Vivaldi - Dixit Dominus

Vivaldi Dixit Dominus

Clifton Cathedral
Saturday 18th November 2006

Peter Leech    Conductor
Frideswide Ensemble
Nicki Kennedy Soprano
Catherine Griffiths Mezzo-Soprano
Christopher Watson Tenor
Jonathan Gunthorpe Bass

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)

Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) In exitu Israel
Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) Two choruses from I Pelligrini al Sepolcro di Nostro Signore (1742)
Antonio Lotti (c. 1667-1740) Crucifixus a 8
Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) Nisi Dominus ZWV92
Heinichen Magnificat in B♭
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) Dixit Dominus

Programme Notes

The thread that unites all the music in tonight’s concert is the city of Dresden. All the composers in this evening’s programme either lived and worked there, or were closely associated with the musical life of the city.

As capital of the region of Saxony (now one of the Länder in a reunited Germany), Dresden was the seat of the ruling Electors, and during the eighteenth century, the Electors also held the title of King of Poland. But a condition of the Polish crown was that the holder had to be Catholic. This led to the highly unusual situation that in Saxony, the birthplace of Lutheranism and the very cradle of the Reformation, the ruling family – and hence, the court – was Catholic.

A by-product of this confessional change in Dresden was a great flowering of music for the newly established court church. The Dresden court was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe, and as such it supported many musical ensembles. There were French and Italian theatre troupes, a Polish Kapelle (who accompanied the King on his visits to Warsaw), bands of trumpeters and drummers and – most prestigious of all – the “Royal Musicians”, the most highly skilled singers and instrumentalists. On the establishment of the Catholic court church, an institute of Kapellknaben was added to this list. The boys and young men of the Kapellknaben were singers and instrumentalists, and were housed and taught by the Jesuit fathers who were responsible for the running of the court church. It is believed that all these ensembles (even the French and Italian theatre troupes) took part in providing music for the church.

Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729)

In exitu Israel   (back to top)

1 In exitu Israel (Chorus)
2 Non nobis Domine (Chorus)
3 Simulacra gentium (Chorus)
4 Domus Israel (Soprano/tenor/bass soli)
5 Gloria Patri (Chorus)

Today, Heinichen is best known to musicologists as a theorist, having written two influential treatises on composition, but in his day he was highly regarded as a composer. His contemporary the composer and music critic Johann Mattheson wrote that Heinichen should be considered “one of the three great H’s of German music” (the other two being Handel and Hasse).

Heinichen was Kapellmeister in Dresden from around 1717 until his death in 1729. Heinichen’s first years in Dresden were spent supplying the court with instrumental music, serenades and operas. However in 1719, during a rehearsal for one of his operas, an unpleasant incident took place that was to change completely the pattern of his compositional activity. Two of the Italian castrati singers took exception to Heinichen’s setting of Italian texts and one of them tore up his music and threw it at Heinichen’s feet, declaring it unsingable. From that moment, Heinichen abandoned opera composition, and spent the last decade of his life composing music for the court church.

In exitu Israel (Psalm 113) is part of the formula for Sunday (Dominican) Vespers, and also for the Vespers of the feasts of Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Heinichen’?s setting was probably composed in 1722. It is an awkward psalm for composers to handle because of its great length: 27 verses, excluding the doxology. Heinichen’s solution to this problem is to use a wide variety of styles in the different movements, never lingering too long over any one verse of the text.

The vivid and dramatic first movement betrays Heinichen’s earlier experience as an opera composer. An opening fugal section depicting the exodus of the children of Israel is interrupted by an earthly cataclysm. The seas turn and flee, the mountains skip like rams and rocks turn into fountains, all unmistakably portrayed by the music.

Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1759)

Two Choruses from I Pellegrini al Sepolcro di Nostro Signore   (back to top)

1 Lauda - Le porte a noi disserra
2 Coro - Pellegrino è l'uomo in terra

Johann Adolph Hasse and his wife the singer Faustina Bordoni were the golden couple of mid 18th-century music. Hasse was perhaps the most popular composer of opera seria of the day, and his wife was one of the most renowned singers. Hasse was granted the title of Dresden court Kapellmeister sometime in 1730 (thereby thwarting the ambitions of Zelenka), but he did not actually set foot in the city until 1731. Indeed, throughout his career as Kapellmeister, he seemed to be able to come and go virtually as he pleased, a situation that would have been unheard of just a few years earlier, and a measure perhaps of the extremely high regard in which he and his music were held.

On Good Friday in Dresden, the tradition was to perform a Sepolcro or sepulchre cantata, a musical reflection on Christ’s passion and death. These sepulchre cantatas were operas in all but name, and were regarded by the Jesuit fathers as ideal proselytising tools for the faith. Elaborate stage sets known as apparati were erected in the court church to represent the Holy Sepulchre, and they were richly decorated with flowers and candles. Rather than ecclesiastical Latin, the cantatas were performed either in German or in Italian.

For 1742, Hasse composed the cantata I Pellegrini al Sepolcro di Nostro Signore (The Pilgrims at the Tomb of Our Lord). It tells the story of four pilgrims who, with the help of a guide, travel to Jerusalem in search of Christ’s tomb. The two choruses are from the ends of each of the cantata’s two acts. The first, an exquisite Lauda or hymn of praise, is sung by the pilgrims as they arrive in Jerusalem. The second chorus, which concludes the cantata, summarises the spiritual journey undertaken by the pilgrims. The perils of the journey, the stumbling blocks and the dangers of allowing the senses to act as a guide are all vividly portrayed (the false guide of the senses is shown by a remarkable and unexpected modulation to the remote key of A# major); the pilgrims will be safe only by allowing God to guide their footsteps – an inevitable call for a concluding fugue.

Antonio Lotti (1667-1740)

Crucifixus a 8   (back to top)

Although Lotti was born in Hamburg, he spent most of his life in Venice, where he held various posts in the musical establishment of the Cathedral of San Marco, rising eventually to the position of maestro di cappella in 1736. Lotti spent one extended period away from Venice; during the years 1717-1719, he was engaged by the Electoral Prince to act as a composer of opera for the Dresden court. As well as supplying the court with operas, Lotti also composed sacred music, although it is not known exactly which works were composed while he was actually living in Dresden. However, a number of sacred pieces by Lotti are still held today in the library in Dresden, and were clearly used in the court church long after Lotti had returned to Venice.

This, probably Lotti’s best known work, is actually part of a five movement setting of the Credo in F major. A score and a set of parts for this Credo are still held in Dresden today.

The Crucifixus itself is the emotional heart of the setting. The four voices used for the other movements divide here into eight, allowing the almost relentless building up of the tension at the opening, as the voices enter one by one.

Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)

Nisi Dominus (Psalm 127)   (back to top)

The Bohemian born Zelenka arrived in Dresden in 1711 as a double bass player. By the 1720s, he had achieved the title of Court Composer, and often acted as Heinichen’s deputy, especially as the latter often suffered from ill health. He might therefore reasonably have expected to succeed to the post of Kapellmeister when Heinichen died in 1729. But his hopes were thwarted. The court did not find his sometimes dark and intense compositional style to its liking, and he was passed over for the post. Although he tried hard during the 1730s to amend his style to be more in line with the galant idiom that the court had come to expect, his talents were never fully recognised. He died in 1745, in all probability a bitter and disappointed man.

During the 1720s, Zelenka began assembling great collections of all the music required for the office of Vespers: psalm settings, Magnificats, hymns and Marian antiphons. From these collections a Kapellmeister could then select whichever items were required for any given day or feast. This setting of the psalm Nisi Dominus is part of one of these collections, and was composed around 1726. It well illustrates Zelenka’s bold and imaginative use of harmony and chromaticism, with its pungent dissonances and also moments of great lyricism. The whole setting is based on an ostinato, a repeated pattern of notes, played by all the strings in unison, which is unremitting until virtually the final bars of the piece. By this means, the Dresden congregation was perhaps encouraged to reflect on the necessity of the unchanging support of God in all things (“Unless the Lord build the house, those that build it labour in vain.”)


