“Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the first of these great powers only the memory remains …..[Tyre’s] successor, like her in perfection of beauty, though less in endurance of dominion, is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.” Thus John Ruskin in his seminal book The Stones of Venice, published in 1853.
For Ruskin, the glory that was the Serene Republic was at its height in the high Gothic era, when Venice, the hub of world trade, commanded the seas of the known world, her treasures looted from the riches of the Orient. Ruskin saw the onset of the Renaissance as the beginning of a decline which would plumb new depths in the age of the Baroque in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Thenceforth, year after year, the nation drank with deeper thirst from the fountains of forbidden pleasure, and dug for springs, hitherto unknown, in the dark places of the earth. In the ingenuity of indulgence, in the varieties of vanity, Venice surpassed the cities of Christendom ….. so now the youth of Europe assembled in the halls of her luxury, to learn from her the arts of delight” [ibid.].
This, then, was the Venice into which Antonio Vivaldi was born on 4th March 1678: the ‘party town’ of Europe. What a contrast to the worlds in which his contemporaries, J.S. Bach and Handel, both born in 1685, would thrive: the Lutheran churches and courts in which Bach achieved supremacy as composer and organist; and London, the mercantile power-house capital of the new maritime superpower, where Handel would become the most successful composer of his age.
Vivaldi’s father was born into the baking trade but became a professional violinist and obtained a post in the orchestra of St.Mark’s Basilica in Venice. He became something of an impresario and possibly even composed an opera. Antonio, the eldest son, was born with bronchial problems and may have suffered from angina. He entered the priesthood, but continued to live at home, taking violin lessons and occasionally deputising at St. Mark’s, presumably when a better-paid engagement elsewhere required his father’s absence. It soon became clear that Antonio’s musical gifts far outstripped his priestly vocation.
A couple of hundred yards from the Doge’s Palace along the Riva degli Schiavoni stands the church of La Pietà, today a regular venue for concerts of Vivaldi’s music. Perhaps the muffled thrumming of the marine diesels of passing boats is a slight intrusion, but the instruments sound wonderful in its acoustic. Although the present church is a rebuild begun a few years after Vivaldi’s death, this is indeed the site of the church of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a home for orphaned or abandoned girls. Such was the rate of illegitimate births that there were four such establishments in Venice, richly endowed by wealthy patrons, some no doubt feeling particularly responsible for the girls given into the church’s care. In September 1703, Vivaldi was appointed maestro di violono at the Pietà, and would continue to hold posts there (with sporadic and sometimes lengthy interruptions) until 1740.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau joined the crowds who thronged to hear the music at the Pietà and recorded his impressions in his Confessions. “The scuole are charitable institutions established to provide an education for poor girls, to whom the Republic later gives a dowry, whether for marriage or for the cloister. Every Sunday, during Vespers, there are motets for a large chorus and orchestra ….. performed from behind screened-off galleries by girls, the oldest of whom is not twenty years of age ….. the wealth of the artistry, the exquisite taste of the music, the precision of performance combines to produce an effect to which I doubt if any man’s heart could remain immune. What pained me were those cursed screens which let only sounds escape and kept hidden from me the angelic beauties of which the sounds were so worthy.”
Despite his poor health, Vivaldi travelled widely, his fame and influence spreading across Europe, including Prague and Vienna. Even more significantly, his instrumental music was published by one of the most powerful of publishers, Etienne Roger of Amsterdam. Vivaldi followed the example of Corelli by producing sets of concertos, (usually 12) under such titles as his Op.8, “The Trial of Harmony and Invention”, dedicated to a wealthy Bohemian count. Such publications were sold widely in northern Europe. J.S. Bach, no less, transcribed several of them. Shrewdly, Vivaldi gave many of his concertos attractive titles such as “Storm at Sea”, “The Cuckoo”, “The Hunt” and “The Posthorn”.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the first four of the Op.8 concertos achieved a fresh impetus as The Four Seasons. They bore simple titles: Spring – Summer – Autumn – Winter. Moreover, they fitted conveniently on to two sides of an LP. One recording in particular, the present one, did much to launch the Vivaldi ‘boom’, and contributed hugely to the burgeoning popularity of baroque music. Violinist-Director Felix Ayo and his Italian colleagues make the most of the opportunities Vivaldi provides for vivid imagery, poetic expression and musical virtuosity.
As if the music itself did not paint a clear enough picture, Vivaldi went further. Throughout the score he added the texts of sonnets, written by himself, giving a verbal description of what is happening in the music.
Vivaldi’s output of instrumental music was colossal; equally, his music for the stage, with over forty operas. Unsurprisingly, his contribution to the music of the Church was just as impressive. In the city where composers such as Monteverdi and the Gabrielis had earlier created some of the greatest and most original sacred music, there was constant demand for new works reflecting the new taste. Vivaldi’s contract at the Pietà required him to supply two Mass and two Vespers settings yearly and two motets monthly as well as music for major church festivals. The works recorded here are wonderful examples of Vivaldi the choral composer at his greatest. The Gloria, a setting of the standard text from the Ordinary of the Mass was almost certainly composed for the girls of the Pietà – there are no tenor or bass solos. Its electrifying opening launches a work in which the dramatic response to the text is almost operatic, and would have delighted the congregation (perhaps drawn to the church more as an audience).
The Stabat Mater was originally a medieval hymn, the title taken from the opening words, “The sorrowful mother stood weeping by the Cross from which her Son was hanging”, and is a meditation on the sufferings of Mary as she witnesses the passion and death of Jesus. It was removed from the church liturgy in the 16th century but restored as a liturgical sequence in 1727. Vivaldi seized on the opportunity and composed this deeply moving setting, most probably the same year. The motet O qui coeli terraeque is a fine example of the sort of piece which drew such packed congregations to the Pietà.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe