The Choral Pages

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

Antonio VivaldiBorn in Venice in 1678, the son of a professional violinist in the orchestra of the prestigious Basilica di San Marco, Antonio Vivaldi was a gifted violinist himself, and in 1703 was appointed maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for women with a formidable reputation for the quality of its music instruction. And it was in this same year that he also completed his training for holy orders and was ordained a priest, but within a short time of his ordination ill health prevented him from ever again celebrating mass. In any case, the Red Priest, as he became known because of the color of his hair, was probably better suited to his life as a freelance musician and impresario, even though the demands for his services were considerable and necessitated travelling widely.

Throughout much of his life he enjoyed a fruitful musical association with the Ospedale in a variety of capacities, at different times as violin teacher, musical director, and external supplier of compositions. It is almost certain that it was in one or more of these capacities that he wrote the now famous Gloria and Magnificat.

Though Vivaldi is only widely known today for a handful of works, he was a prolific and hugely influential composer. The cycle of violin concerti (Opus 8, nos. 1 - 4) known as the Four Seasons is but one example from a catalogue of over 500 instrumental concerti which he wrote. His influence is readily discernable in the forms of later Baroque music, notably in original compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and also in Bach's many transcriptions of Vivaldi's concerti.

Gloria and Magnificat are not Vivaldi's only contributions to vocal music. More than 50 sacred vocal compositions and at least 40 cantatas are known and many of them exhibit the same depth and mastery as the Gloria itself. Vivaldi was also active in the field of opera, as both composer and impresario, having around 50 operas to his credit, at least 16 of which are extant and complete.

Gloria in D, RV 589

The Gloria, a joyful hymn of praise and supplication, is a regular feature of the Roman Catholic mass, and its opening phrases have their origins in the song of the angels found in the New Testament account of Christ's Nativity. Vivaldi's setting is for four part chorus and orchestra with three soloists, two soprano and one alto, though it is customarily performed with only two soloists. It is divided into twelve contrasted movements, each characterized by its own mood and musical texture, yet still managing to preserve a sense of formal coherence.

I. Gloria in excelsis Deo (Choir)
Gloria in excelsis Deo

Glory to God in the highest,

From the outset, Vivaldi grabs the attention with an introduction featuring the simplest of devices: octave leaps and sequential repetition. He establishes a mood of regal grandeur and eager anticipation with the addition of the trumpet and oboe to the orchestral strings, and maintains its momentum throughout the movement with the voices entering in declamatory style before exploring the musical material sequentially.

II. Et in terra pax hominibus (Choir)
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

And on earth peace to men of goodwill.

Minor tonality (B minor) and gently pulsating string accompaniment underpin the next movement, which is quiet and contemplative, characterized by chromaticism and subtle modulations.

III. Laudamus te (Soprano & Alto)
Laudamus te, Benedicimus te, Adoramus te Glorificamus te

We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee.

This exuberant duet beautifully reflects the joy of the words, with its recurring ritornello and the interplay of its vocal parts. In turn the voices imitate each other and then join almost playfully to sing in thirds together, the extensive use of sequences lending an air of delightful inevitability.

IV. Gratias agimus tibi (Choir)
Gratias agimus tibi

We give thanks to Thee

Clearly perceiving the dramatic potential of the words, Vivaldi sets a solemn choral declamation in E minor.

V. Propter magnam gloriam (Choir)
Propter magnam gloriam tuam

For Thy great glory.

In this movement, Vivaldi reestablishes a mood of due deference befitting the words and forming a masterly link with the fugal chorus.

VI. Domine Deus (Soprano)
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus pater omnipotens

Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father almighty.

Vivaldi portrays a comforting pastoral view of God the Father, as this long melody in C major unfolds alongside an equally beautiful instrumental obbligato (usually played on the oboe, but optionally a violin).

VII. Domine Fili unigenite (Choir)
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

As if to emphasize his humanity, Vivaldi gives Jesus Christ, Son of God far less deferential treatment with the relentless dotted rhythms of this chorus in F major. Vivaldi achieves textural variety by contrasting pairs of voices with four part vocal harmony.

VIII. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei (Alto & Choir)
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Domine Fili unigenite, Miserere nobis.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, Miserere nobis.

O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, O Lord God, heavenly King, O lord the only-begotten Son, Have mercy upon us.

Thou that takest away the sins of the world, Lamb of the God, Son of the Father, have mercy upon us.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei uses contrasting forces, the alto soloist, accompanied by continuo, has descending scalic lines which are punctuated by chordal interjections from the choir and orchestra.

