Bach Magnificat & Vivaldi Gloria — Mar 2012

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Program Notes

BACH Magnificat & VIVALDI Gloria

Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), known as il prete rosso (the red priest) because of his flowing mane of red hair, was the best known of Italian Baroque composers, and possibly the most prolific. He was Venetian, and worked most of his life for the most musical of the four orphanages of the city, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, with its church, still visited by countless people every year, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral of San Marco. Vivaldi was the oldest of nine children born to Giovanni Battista (a red-haired professional violinist) and Camilla Calicchio. Though sickly since childhood with “strettezza di petto” (“tightness of the chest,” probably bronchial asthma), he was trained for the priesthood (his tonsure was in 1693 and his ordination in 1703) but soon exempted from saying mass because of his medical condition.

In fall 1703, Vivaldi started his service at the Pietà as a maestro di violin. This institution harbored orphaned and abandoned or indigent girls, and those who showed talent were taught music. The young musicians became so proficient and famous that people from all over made trips to Venice especially to listen to their concerts. It is believed that many of the girls were illegitimate children of aristocrats and nobles, who lavished money onto the institution for the upbringing and education of their daughters. Vivaldi’s service was a stormy one, marred by interruptions (often for unknown reasons, possibly financial difficulty) and changes of status (he also held the positions of composer and maestro di cappella). However, he remained related in one way or another to the Pietà throughout his life, even during long years of travel through Europe to see his operas performed.

Vivaldi’s musical style was innovative, especially in his concerti, of which he wrote hundreds, most of them for violin, many of them for the Pietà’s girls. His music is so distinctive that even today it is easy to identify by its driving rhythmic verve, frequent use of terraced dynamics (going from loud to soft and vice-versa without crescendo or diminuendo which were to become common only in the classical era), fondness for pictorial elements, and virtuosity in the solo parts. Though he is mostly remembered for his instrumental music, especially his concerti, cantatas, and many operas (sadly seldom performed), Vivaldi also composed a sizeable amount of church music (especially when the maestro di coro at la Pietà was ill or the post vacant). The Gloria in D major, RV 589, was most likely composed shortly after its sister setting RV 588, early in his tenure at la Pietà (between 1713 and 1717), and for the institution’s advanced chorus. Possibly the piece was prompted by the 1716 victory of the Venetian Republic over the Ottoman Empire.

The Gloria is for SATB chorus but betrays its original composition for girls in the solos for soprano and alto, a treble-dominated texture, and the high range of the bass part. No men would have been allowed to perform in the cloistered convent of the Pietà, but the tenor part was easily sung by altos, and the bass part may have been sung by girls with unusually low voices or played by instruments. The girls played all the instrumental parts. (Since trumpets were played by men only, a guild restriction, trumpet players may have come to the Pietà on special occasions to play, out of sight from the girls.) The scoring for SATB probably sprang from Vivaldi’s desire to see the piece performed by choirs beyond the Pietà. Its easy vocal parts allow it to be performed by amateur or youth choirs. Indeed the musical interest often lies in the instrumental parts rather than the voices. Vivaldi subdivides the Gloria into small segments, composing movements of varied character around each text. The work was usually performed with an introduzione, a virtuoso motet sung beforehand. Four such pieces are known for the two Vivaldi settings of the Gloria.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat
In summer 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach began what was to be his 27-year tenure as Kapellmeister for the main churches of Leipzig. He arrived at his post just after the main Easter festivities. The next important occasion was Christmastide, for which he composed his first large-scale Leipzig work, the Magnificat in E-flat major, BWV 243a, performed on Christmas Day 1723.

In Leipzig, the Magnificat (the Canticle of the Virgin Mary, sung during Vespers) was customarily chanted in German. When chanted, the canticle was often sung on the ninth psalm tone. This tonus peregrinus—the “wandering tone”—lies outside the medieval standard eight tones because the recitation tone, or tenor, changes in pitch halfway through. The only other text traditionally chanted on the tonus peregrinus was Psalm 113/114, “When Israel left Egypt,” also known as the “Pilgrim’s Psalm.” Bach incorporated this Psalm tone in his Magnificat in the movement “Suscepit Israel,” where it is played by two oboes in unison on long notes.

On high feast days, the Magnificat was sung in Latin and set to polyphony. Moreover, since medieval times the Magnificat had been supplemented with interpolations of so-called laudes, or hymns, for the Christmas season. Bach adopted this local practice of “troping”—interpolating text (“trope”) and/or music into standard texts—for his Magnificat by interspersing four hymns among the traditional canticle movements. These tropes (“Vom Himmel hoch,” “Freut euch und jubiliert,” “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and “Virga Jesse floruit”) are found at the end of Bach’s original 1723 manuscript, together with an indication of where they were to be inserted. From extant documents it appears that in St. Thomas, Bach’s home church, there was a second choir, placed in a loft opposite the main choir, to perform these four added pieces, for a stereophonic effect.

Ten years later, in 1733, Bach revised the Magnificat, most significantly transposing it to D major (a more traditional and easier key for trumpets), eliminating the interpolated tropes, and adding transverse flutes (instead of recorders) and oboes d’amore to the already rich orchestration. By removing the Christmas hymns, Bach made his Magnificat suitable for any time of the liturgical year.

The Magnificat, like so many of the great Thomaskantor’s works, reveals his fascination with architectural symmetry. Only three of the 12 movements (the first, central, and last) call for the complete ensemble—five-part chorus and mighty (for Bach) orchestra. Another two movements call for the five choral parts and either fewer instruments or only basso continuo. Of the rest, five are arias, one each for the five soloists. The remaining two movements are set for combinations: a duet for alto and tenor and a delightful Terzett for the three upper voices.

Bach’s respect for the text manifests itself repeatedly. The first conspicuous sign is the absence of da capo arias—too linked with the secular genre of opera. Another is the return in the final movement, at the words “sicut erat in principio” (as it was in the beginning), of the musical themes of the movement that began the work, thus matching text and music quite literally. Another example occurs in the fourth movement, at “omnes generationes” (all generations): Here the concept of “all” is conveyed by having all voice parts sing the four-note motive (“omnes, omnes”) on each other’s heels, each on the next pitch of an ascending scale, covering first one octave, from F-sharp to the next F-sharp, and then one and a half octaves. All things considered, this early Leipzig work of the great composer is an unusually rich and expressive one, and one that will, in its D major incarnation, contribute to the inspiration and provide the model for his grand Missa (the opening Kyrie and Gloria of what became known as the B-minor Mass).

The pieces on today’s program, often paired in concert performance, are quite different in style. One represents the Italianate declamatory and celebratory style of Venetian sacred (Catholic) music, intended for the girls of a school—albeit a very special school. The other is also a celebratory piece with trumpets and also in D. There the similarities end, as the Magnificat is a Germanic piece, reflecting Lutheran practices in Leipzig, with much more dense and intricate music for the voices and a larger orchestra. Together these two works form a delightful pair, both complementary and divergent, each highlighting the other.

—© 2012 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.