Magnificat in Bb   (back to top)

1 Magnificat anima mea (Chorus)
2 Quia respexit (Alto solo)
3 Fecit potentiam (Chorus)
4 Suscepit Israel (Tenor solo)
5 Gloria Patri (Chorus)

This Magnificat is the eighth of Heinichen’s nine settings, and was composed in May 1728. It has a symmetrical structure, where the choruses of movements one, three and five frame two beautifully lyrical solo movements. The setting is notable for its imaginative orchestration; the echo effects of the flutes and oboes in the second movement, the charming pastoral flutes in the fourth, and – most unforgettably – the two solo bassoons of the third movement.

Pre-empting John Cage’s well known compositional essay on the idea of silence by over three hundred years, Heinichen ends the third movement of this setting with a full bar of silence for all the singers and instrumentalists, an illustration of the concluding text of the movement “et divites dimisit inanes” (“the rich he hath sent empty away".)

Antonio Vivaldi 1678-1741)

Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109)   (back to top)

1 Dixit Dominus (Chorus)
2 Donec ponam inimicos tuos (Chorus)
3 Virgam virtutis tuae (Soprano duet)
4 Tecum principium (Alto solo)
5 Juravit Dominus Chorus)
6 Dominus a dextris tuis (Tenor/bass duet)
7 Judicabit in nationibus Chorus)
8 De torrente (Soprano solo)
9 Gloria Patri (Chorus)
10 Sicut erat in principio (Chorus)

In a programme of music associated with the German court of Dresden, it may come as a surprise to find music by the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi. As far as we know, Vivaldi never visited Dresden; however his music was extremely popular at the court.

Vivaldi first became known to the Dresden musicians in 1716, when a number of the court instrumentalists, including Zelenka and the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel accompanied the Electoral Prince on a visit to Venice as part of his grand tour.

The musicians returned to Dresden with copies of much music by Vivaldi, and this collection was augmented during the late 1720s and 1730s, whilst Pisendel – always a champion of Vivaldi’s music – held the position of Konzertmeister. Today, Dresden holds the largest collection of Vivaldi manuscripts outside Italy.

The psalm Dixit Dominus, number 109 in the Vulgate, is a particularly important one because it appears as the first psalm in all Vespers formulae. Therefore it is usually more elaborately worked than other psalm settings and is often what is known as a “solemn” setting – that is, multi-movement works using trumpets (and sometimes drums), as well as orchestra, choir and soloists.

This setting by Vivaldi is no exception. It is given added festive character by the use of a double choir and orchestra, and is undoubtedly Vivaldi’s grandest sacred vocal work. Not much is known about the circumstances surrounding its composition, but the Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot has surmised that it, along with Vivaldi’s other double choir settings, was written for a festival in Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni’s church of San Lorenzo in Rome. Certainly the elaborate writing for solo bass and tenor in the sixth movement (Dominus a dextris tuis) seems to preclude the idea that the work was destined for the Pietà, the musical establishment for foundling girls with which Vivaldi was so closely associated.

A musical motif running through the entire work is a descending four-note figure, which is sometimes extended to form an entire descending major scale. This figure can appear as the beginning of a contrapuntal subject, (as in the second movement, Donec ponam), as part of a virtuosic solo line (as in the third movement for soprano solo, Virgam virtutis) or declaimed by all voices and instruments in unison (as in the seventh movement, Judicabit in nationibus). Most impressively, however, it is found as the opening of the chaconne theme upon which the entire last movement is based. This final movement has been described as an “orgy of polyphony”, and is perhaps Vivaldi’s finest piece of choral writing.

   (back to top)

[The editions of the works by Heinichen, Hasse and Zelenka in tonight’s concert have been prepared by choir member Margaret Williams as part of her ongoing doctoral research. The two Heinichen works, In exitu Israel, and the Magnificat are heard here for the first time in modern performance. The sources for these works are held in the Dresden library the Sächsische Landesbibliothek- Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, and the Bristol Bach Choir would like to thank the library for permission to perform them in tonight’s concert.]