Published: Jan 20, 2010
It’s been a hard sell, but I’m slowly convincing the child that classical composers were the rock stars of their time. That’s certainly true of Vivaldi and Handel, which is why John Eliot Gardiner smartly had the Monteverdi Choir release Vivaldi’s "Gloria" and Handel’s "Dixit Dominus" on a single disc.
Here you get the music of two great showmen — say: the seventeenth century versions of The Who doing “Tommy” and The Beatles releasing “Sgt. Pepper.” That is, killer harmonies, dazzling melodies and an overt sense of exaltation. High-energy, feel good music. And the inventiveness never lags. [To buy the Vivaldi/Handel CD from Amazon.com, click here. To buy the MP3 download of the Vivaldi/Handel CD from Amazon.com, click here.]
If you’ve read my piece about Vivaldi’s Sacred Music, you know the story: a famous composer and choirmaster dies poor and out of fashion, and his music is largely forgotten for two centuries. Then, in the 1920s, 300 concertos, 18 operas and 100 vocal-instrumental pieces turn up, among them the “Gloria.” Eventually every restaurant and Four Seasons Hotel is playing his “Four Seasons,”and the “Gloria” joins the repertoire of popular choral works.
Of the two composers, Handel was the bigger star — but then, he was less interested in church music than in commercial opera. He could crank out a score in two weeks; like a pop composer, he knew exactly how to manipulate an audience.
This is why it’s no surprise that his “Messiah” — which Handel wrote in just 24 days — is the world’s best-known piece of choral music. Handel knew what he accomplished even before its premiere; he sobbed after finishing the “Hallelujah” chorus. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
Handel’s “Dixit Dominus” is as crisp as a morning in Heaven. It’s loud, brassy, self-assured the point of preening. Handel knew fewer tricks than, say, Bach, but he knew just when to pull them out of his hat. Watch and listen:
Of the two choral works, I have deeper affection for the Vivaldi “Gloria” — in part because I once played the attention-getting C-trumpet solo in a school concert, but more for its sheer excitement. The version of the “Gloria in excelis deo” I’ve chosen for you to watch and listen to isn’t from the Gardiner recording. And it’s done at a tempo far above the speed limit. The point here is that it can accommodate speed — and while it may kill the musicians, it can surely thrill a crowd.
In their shiny precision, both the Vivaldi and the Handel are among the most exciting choral pieces I know. Cheap thrills? Probably. But when you’re looking for music that jacks you up, shows you hope and suggests glory ahead, rousing crowd-pleasers are just what you want.