PROGRAM NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph.D.
The Twentieth Century has witnessed the resurrection of a great deal of Vivaldi's (1678-1741) sacred music, for over 200 years neglected and even forgotten. Its rediscovery beginning in 1927 and 1939 has served to enhance further the Red Priest's reputation as a giant among composers. The Dixit is so recently revived and edited that it was only vaguely known prior to 1960.
The judgment of the great Italian musicologist Malipiero that Vivaldi's Dixit is his St. Matthew Passion sufficiently reflects modern critical opinion respecting the stature of this sacred music.
The date of and occasion for which he composed Dixit is unknown. Its full title Dixit for Two Choruses makes it almost certain that it was meant to be sung in St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice. The location of that church's two opposing choir lofts had provided Venice's great composers from Adrian Willaert and the Gabriel is onward with the opportunity for grandiose antiphonal music. Grandiose indeed Dixit is, but more, for Vivaldi here proves himself a master of all aspects of choral and vocal writing, polyphonic and homophonic, dramatically virtuoso, massive and lyrical.
Dixit is scored for two mixed choruses, a quartet of soloists, and two Baroque orchestras, the first of which is furnished with two trumpets and two oboes which he uses with stunning effect. All verses of Psalm 109 (110 in the Vulgate) together with the doxology comprise the ten movements of the work.
After the short three movement prelude for solo soprano, the initial verse of the Psalm, broken into the first two movements, sets the character of the work with decisive, forceful, and awesome power. It ranks among Vivaldi's finest achievements. Other movements -the third, fourth, sixth, and eighth - are for solo voices and amply demonstrate a demanding virtuoso ability while affording a lively, scintillating, and dramatic contrast to the massive choral segments. The seventh movement, Judicabit, portrays the Last Judgment. It is introduced as a sort of Tuba mirum of a Dies Irae by two trumpets, one echoing the other. As in the Four Seasons, the movement De Torrente illustrates Vivaldi's interest in programmatic effects. He portrays the bucolic setting of a gently flowing brook. The Gloria Patri recapitulates in shorter form the first movement and prepares us for one of Vivaldi's most extravagant polyphonic displays in the Sicut erat, based on a cantus firmus from Gregorian Chant and providing an exciting climax to this masterpiece.
Perhaps Vivaldi's achievement here in Dixit can best be summarized by Walter Kolneder, his recent scholarly biographer, who states: "An essential factor of their relationship (Bach's and Vivaldi's) is perhaps hinted at by a remark which I heard and concurred with many times when I introduced uninitiated listeners to Vivaldi's church music without naming the composer: "This music is not by Bach, certainly, but it is so good that really only Bach could have written it." The Funeral Anthem on the Death of Queen Caroline has often been rightly considered Handel's Requiem. Both in its genesis and its textual make-up it bears a significant resemblance to the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, a factor which may assist one in the appreciation of Handel's masterpiece. Handel's Anthem was totally inspired by his deep attachment to his enduring friend and patron Queen Caroline.
He commenced work on it December 7, 1737 (Caroline had died on November 20) and completed it five days later! Hastily rehearsed, it was presented at the magnificent State funeral held on December 17 in Westminster Abbey. After the Bishop of Rochester had completed the customary ritual obsequies of the Anglican Church in Henry VII's chapel, the Anthem was sung in the Abbey, significantly replacing the usual eulogy. It appears to have been performed by upwards of eighty men and boys and a hundred instrumentalists, a balance of forces not unusual in Handel's day.
The Bishop of Colchester wrote very shortly afterwards that the Anthem could be “reckoned to be as good a piece as Mr. Handel ever made." The Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney considered it Handel's greatest work. Subsequent biographers and commentators of Handel are unanimous in their high appraisals.
Paul Henry Lang, Handel's best modern biographer, quotes Burney and notes with apparent approval that some see the work as "equal throughout to Bach's best efforts." The extensive analysis of the Anthem by William Herrmann in the G. Schirmer edition refrains from any extravagant judgments, but he leaves little doubt about its immense stature and the influence the work exercised on Handel's later oratorios, particularly Israel in Egypt, for it constituted the whole first part of that work, today usually performed in its last two parts.
The eight movements of the Anthem derive their Scripture texts from Lamentations, II Samuel, Job, Ecclesiasticus, Psalms 103 and 112, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Philippians. They were organized into the skillful libretto by Edward Willes, Sub-dean of the Abbey.
Lang notes that the Anthem is not "pure ceremonial music," but rather "it is ceremonial music with a profound personal involvement which give it an altogether unique cast." All informed writers agree to Handel's masterly assimilation of the Purcellian "English Style" as early as the Utrecht Te Deum of 1713 and to his consummate ability to compose for the stately impersonal Anglican ritual of the day. His achievement of that "heartfelt personal involvement" was accomplished here by a permeation of the English style with reminiscences of his Lutheran background through extensive use of two appropriate Chorales, melodic quotations from Krieger, from the famed Ecce quomodo moritur justus of his namesake Jacob Handl, and by a confession of devotion to the Queen redolent of Bach's religious sincerity.
The opening movement "The ways of Zion do mourn" gives expression to both the Nation's and Handel's grief at the passing of this stalwart, politically astute, charitable, cultured, and well-beloved Queen. The subsequent movements enumerating the virtues of Caroline conclude with strong assurances that God in justice and mercy crowns his faithful ones in his kingdom, and that their names will live evermore.
The distinguished Handel scholar Jens Peter Larsen emphasizes that the Anthem in spite of later approved practice of using a quartet in the second and seventh movements was conceived totally as a choral work.
The brief introductory Sinfonia was added to the Anthem at a later date, probably at the time Handel experimented unsuccessfully with incorporating some of the work's great music into the third act of Saul.
Benedicite was one of three works Vaughan Williams composed for the Jubilee in 1930 of the famed English Leith Hill Musical Festival at Dorking near London, where he conducted its first performance on May 2 of that year. The text is that of the Canticle of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3/57 ff.) to which Vaughan Williams interpolated the Song of the Three Holy Children by the 17th century English poet, John Austin, and a doxology to the Trinity.
Benedicite commences with a jubilant orchestral introduction setting the mood for the chorus' catalogue of praise delineating the glorious works of the Lord. An oboe variant then introduces the soprano soloist whose entry, as Michael Kennedy, prominent biographer of Vaughan Williams notes, softens the nature of the music as she floats her melismatic phrases above and around the choral singing. This section ends with a beautiful passage for soloist and chorus over chords in the orchestra. The flute now launches the soprano on the Austin poem above a lively counterpoint from the chorus, and the work ends in a blaze of jubilation.