By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
We rightly consider Antonio Vivaldi a brilliant Italian Baroque contemporary of Bach and Handel. His reputation so exceeded the bounds of Italy that he exercised in his concerti and church compositions considerable influence on Bach. Nevertheless, after his death in 1741 he and his works rapidly sank into practical oblivion. The Twentieth Century has quite literally lifted him out of this undeserved obscurity and has more literally established his reputation.
During his lifetime Vivaldi produced instrumental sonatas, innumerable concerti, over thirty operas, and a considerable amount of church music. These total more than 760 works. A great majority of them have only come to light between 1905 and 1922 in a first phase of rediscovery, followed by the tremendous impetus imparted to our knowledge of them and their publication through discoveries in the National Library of Turin from 1926 onward. His compositions have best been catalogued and classified in Peter Ryoms thematic catalog (RV=Ryoms Verzeichnis).
Specification of the date of composition and initial performance of Vivaldi's works is particularly hazardous with respect to his church music. Those calling for female soloists and chorus appear to belong to the music composed for the Venetian Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls, but more specifically, given its orientation toward musical training and excellence, a Conservatory. That music requiring mixed chorus such as Psalm 112 Beatus Vir (RV 597) may well in its polychoral Venetian style have been intended for St. Mark's Cathedral.
Vivaldi set this Psalm Beatus Vir three times. One of these has been lost. But the two extant settings (RV 597 and 598) are singled out by various biographers and musicologists as outstanding examples of Vivaldi's varied techniques in his compositional approach. The distinguished Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot notes with respect to the shorter of the two settings (RV 598): Alongside operatic influences on his sacred compositions that of the concerto is rarely absent. An extreme case is in RV 598, conceived as a vast span of 420 bars in ritornello form. Here the vocal soloists are heard in the episodes and the choir fulfills tutti and solo functions in turn.” In brief it is set out with the ground plan and general musical style of a concerto grosso.
The Beatus Vir (RV 507) presented in this evening's concert is a far larger and more magnificent setting. It is scored for two sopranos, a tenor and two bass soloists, two four-part choruses and two orchestras each comprising oboes and strings. The Psalm's nine verses (#7 and 8 combined) and the doxology are each treated in cantata style. Each distinct movement calls for varied forces such as antiphonal operatic duets by basses or soprano soloists, double chorus in antiphonal opposition, a choral trio of contraltos, tenors, and basses, and a virtuoso tenor aria. All these forces combine into a single grand chorus to conclude the Psalm with fugal splendor.
Vincent Persichetti has emerged in recent years as one of America's most prominent composers. Born in Philadelphia in June, 1915, he studied subsequently under Russell Miller, Fritz Reiner, Olga Samaroff and Roy Harris. The recipient of numerous academic, national, and honorary awards, his stature on the American musical scene finds further expression through his enduring capacity as an advisor and editor. He joined the faculty of the Julliard Institute in 1947. Besides writing a distinguished book on Twentieth-century harmony, he has composed extensively for both instrumental and vocal idioms, from chamber works and song cycles to nine symphonies and band compositions. Among his choral works singled out for merit are the Stabat Mater, The Creation, and the grandiose Te Deum.
In 1983 he composed The Flower Songs (Cantata #6) for mixed chorus and string orchestra. It was performed initially on April 20, 1984 in Philadelphia. These songs afford us an opportunity to appreciate Persichetti's most recent achievement and style, which as David Ewen notes is characterized by expansive lyricism, motivic patterns, skillful polyphony, and subtle and often complex rhythmic patterns producing an art uniquely his.
In 1863 that old operatic lion Gioacchino Rossini managed one last resounding roar in his quite unexpectedly grand Petite Messe Solonelle. The designation "petite" cannot have been applied to its ninety minute length. It probably highlighted the original performing forces Rossini envisaged; twelve singers ("of three sexes, men, women, and castrati") divided into four soloists and eight choral voices, two pianos, and an harmonium.
The Mass's outstanding artistic and financial success throughout Europe coupled with urgent requests from knowledgeable friends induced the old lion in 1867, a year before his death, to orchestrate the work. He undertook this oppressive task for as he observed, someone else would surely do it after his death and probably in a manner displeasing to him. His contemporaries and Rossini himself preferred the original "petite" version.
