 2
Jennifer Smith, Wally Staempfli, Sopranos
Christiane Jacottet, Harpsichord
Philippe Corboz, Positive Organ
Philippe Huttenlocher, Bass
Chamber Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble of Lausanne
Michel Corboz, Director
Someone should do a drama on Vivaldi!
The odds are that we shall not get to know much more about the man who was Antonio Vivaldi.
Which is sad, for the scrappy facts that we possess do more to tantalize than to satisfy. To be sure, some misleading stuff has been cleared up. It is now almost one hundred percent certain, for example, that he was not called "the Red Priest" because (as someone once argued) he swished about in a cassock of scarlet moire (as if the Church would have tolerated such behavior!). The color-reference was to his carroty hair. His father Giovanni Battista, a barber turned violinist, appears on some of the records from St. Mark's, where he played, as "G.B. Rossi"
It's not the "red" element that should bother any of us, except maybe Governor Reagan; but the "priest" is another matter. Vivaldi seems to have gone through all the steps from tonsuring to ordination without demur, though there is no hint that he ever went to a university to get his D.D. (It is assumed that he had on-the-job training, which was okay back there.) He had just turned twenty-five when he entered the priesthood. Two years later he was excused from further celebrating Mass, on grounds of physical inability to do so. He had chest problems. Some writers call them asthma, others angina; Vivaldi himself termed then "heart seizure," whatever that may signify. Anyhow, he says, that was what thrice interrupted him in the course of his devotions and ever after (this is 1737) left him housebound, save when he was lugged to a gondola or carriage for dental checkups and other essential services. This from a pitiful invalid who turned out over 800 known compositions! who for much of his life spent his days at the Ospedale della Pieta banging music into the bastard and unwanted daughters of Venice, and gave lessons on the side to the likes of Pisendel and maybe Heinichen and Zelenka! who gallivanted all over Italy and Germany and the Netherlands and Austria, often accompanied by his young ''pupil'' Anne Giraud and her sister Pauline, his "nurse!" One wonders if the Church was on to something in 1737 when it rapped his knuckles for refusing to say Mass and for consorting with Anne in public. Yet the early musical dictionarist Ernst Ludwig Gerber says that his rosary was out of his hands only when he was composing (which must have been pretty often, however), and the great comic playwright Goldoni, who visited him on libretto-business in 1735, depicts him piously mumbling psalms in the interstices of their conversation. And there are the 60 pieces of religious music--some extensive--that have come down to us. Someone should do a drama on Vivaldi!
Vivaldi's sacred music, except for three pieces that drifted up to Dresden with Pisendel or someone, turned up in the great hoard of Vivaldi manuscripts discovered only fifty years ago in the Durazzo legacy and purchased for the Turin Library by the banker Roberto Foa and the manufacturer Filippo Giordano as a memorial to their infant sons. Such a hue and cry was made over the instrumental music in this collection that, in large part, the sacred music had to wait. Only now is it beginning to be recorded in any breadth.
And there's the rub! I find there's little information yet available. Walter Kolneder's Antonio Vivaldi (1965) for instance, goes into some detailed tabulations of the instrumental music and the operas; but his section on musica sacra is limited, apparently, only to the dozen or so works then obtainable on records, none of them included on this one. The brief Lauda Jerusalem for two sopranos and double chorus has since appeared, directed by Stephane Caillat, on MHS 1488. Lacking notes, I assumed that the setting of Psalm 112, Beatus vir, was identical with the work I already knew from RCA LSC2935 and Hungaroton SPLX 11695, though I was hard put to explain the presence of the baritone (Philippe Huttenlocher) among the soloists. Much to my surprise, I found that it was a different work from both--which were different from each other! This, like the RCA version, is a big, almost Handelian work, the verses alternately set for soloists and chorus. I was particularly taken with No. 5, an imaginative duet for one of the sopranos and the tootling of the little positive organ, and No. 8, in which Mr. Huttenlocher in his finest fettle depicts the wrath of the wicked as they observe how the God-fearing man is rewarded, much as Handel depicts wrath (human and divine) in the bass arias of Messiah. But for my money, the real goody is the solo motet, in which Jennifer Smith, undaunted by the Herculean vocal problems posed, sings like an angel in ecstasy.