The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979
by Helen Baker
The Prete Rosso considered only his best efforts worthy of glorifying God. He praises God not in the dead language of the stile antico, but in the most eloquent accents of his personal musical language.
Thanks to their happy discovery that Bach had found Vivaldi worthy of imitation, musicologists found the Prete Rosso worthy of rescue from oblivion. The once internationally famous Vivaldi had already become an obscure figure by the time of his pauper's death in Vienna in 1741. Today, his instrumental music is allowed to form the backdrop for clever conversation at culturally pretentious cocktail parties, much as it did for the urbane chatter of eighteenth century Venetian visitors to the fashionable concerts of the orphan girls of the Pieta. A French traveler, relating in amazement his experience at a concert in this remarkable Venetian institution, describes a scene not unlike a modern cocktail party: "The orchestra, recruited from four hundred of the finest virtuose, was conducted by the famous Saxon, Hasse. (One of Vivaldi's successors). The unprofessed sisters, all refined ladies, came and went behind two grilles, making conversation and distributing refreshments to the cavaliers and abbes gathered in a circle around one or another grille, fans in their hands.'' Guardi and Longhi delighted in painting just such scenes.
The Pieta was but one of four Venetian conservatories or ospedal renowned for their music. They were actually shelters for the orphaned, illegitimate, handicapped, or otherwise unwanted female offspring of the city. With these conservatories, the Venetians had hit upon a brilliant solution to a tragic social problem. Venice was even then a playground for tourists, and for sailors on shore leave. Needless to say, Venice was plagued with a prodigious number of illegitimate births, and rather than have the innocent byproducts of what was, after all, an important factor in the Venetian economy, cast into the canals, the Pieta was founded to provide a haven for these unfortunates, who numbered as many as six thousand at one point in its history. The Pieta was no Dickensian institution, however. Though its charges wore habit-like uniforms and were kept in cloistered seclusion, they did not take religious vows and austerity was not a conspicuous quality in their lives. Music played an enormous part in the education of the girls at the Pieta. The best masters were engaged to instruct them in vocal and instrumental performance, in solfege and theory. The most gifted musicians formed a kind of aristocracy in the school (much as do the members of the football team in the modern high school or college); they received a yearly stipend of about one hundred lire from the state, while the elite among these received minor privileges, adulation, gifts, even proposals of marriage. They gave regular weekly concerts for which admission was charged, and the popularity of these concerts swelled the coffers of the Pieta. In addition, they sang at the funerals of distinguished Venetians, and were often invited to perform at the palaces of the nobility on special occasions, even traveling considerable distances from Venice.
In September 1703, only a few months after his ordination as a priest, the twenty-six year old Vivaldi assumed the post of "maestro di violino" at the Pieta. His industry as pedagogue and composer was rewarded by increases in salary and promotions, and he rapidly acquired an international reputation. When in 1713, Francesco Gasparini, as "maestro di coro" -- Vivaldi's superior-- took a leave of absence from the Pieta because of illness, Vivaldi assumed his responsibilities as house-composer, chiefly of sacred music. Around the same time Vivaldi also turned to opera, not only as a composer but as an impresario as well, an activity in those days not considered incompatible with his role as a priest. Vivaldi had long since given up saying Mass for reasons of ill-health; he seems to have had asthma and a heart condition which interfered with his religious obligations, although they did not seem to hamper his activities as a violinst, conductor, composer or business manager. Henceforth, Vivaldi would distinguish himself as much as a vocal composer as he had as a violinist and instrumental composer.
Gasparini's absence from the Pieta, which in due course became permanent, made it possible for Vivaldi to turn to a genre he had previously neglected, the oratorio. Two of Vivaldi's oratorios were performed in the concerts of the Ospedale della Pieta, Moyses Deus Pharaonis in 1714 and Juditha triumphans devicta Holofernes barbaris in 1716 (on MHS 835L/36H). The first of these has been lost, but the second is among the six volumes of Vivaldi's sacred music preserved today in Turin. (The discovery in the 1930s of a vast amount of Vivaldi's music, including a considerable number of operas and sacred works hitherto unknown, is in itself a fascinating scholarly detective story, full of intrigue and suspense.) Judith's providential discovery was fortunate, indeed, for the work is a masterpiece with its abundance of fresh musical ideas and variegated, appropriately-chosen instrumental colors. The Judith story was a Baroque favorite, not only in art but in music: Charpentier had set it; Alessandro Scarlatti had composed two versions; five years before Vivaldi his compatriot Benedetto Marcello had written both libretto and music for a Giuditta dedicated to a Borghese princess; Metastasio's libretto of the Judith story, Betulia liberata, would be set by a long chain of composers, including the fifteen-year old Mozart. Vivaldi and his librettist Jacopo Cassetti saw in Judith, with her heroic and erotic qualities, a figure of Venice. The oratorio is not only a retelling of the Biblical story, but a veiled political allegory symbolizing the triumph of Venice (Judith and Betulia) over the Turks (the Assyrians), another episode in the "myth of Venice." In inverse proportion to the waning of Venetian mercantile dominance and political prestige, the Republic strove to bolster its image through art and music. The state-supported musical activities of the Pieta were part of this public relations scheme to glorify Venice; thus the Pieta was the ideal locale for the performance of an oratorio intended to enhance the prestige of Venice. In it, Vivaldi utilized all the musical resources of the Ospedale, players of all kinds of instruments as well as singers. The five solos were assigned to ospaliere, as the orphan girls were called; all the roles, even the male ones, are for soprano or alto. The chorus calls for full SATB; while the tenor parts could be sung by the low altos of the Pieta, the bass parts must have been taken by instructors at the Ospedale, perhaps filled out by members from various church choirs. Vivaldi makes use of a variety of unusual obbligato instruments in the arias--viola d'amore, a family of "viole all'inglese," theorbo, salmoe (a shawm), clareni (clarinets), even a mandoline--exploiting the wide-ranging abilities of the virtuose of the Pieta. Vivaldi was later to draw on material from Juditha for the concerto La Primavera.
