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Berkeley Festival Finale: A Venetian Vespers from Monteverdi to Vivaldi

The Berkeley Festival Finale program will be a celebration of the extraordinary repertoire of music composed by Venetian composers for the elaboration of the office of Vespers during the century following Monteverdi’s monumental Vespro della Beata Vergine in 1610. It will also be a celebration of the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition and the extraordinary ensembles being featured on the festival’s “main stage”: ARTEK, AVE, the Marion Verbruggen Trio, Magnificat, Music’s Re-Creation and ¡Sacabuche!, along with the string ensemble Archetti, all of which will perform in the concert.

Though the music in Monteverdi’s collection was composed while he was in the service of the Duke of Mantua, it served to display his mastery of the sacred genres and contributed to his appointment in 1613 to the most prestigious musical position in Europe: maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice. Monteverdi’s colleagues at San Marco, and the illustrious series of musicians that followed him in the position of maestro, dedicated the finest fruits of their talent and skills to the ornamentation of the Vespers liturgy, the primary venue for elaborate sacred music throughout the 17th Century. This program will explore the ingenious ways that these composers adapted to the changing aesthetics in integrated the evolving compositional styles of the 17th Century in setting the ancient, unchanging texts that make up the Vespers liturgy.

Having escaped the brutal demands of his employment as a court composer at the Mantuan court and secured a position as a church musician in Venice, Monteverdi apparently saw no need to publish sacred music and it was only at the very end of his long life that he assembled the magnificent Selva Morale et Spirituale, similar in construction to the 1610 collection, but significantly larger in scope, including a setting of the Mass ordinary and settings of all the psalms required for major feasts (in some cases in multiple settings reflecting different compositional styles,) a Magnificat, and several hymns as well as a handful of motets and spiritual and moral songs for various combinations of voices and instruments. As with his 1610 collection, Monteverdi again established a standard of opulence achieved by few before and after. The setting of Laudate pueri on the program represents the concertato style in which music for solo voices, ensembles and instruments (in this case two violins) is juxtaposed to create a cohesive and expressive structure.

One of the principal exponents of the concertato style was Alessandro Grandi, who served as vice maestro under Monteverdi until leaving for a position at Santa Maria Maggiore in nearby Bergamo, where, like so many,  he succumbed to the devastating plague of 1630. A gifted and prolific composer of sacred and secular vocal chamber music during his time in Venice, Grandi displayed his skill as a composer of large-scale sacred music with several publications during his brief time in Bergamo. The opening respond Domine ad adiuvandum was included in his 1629 collection Salmi brevi, a set that clearly reflects the practice of double choir psalmody so characteristic of San Marco. Given the exceptional quality of the instrumental musicians associated with the basilica, it is somewhat surprising that it was the practice throughout the period to celebrate vespers at major feasts in a comparatively austere manner – double choir psalms without instrumental accompaniment beyond the organ continuo. Grandi’s collection is similar to double choir settings of the psalms required by the distinctive San Marco liturgy produced by several composers associated with the basilica and echoes the style of earlier works by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. Heinrich Schütz adopted this framework for many of his polychoral psalm settings and concerti.

Upon Grandi’s departure, the precocious Giovanni Rovetta was named vice maestro, a position he held until Monteverdi’s death in 1641, when he ascended to the position of maestro, serving until his own passing in 1668. Born around 1597 in or near Venice, Rovetta became a singer at St. Mark’s as a boy and remained associated with that institution for the rest of his life as a singer, instrumentalist and composer. During the 1630s he also worked for two of Ospedali in Venice and had more or less permanent positions at three other churches in Venice. With the advent of public opera in Venice in the 1640s, Rovetta, like Monteverdi, became involved in the lucrative business of musical theater. Over the course of his long career he established himself as one of the outstanding figures in Venetian musical life. He was active as a performer and as a composer of five large vespers collections, four volumes of concertato madrigals, and at least two operas, with many of his individual works appearing in anthologies and manuscripts.

Even before succeeding Monteverdi, Rovetta’s reputation was well established.  When the French ambassador to Venice conceived the idea of a splendid festival to celebrate the birth of the future Louis XIV in 1638, he commissioned Rovetta to supply the music. The festivities included a procession of gondolas from the Doge’s palace to the island of San Grigorio, a banquet in the ducal palace, bullfights in the Piazza San Marco and fireworks over the course of four days, all accompanied by a variety of musical events. In 1639, Rovetta published a collection of music dedicated to Louis XIII, containing a setting of the mass ordinary and the typical selection of psalms required for major feasts that most likely includes many of the pieces performed the previous year, including the setting of Nisi Dominus on theprogram.

