Program Notes

Vivaldi Introduction and Gloria

            Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and spent most of his career there. For many music lovers, his music is the quintessential Venetian music, evoking vividly the pageantry and theatricality of that special place.

            Most of Vivaldi’s choral works were composed for the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for orphaned girls where Vivaldi worked between 1703 and 1740. There were four of these homes in Venice during that period, and they all had elaborate musical programs. The Ospedale where Vivaldi worked was connected to the church of Santa Maria della Pietà, where the performances took place. The interior was specifically designed to enhance musical acoustics and has an interesting oval shape. It can still be visited today on the Riva degli Schiavoni, at the basin of the Grand Canal. And the passageway where the young girls walked from the Ospedale to the church is also still there, one story above ground (so they could walk straight to the balcony of the church, protected from public view).

            Vivaldi began studying to become a priest when he was 15, and was ordained ten years later in 1703. Because of his red hair he was nicknamed Il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest.” Though his ill health supposedly prevented him from celebrating Mass, he kept a busy schedule as a musician, including touring with an opera troupe! He lived in Vienna at the end of his life, where he died in 1741.

            Vivaldi composed two different Glorias, the better-known one (the opus number is RV589) and the one we are performing (RV588). Tonight’s Introduction and Gloria is quite a special piece, and deserves to be performed more often. The conception of the beginning is quite innovative. Instead of starting with the usual expected opening choral movement, here Vivaldi begins with a virtuoso aria for coloratura alto – a piece that sounds more like a curtain-raiser for an opera. It is followed by a recitative, also more at home in an opera than a Gloria. And then, the alto’s world and the choral world combine in the “Gloria” movement, where the soloist continues in her extroverted manner, dovetailing with the expected joyous choral entry. A series of wonderful solo and choral movements continue, providing a procession of dramatic contrasts. Astute listeners will recognize the theme of the final movement, because it is the same theme used in his later and more famous Gloria.  Ironically this was not his own theme, but that of his Venetian contemporary, G.M. Ruggieri.

Bach Magnificat in D

Bach’s Magnificat is one of the most magnificent works in the whole choral repertory. Composing this piece for his first Christmas in Leipzig, Bach obviously was excited with his new post, and lavished on the work all the brilliance, large choral and orchestra forces, and elevated ceremonial style he could offer. Because of its extraordinary musical inspiration, it stands alongside his other supreme choral masterpieces, for example, the Mass in B Minor - the one enormous difference being: length. Whereas in the two-hour long B Minor Mass, for example, Bach developed each movement’s material as extensively as any composer ever could. However, in his 30-minute Magnificat, Bach laid out each movement’s inspired material as concisely as possible.

            The Magnificat text is the Virgin Mary’s song of praise to God, as found in the Gospel of St. Luke. Each movement uses but a fragment of the text, never more than one verse.

            The opening movement is one of the glories of classical music. Immediately, Bach puts us into a world of ecstatic, spiritual joy. The text Mary utters is “My soul magnifies the Lord”. This may be Mary’s text, but of course this is Bach’s own ineffable vision of joy.

            After the full choral and orchestral forces of the opening movement, the second movement is set for just strings and soprano solo. Here the text of the second half of the verse (“and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”) is given a lighter setting - not a grand vision, but the simple, joyful song of a young woman.

            The orchestration gets even more intimate with the next movement, an aria for soprano, oboe d’amore (a lower, sweeter, version of the oboe), and basso continuo (bass instruments and organ). The text is in two sections: “He has regarded (or favored) a humble, lowly servant,” and “Behold, from henceforth I shall be called blessed by all generations”. Bach depicts the humble, lowly servant in an exceptionally tender, poignant way. When that section is over, he connects it to the second section with an oboe interlude of sublime, quiet, peaceful beauty. Suddenly, but subtly, the mood changes with the word “ecce” (“Behold...”) and, before we know it, we are whirled into the dramatic choral depiction of “all generations.” Bach indicates the infinite number of future generations by the constant, frequent statement of the theme, jumping from one voice part to the next with great insistence. Just as it seems it will swirl away, it settles on a bold, low C# pedal point, comes to a startling halt, and finally concludes with solemnity and strength in F# Minor.