The Petite Messe Solonelle's success belied Rossini's own humble assessment of it which he attached to its concluding pages. "Dear God- Well, this poor little Mass is completed. Have I for once written real Sacred Music, or merely damned bad music? I was born for opera buffa as Thou knowest! Little skill but some heart; that about sums it up. So blessed be Thou and grant me paradise:'
This evenings performance of the "Cum Sancto Spirito” segment of the Gloria serves to highlight the impact which Rossini's belated study of J.S. Bach's works had on him. Homer Ulrich notes: ''The Mass is distinguished by excellence of contrapuntal writing and even complete fugues-features not often found in music of composers of comic opera.”
Posterity has confirmed Rossini's contemporaries who esteemed the preeminent quality and craftsmanship of the best of all the Mass's fugues, the "Cum Sancto Spirito.” Present at its initial private performance on March 14, 1864, Giacomo Meyerbeer paid tribute to “Jupiter'' Rossini's undimmed genius, praised his originality, his musical daring and beauty of the music. His extravagantly romantic praise reached its climax when he proclaimed the "Cum Sancto Spirito the finest composition of its kind ever written!"
Cherubini's Requiem Mass in C minor, a masterly product of his fifty-sixth year, was composed in 1816 and first sung on January 21, 1817 in the Royal burial Abbey of Saint Denis at an anniversary Mass in memory of King Louis XVI, executed on that day in 1794. It was repeated there again on February 14, 1820 for the obsequies of the Duke of Berry murdered shortly before. Cherubini commenced his career largely as a self-taught composer in his native Florence. Later after studying under Sarti in Venice, he undertook a two-year position as composer in London to George III. In 1788, a year before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Cherubini settled in Paris which remained his home until his death in 1842. Here he achieved European fame as an opera composer. He turned to church music after his tart and forceful verbal differences with Napoleon placed him in contemporary eclipse. Much of his church music is out of style today except for this Requiem and a later one composed in 1836 in D minor for male chorus.
The Requiem in C minor is a work of considerable and often subdued emotional intensity which Cherubini achieves with much economy of means. In keeping with its liturgical character it eschews soloists and relies on a four-part chorus and a standard early romantic orchestra with telling effectiveness. The work opens with a sense of peaceful resignation enveloped in dark harmonic hues emphasized through the dropping of the violins and higher pitched instruments from the ensemble. The repetition of the Eternal Rest theme in the brief Gradual adds the note of hope with its somewhat brighter sound. The Dies irae permits Cherubini to marshall his choral and full orchestral forces to illustrate the dramatic feeling inherent in this great medieval poem's conception of the terrors of the Last Judgment. He achieves his impact without textual repetition and with a broad emotional palette.
As the poem changes its mood from these depicted terrors to petitions for mercy, Cherubini, with singular musical dexterity, stresses the helpless and humble petition of the sinner to be spared and receive mercy and peace. The Offertory is a strong appeal to the Lord for protection from falling into the Abyss of separation and for entrance into His holy light. The Quam olim Abrahae demonstrates Cherubini's mastery of polyphonic writing with its four-part fugue of three short subjects building steadily and inevitably to one of Cherubini's grandest climaxes. Then is heard by striking contrast the exquisite musical prayer of the Hostias, a petition to have the sacrificial offerings and prayers accepted for those souls whose memory we honor that they may pass from death to eternal life.
The broad majestic Sanctus is contrasted immediately with the hushed and muted declaration 'Blessed is he who comes in the Lord's name,' after which the Hosanna peels out as before. In accord with French practice, the Pie Jesu follows, certainly one of the Requiem's most original and affecting movements. First the sopranos announce the theme, then the tenors, after which the Chorus with great artistic simplicity elaborates this petition for eternal rest. Berlioz's comments on the Agnus Dei are worthy of quote: "The Agnus Dei in 'decrescendo surpasses everything that has ever been written of the kind. The workmanship of this portion, too, has an inestimable value; the vocal style is sharp and clear, instrumentation colored and powerful, yet ever worthy of its object:'
In summary, of the whole work Beethoven remarked "Cherubini is in my opinion of all living composers the most admirable. Moreover, as regards his conception of the Requiem, my ideas are in perfect conformity with his and some time or other, if I can but once set about it, I mean to profit by the ideas to be found in that work.” And finally, Berlioz, almost forty-five years Cherubini's junior and often a severe critic of the man wrote, '"The Requiem Mass in C Minor is on the whole, to my mind, the greatest work of its author. No other production of this grand master can bear any comparison with it for abundance of idea, fullness of form, and sustained sublimity of style.”