Juditha, a "Sacrum militare oratorium" remains closer to opera in its drama and characterization than it does to sacred music. Worldly-wise and ambitious, Vivaldi was nevertheless a priest. Though he did not say Mass and was constantly in the company of his favorite prima-donna and pupil, Anna Giro, he had a reputation for being personally very pious--it was said of him that he dropped his rosary or breviary only to take up his pen to compose. It is obvious that he was able to lavish more care on his sacred music, which, unlike his operas, he could write at his own pace and according to his own inspiration. Moreover, he was writing for the competent, docile musicians of the Pieta, most of whom he had personally trained, and his works were assured of having adequate rehearsal. He could also count on having a more attentive audience; while his concertos had to vie with gossip and refreshments, and his operas with gambling and other highly inappropriate behavior, his church music was sure to have rapt and devoted listeners. The chapel services at the Pieta on Sundays and feast days were open to all who wanted to come in (for an offering of a few soldetti) provided they remained quietly in their seats during the service. Only a few aristocrats and distinguished visitors were permitted in the small reserved loggias that opened into the interior, beyond the grille that stood between the congregation and the ospealiere. Applause was of course forbidden in church, but the audience showed its appreciation by coughing, loud nose-blowing, or by shuffling feet. Sometimes, women were so affected by the music, they would weep, cry out and faint in church!
Vivaldi's sacred music allows for greater stylistic variety than any other genre; it has all the drama and vocal brilliance of opera, all the color and verve of his concertos, while the stately polyphony of the stile ecclesiastico more often yields to powerful homophonic choral writing, frequently for double chorus. Religious feeling abounds, not of quiet intensity and austerity, but of lyrical rapture and sumptuous grandeur.
The administration of the Pieta was well pleased with Vivaldi's earliest sacred works; in 1715, he was given an extra emolument for having produced in a very short time "many outstanding compositions ... an entire Mass, Vesper service, an Oratorio [Moyse], more than thirty motets, and other works." By latest count, Vivaldi's sacred music numbers sixty-five titles including psalms, motets hymns, and Mass movements. They range from works for solo voice and orchestra (both intimate motets in chamber cantata style and more imposing psalm settings in sacred concerto style) to grandiose compositions for two choruses, each with its own orchestra and soloists, in several movements. Falling between these two extremes are pieces with more conventional scoring for four-part chorus and occasional solos.
An intimate example of the first type of setting is found in the motet for soprano and string ensemble, Nulla in mundo pax sincera (on MHS 3994). Similar to a chamber cantata in form, it consists of two do capo arias, the first a siciliano, the second a gavotte with a cadenza-like "Alleluia" providing a coda. The two arias are separated by an expressive recitative verging on arioso with its frequent tempo changes and florid passages. Somewhat more elaborate is Vivaldi's setting of Psalm 126, Nisi Dominus, (on MHS 834T) for contralto with obbligato viola d'amore, strings pnd organ. Each of its nine verses is set as a separate movement, with the music expressing faithfully the spirit of the text, sometimes affectively, sometimes literally-in "Sicut erat in principio" the music is the same '' as it was in the beginning!''
Vivaldi's Magnificat (one version of this work is on MHS 834T), employing a single chorus, orchestra and soloists, falls into the middle category. It exists in two versions: in the first, greater scope is given to the chorus; in the second, evidently a reworking for use in the Pieta, several of the choruses are replaced by brilliant arias specially composed to display the virtuosity of particular singers who are named in the score: Appolonia, Ambrosina, Chiaretta, Alberta. In the choruses, Vivaldi favors homophony, reserving more elaborate polyphonic treatment for the final movement. In the section "Deposuit potentes" he uses chorus and orchestra in unison with striking effect. The demanding vocal writing in the arias of the second version explains why leading opera singers paid regular visits to the services at the Pieta to hear and learn from the well-schooled voices of the ospealiere.
An especially imposing example of Vivaldi's most elaborate sacred style is Psalm 111, Beatus vir (on MHS 3994) beyond doubt one of Vivaldi's supreme masterpieces. Vivaldi appears not to have written it for the girls of the Pieta, for in it he does not cater to the vocal brilliance of individual performers; even seemingly solo movements are marked for unison "soprani," "bassi," or "tenori " (although this need not proscribe performance by a single soloist today). In Beatus vir, Vivaldi takes as his point of departure the Venetian polychoral tradition, enriching it by blending into it elements of both the ecclesiastical and concerto styles. The instruments do not merely support the parts of the chorus, but conduct dialogues with it and are in every way its equal. The choruses fluctuate in texture between polyphony and dramatic homophony. Despite the stylistic variety, formal unity is achieved by the recurring statement of "Beatus vir qui timet Dominum" by homophonic chorus with orchestra.
If in his instrumental music Vivaldi could at times be hasty and superficial, the level of his church music is consistently high. Indeed, the best of it can be put alongside Bach's without suffering by comparison. The Prete Rosso considered only his best efforts worthy of glorifying God. He praises God not in the dead language of the stile antico, but in the most eloquent accents of his personal musical language.
Helen Baker was a frequent contributor to The MHS Review. She had a Ph.D from Rutgers University, and was also a pianist, a harpsichordist and a music educator. She died in 1997.