Vivaldi: Sacred Music
Published: May 31, 2012
It was my great fortune, in the years when I thought I had a future in music, to attend a school with a great orchestra and chorus. That is how, at 16, I found myself with a borrowed C-trumpet, playing the horn solos in the Vivaldi “Gloria."
If you’ve heard it, you know this “Gloria” is spirited music, rich in piety but much, much richer in musical showmanship. The trumpet part is especially fun; hitting those high notes made me look like a pale cousin to Louis Armstrong — as if my eyes were going to pop out of my head. The piece is much easier on the choir — every note sounds like music you’ve always known, music that’s orderly, almost pre-ordained, but still packed with thrills for performer and audience.
Here’s the thing that’s hard to believe. When I was indulging my musician fantasies in the early 1960s, Vivaldi was just beginning to be widely appreciated. Which is crazy — he lived from 1678 to 1741. How did his music go out of fashion for almost two centuries?
In his time, Vivaldi was widely respected, both for the beauty of his music and the speed of his writing. He wrote some 400 concertos; he said — accurately — that he could compose faster than a copyist could scribble the notes. Bach went to school on him. He was continuously employed.
But Vivaldi died poor. And was soon forgotten. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s — when a researcher encountered a collection of his lost manuscripts and powerhouses like Ezra Pound proclaimed Vivaldi’s excellence — that his music began to be widely played. And then, at some point in the 1970s or 1980s, hotels and restaurants discovered “The Four Seasons,” and after that, you couldn’t get away from Vivaldi. He became, sadly, as corny as Pachelbel.
Stravinsky mocked Vivaldi’s concertos — the same piece, he said, written 400 times. But no one mocks the choral music. It has balance and thrust and personality; it’s never less than pleasant. [To buy Volume 1 of Vivaldi's choral music from Amazon, click here. For Volume 2, click here. For Volume 3. click here.]
Vivaldi wrote most of his choral music for women. With good reason — for 35 years, he was in the employ of La Pieta, a home for Venetian foundlings. Don’t get all weepy about those poor little girls; this isn’t “Annie.” Remember that we are talking about Venice, one of the richest cities in the world. And remember, too, that we are dealing with upper-class morality — most of the girls at the Ospedale della Pietà weren’t orphans, but the illegitimate daughters of married noblemen and their mistresses. The quarters were luxurious; musical standards were high.
As were the notes. Vivaldi had only female voices to work with, and he showed them off. Bass parts were taken up an octave; sopranos were pitched to the heavens. Excess is stripped away. Vivaldi takes traditional themes — he’d been trained as a priest — and weaves them into beauty.
There are ten CDs of this music recorded by Robert King and the King’s Consort. I’ve heard maybe half of them, and can’t find a weak moment anywhere. So be careful — King’s recordings of this music are definitive. And addictive. If you’re not careful, you’ll not only want them all, you’ll start thinking seriously about a trip to Venice.