Following Rovetta at San Marco was Pier Francesco Cavalli, the most acclaimed Venetian opera composer of the Seventeenth Century. In addition to his work in the theater, Cavalli was employed at San Marco for sixty years beginning in 1616, first as a singer, then as organist, and finally as maestro di capella. For San Marco and for the position he held at the church of S. Giovanni e Paolo, Cavalli wrote a significant body of sacred music, mostly settings of texts the mass and vespers liturgies.

The Canzona a 8 on the program is drawn from Cavalli’s Musiche sacre, a monumental retrospective collection of sacred music published in 1656. Similar in function to Monteverdi’s celebrated 1610 collection but considerably broader in scope even than Selva morale, Musiche sacre contains settings of the Mass ordinary, the psalms and hymns required for most of the principal feasts of the calendar, a Magnificat, the four Marian antiphons, and six instrumental canzoni.

After Cavalli’s death in 1676, the position of maestro di capella was held for nine years by Nicolo Monteferrato, who in turn was succeeded by Giovanni Legrenzi, one of the most prolific and influential composers of the second half of the 17th Century. The son of a professional violinist, Legrenzi studied with both Rovetta and Cavalli and held positions in Bergamo and Ferrara before moving to Venice at the end of the 1660s. He lost his first bid to become maestro di capella at San Marco to Monteferrato, but was engaged on his second application in 1985 at the highest salary offered by the procurators to any musician during the century. He also enjoyed the largest musical establishment, with an ensemble consisting of well over 60 singers and instrumentalists at his disposal. For this ensemble he composed an impressive body of music for Mass and Vespers during his tenure. Known before arrival in Venice primarily as a composer of sacred and instrumental music, Legrenzi composed his first opera for Venetian audiences in 1675 and his 14 works in the genre were well received during his lifetime and revived several times after his death in 1690.

Legrenzi contributed significantly to the repertoire of instrumental sonatas, publishing over 80 works in six volumes that range from late examples of the polychoral sonata to more modern trio sonatas and sets of correnti and balletti. Influenced by the ensemble sonatas of Merula, Neri and Cazzati, Legrenzi’s instrumental music circulated widely and was a strong influence on the structural design and tonal language of Torelli, Vivaldi and Bach. Each of the Sonatas in his first set of sonatas, published in Venice in 1655, bears the name of an aristocratic Venetian family, in the case of the work on our program ‘La Spilimberga’.

Other musicians working at San Marco during the century whose work is featured on our program include Biagio Marini, Giovanni Battista Fontana, and – as far as we can tell – Dario Castello. Appointed as violinist at San Marco in 1615, Marini was perhaps the finest of the first generation of violin virtuosi and his compositions for the instrument circulated widely throughout Europe. He contributed greatly to the early development of violin technique by expanding its range, incorporating double and triple stopping, and calling for tremolo and other special effects. He was also among the first composers to call for scordatura tunings.

While he is best known today for his pioneering compositions for violin, Marini also composed a significant body of vocal music, having served in various court and church positions in several courts in Europe. He was hired again as both a bass singer and instrumentalist at San Marco in 1652, though characteristic of his highly peripatetic career in the dedication of his collection of Vespers psalms published the following year he is associated with an academy in Ferrara. The psalms in the collection are in the style of virtuoso chamber cantatas and the exceptional passagework for the bass, in particular in the setting of Lauda Ierusalem for bass and violins, suggest that they were written with his own performance in mind.

Most of what little is known about Fontana is found in the preface to a memorial collection Sonate a 1,2,3 per il Violino o Cornetto, Fagotto, Chitarone, Violoncino o simile altro Instrumento published in 1641 over a decade after he, like Grandi, perished in ‘the voracity of the pestilence’ of 1630. According to the preface he was born in Brescia and worked in Venice, Rome and finally Padua. Along with Fontana and Marini, Castello was among the first composers to publish solo sonatas like the one on our program, and like theirs, his sonatas demand a virtuoso technique, whatever the instrument on whichever they are played.

Though he is described in the prefaces to publications of his works as “Capo di Compagnia de Musichi d’instrumenti da fiato in Venetia” (head of the company of instrumental musicians of Venice,) there appears to be no surviving documentation to establish even the most basic outline of Dario Castello’s life. For the most extensive study of the composer to date, Eleanor Selfridge-Field aptly chose the title “Dario Castello: A Non-Existent Biography.” Her extensive and frustrating archival research led her to tentatively determine that there were in fact several musicians using the surname Castello who were most likely related and all involved with wind music in Venice from the end of the 16th Century through the middle of the 17th Century and possibly later.