IX. Qui tollis peccata mundi (Choir)
Qui tollis peccata mundi, Suscipe deprecationem nostram

Thou that takest away the sins of the world, Receive our prayer.

In two sections, this chorus begins gravely and is characterized by an audacious modulation. The second part, still grave, employs shorter phrases to add rhythmic intensity and adds to the sense of urgency with the use of chromaticism.

X. Qui sedes ad dexteram (Alto)
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, Miserere nobis

Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, Have mercy upon us.

Scored for strings and continuo, this movement maintains the same serious tenor as the previous two penitential sections. Despite its 3/8 pulse and rhythmic vitality it is the B minor tonality which has the greater effect on its ambience.

XI. Quoniam tu solus Sanctus (Choir)
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, Tu solus Dominus, Tu solus Altissimus Jesu Christe,
For thou only art Holy, Thou only art the lord, Thou only art most High, Jesus Christ.

A truncated form of the opening Gloria is the thematic material for this section which makes musical good sense. Perhaps this was Vivaldi's nod in the direction of formal cohesion!

XII. Cum Sancto Spiritu (Choir)
Cum Sancto Spiritu, In gloria Dei Patris Amen

With the Holy Ghost, In the glory of God the Father, Amen.

This fine chorus is a fitting end to a splendid work, but it may be a surprise to find that Vivaldi, as many others of his contemporaries, "borrowed" the music from a Gloria by Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, a Veronese composer. Without the delightfully appropriate context of Vivaldi's Gloria it is most unlikely that we would ever have heard it otherwise!

Magnificat, RV 610a/611

The Magnificat is the canticle drawn from the biblical words attributed to the Mother of Christ, My soul doth magnify the Lord. It forms part of the evening service of Vespers, in the Divine Office of the Catholic liturgy, and thus appears in composed settings. Vivaldi's setting of the Magnificat exists in four versions. The first version (RV.610b) seems to have been written for the Pieta around 1715, and sometime later was transformed into a double-chorus version (RV.610a), which was simultaneously arranged for single chorus (RV.610). All of these versions present essentially the same music. In a later revision (RV.611) the text of the second movement is divided into three separate virtuoso arias.

The best-known choral work of Vivaldi is surely his Gloria, but the Magnificat is just as brilliant with all the dramatic fire and contrast of his concertos. Vivaldi masterfully rings the changes from movement to movement. His setting of the Magnificat is a mature work and weaves a variety of choral styles around brief solo sections.

I. Magnificat (Choir)
Magnificat anima mea Dominum,

My soul doth magnify the Lord,

The opening movement is imposing choral homophony, which reuses thematic material from the "Credo".

II. Et exultavit (Soprano)
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
III. Quia respexit (Soprano)
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatem me dicent omnes generationes.

For He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden; for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
IV. Quia fecit (Soprano)
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus.

For He that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is His name.

After a mostly homophonic opening statement, the dance-like second movement presents each of the soloists in turn. The aria "Et exultavit" is sprightly counterpoint.

V. Et misericordia (Choir)
Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.

And His mercy is on them that fear Him throughout all generations.

Perhaps the most daring harmonies are to be found in this chorus, one of Vivaldi's most accomplished choral pieces. The chorus is pulsing chromaticism with sudden modulations and poignant dissonances.

VI. Fecit potentiam (Choir)
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

He hath shewed strength with His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
This is followed by a vigorous "Fecit potentiam".
VII. Deposuit potentes (Choir)
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.

The "Deposuit" forcefully puts down the mighty and raises up the humble with the whole chorus and orchestra in unison.

VIII. Esurientes (Alto)
Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes.

He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich He hath sent empty away.

The ensuing duet could just as easily be a movement from a concerto grosso, with the voices alternately imitating each other and joining in close harmony.

IX. Suscepit Israel (Choir)
Suscepit Israel puerum suum, recordatus misericordiae suae.

He remembering His mercy hath holpen His servant Israel.
A brief but dramatic "Suscepit Israel" then follows.
X. Sicus locutus (Alto or Choir)
Sicus locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham, et semini ejus in saecula.

As He promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.

The oboes appear in a concertato role for "Sicut locutus est"; up until the soprano entrance, this too could easily be mistaken for a concerto movement.

XI. Gloria (Choir)
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritu Sancto; sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saeculorum. Amen.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

A homophonic introduction launches the double fugue of the last movement, bringing the work to a dramatic conclusion. And the surprises keep coming through to the finale.

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