            The sunnier key of A Major was chosen for the bass aria (“for He that is mighty has done great things for me; and Holy is His name”). The might of the Lord is shown here, not with force, but with depth (scoring it for bass solo and bass instruments only) and steadfastness (the melody played in the bass instruments is repeated in ostinato fashion, the tune passed back and forth between the bass and the bass instruments).

            Bach then travels to the key of E Minor for the expressive, deeply moving duet (“And his mercy is on those who fear him, for all generations.”) The slow, curvaceous music here in the 12/8 meter recalls the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. The sonorities of the alto and tenor are combined almost into a single unit. And they are cloaked with a rich, subdued orchestration: violins and violas playing with mutes, and flutes doubling the violin parts.

            The full choral and orchestral forces return in the chorus “Fecit potentiam.” Bach certainly depicts the text here: “He has shown strength with his arm, and has scattered those who are proud in their hearts.” The strength is shown with three simultaneous musical materials: 1) solid, block-like chords in vocal groups and instrumental groups - in canon; 2) a florid 16th note melody (first given to tenors, then everybody else eventually) which is not curvaceous, but rough and angular; and 3) a disjointed, thumping bass line. All these elements are kicked around from part to part, and build up and up until, suddenly, they literally fall apart at the words “dispersit...” (“scattered”). After an amazing halt, the full ensemble comes back in with outrageous boldness. The chords are slow and extremely solid. The harmonies are incredibly intense. Even when the piece finally ends in D Major, it does not feel resolved.

            And it is not, as the tenor aria continues to show. Here, with just tenor, violins and bass instruments, Bach paints a vivid picture of “the powerful being deposed from their positions” (with a flamboyant melody that plummets from high notes to low notes). Likewise, when “the humble are exalted”, the melody goes up and up.

            The strong seriousness of the tenor aria is wonderfully contrasted with the beautiful, delicate loveliness of the next aria. Scored for alto, two flutes, and pizzicato (plucked) bass instruments, the aria shows “all the good things He gives to the humble, hungry person”. The “rich person being sent away empty” really is not depicted until the end with unexpected hesitations, and, finally, the very last note of the piece - not a final chord, but just an empty-sounding plucked bass note.

            “Remembering His mercy, He has helped his servant Israel” is the text for the next chorus of sopranos and altos. In a hypnotic, slow 3/4 meter, the intertwining rising and falling of the women’s voices wraps around the delicate bass line, producing a texture and musical world oflimpid beauty. Bach overlays two obes in unison, playing slow notes - one note at a time - a portion of the ancient Gregorian chant melody of the Magnificat - to create a timeless, universial quality.

            The chorus “Sicut locutus est” finishes the sentence above with the formula-like phrase “as He promised to our forefathers, Abraham, and his seed forever.” This formula is shown by Bach in an almost overly conservative, contrapuntal fashion, with all the fugal melody entrances coming in almost too regularly (of course, this was Bach’s intent). But, naturally, Bach does not leave it there. For, even though there is “tradition” depicted, the music is wonderful: there is fabulous detail, variety of counterpoint and voice groupings, and a rousing melody. And it is interesting to note that the texture of the movement, which sounds perfectly full and satisfying, includes an orchestral accompaniment of merely bass instruments and organ.

            That orchestral choice sets us up perfectly for the stunning arrival of the final Gloria Patri movements where the whole choral and orchestral ensemble shines forth. The triple Gloria (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) begins each time with block chords followed by cascading triplets in the choral voices. First, Glory to the Father; then Glory to the Son; then Glory to the Holy Spirit. The third time it comes together in one of the most inspired and glorious moments in all of music.

            With the words “As is was in the beginning is now” Bach brings back the music from the very beginning of the Magnificat and concludes one of his very greatest masterpieces.

- Dennis Keene