The primary documentation of Castello that does survive is the music attributed to him: one solo motet from a 1624 anthology and two collections of marvelously inventive sonatas, published in 1621 and 1629 respectively, and reprinted as late as 1658 in Antwerp. On the evidence of the surviving works ascribed to Castello, the composer was clearly a master performer with a facile and individual imagination.

The most renowned female Venetian composer of the century was without question Barbara Strozzi, who had the good fortune to be born into a world of creativity, intellectual ferment, and artistic freedom. The adopted, and most likely natural, daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi, Barbara made her mark as both a singer and composer, eventually publishing eight collections of songs – more music in print during her lifetime than even some of the most famous composers of her day – without the support of the Church or the patronage of a noble house. Her works were also included in important collections of song, which found their way to the rest of Europe and England. Yet she died in obscurity in Padua in 1677 with little wealth or property.

Strozzi’s only published sacred works are found in the Sacri Musciali Affetti, which appeared in 1655 and from which the motet O Maria is drawn. Strozzi dedicated the volume to Anne of Austria, following a pattern of dedications to noble women and, as in introductions to her other publications, she refers directly to her gender, reflecting not only an awareness of her unique position among women of her time but a commanding confidence in her skill and creativity.

Born in Parma around 1560, Ludovico Viadana was less directly connected to Venice than the other composers on the program, though he worked there and in nearby Padua during the first decade of the century. His music was imbued with the progressive musical styles of Venice and the commercial success of his 1602 collection Concerti ecclesiastici, the first to provide an essential basso continuo part in sacred music, gave impetus to the nascent genre of the sacred concerto. Viadana’s 1612 publication Salmi a Quattro chori approaches the polychoral setting of psalms both embodies the cori spezzati techniques of the Gabrielis and anticipates the clarity and architectural balance of Schütz’ large scale concerti. The composer’s introduction also provides invaluable directions for the performance practice of the beginning of the century.

While his music is less chromatic and harmonically adventurous than that found in contemporaneous early opera and madrigals, the fluency and freedom of the vocal lines reflect the most progressive trends in composition of the turn of the century and may reflect his contact with Monteverdi in the 1590s when both were working in Mantua.

Our concert concludes with two works by the towering figure of the Italian High Baroque, Antonio Vivaldi. Born in Venice in 1678, Vivaldi studied violin with his father and may have had his first composition lessons with Legrenzi, whose style is reflected in his early vocal works. He would become the most famous and imitated Italian musician in the 18th Century and remains one of the most beloved and often-performed composers of the Baroque Era.

Astonishingly prolific, Vivaldi composed in every genre current in the first half of the new century and while his hundreds sonatas and concerti were the influential on the development of the compositional style of the high Baroque and contributed most heavily to his enduring reputation, he also wrote over 50 operas and a significant body of sacred works.

Vivaldi travelled widely and held a variety of positions in courts, churches and other establishments, notably the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian institutions devoted to the care of orphaned girls, where he was employed for over 30 years. The musical training at the Ospedale was such that Vespers and Mass became a focal point of Venetian culture and regularly attracted local nobility and foreign dignitaries. While his primary responsibility at the Ospedale was the provision of instrumental music like the L’Estro Armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration”) of 1711, during periods when the position of choirmaster was vacant he was frequently called upon to provide music for Mass and Vespers and it is most likely that this was the genesis of the original version of the Magnificat from 1715.

Vivaldi’s Magnificat exists in four distinct versions and its wide circulation throughout Europe suggests that it was Vivaldi’s best-known sacred composition during his lifetime. He returned to the Magnificat in the late 1720s, making relatively small changes possibly for the patronal feast of the Venetian convent of San Lorenzo. He made more extensive revisions of the work in 1739, again for the Ospedale, substituting solo settings for some movements. Our performance will be based on the original 1715 version, but will include one of the 1739 additions, the alto setting of Sicut locutus est.

Tickets for the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition can be purchased at this link.

  1. Dr Susan Mardinly
    May 24th, 2010 at 10:37 | #1

    Dear Friends: You have neglected to mention that Barbara Strozzi wrote a beautiful motet for three voices: “Quis dabit mihi?” Please contact me for information on the score. Regards, Dr Susan Mardinly

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