Christmas and the Baroque Oratorio

As I said, I love Christmas music. And while I love all forms of Christmas music (see yesterday’s playlist), it is no coincidence that my favorite form of music–Baroque oratorio–features prominently in the genre. The first half of the 1700s were awash in Christmas music, likely ignited by Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Vivaldi followed suit with his own Christmas concerto. Bach composed several works for the holiday, including an oratorio of his own. And yet, during Christmastime, the nearly every orchestra and concert hall in the world programs the same work–Handel’s titanic oratorio, the Messiah. Well, not to throw coal in the stockings of classical music programmers across the world, but Handel’s oratorio was actually composed for Easter, hence the emphasis of the narrative on the Resurrection. I chose one part of that undeniably great oratorio for the Christmas playlist as a nod to tradition (and chose the chorus that celebrates Jesus’ birth), but it is not strictly Christmas music. Handel will get his nod in due course in this blog, but today I’ve chosen a different oratorio (and one that is decidedly shorter than the 2+ hours running time for the Messiah). It is not strictly Christmas music either, but at least for me, it sounds like Christmas. In any event, this is what I will be listening today–a candidate for the greatest oratorio ever composed, regardless of genre or period.

Now that the man in the red suit has completed his duties, let’s allow the Red Priest to take the baton.

Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria:

For those looking for the full version, here is a Spotify link:

And for those traditionalists, here is my favorite recording of the Messiah:

Thanksgiving Treat: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Much like my wife’s bacon stuffing at Thanksgiving, this list would not be complete without Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, easily the most famous work of the Baroque Era, despite first entering the modern repertoire in the 1950s. It is an endlessly fun piece to play. First, let’s start with a very historically accurate performance. By all means, listen to the whole thing, but here’s a good example of the Winter concerto on period instruments

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4, Winter

Again, demonstrating how Vivaldi is timeless, here is the violinist Janine Janson throwing out the Baroque sensibility in one of the more dramatic readings of the piece.  The entire thing is great fun, but I’ll note that the Winter concerto starts at 32:05. Janson recorded this with some of her friends in what is one of the most fun classical albums of the last 20 years.  Worth seeking out.

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Transcriptions are the most formal sort of Conversation—the transcription of an earlier work for a new instrument or set of instruments by a later composer.  Bach did tons of these and so we can trace which composers influenced him at certain periods of his life.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (we will come to him later) was also fond of transcriptions.  Few composers opt to fully recompose the original while retaining so much of it.  Here is one unique offering:  The Four Seasons transcribed by Max Richter and recomposed over 200 years later.  The first movement of Winter is particularly inspiring:

Max Richter, Four Seasons Recomposed (After Vivaldi): 

Vivaldi and Bach

The Bach-Vivaldi Conversations are particularly interesting as they span a wide swathe of Bach’s career.  First up, Bach’s transcription of Concerto No. 11 in D Minor for Organ.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 11 in D Minor

J.S. Bach, Organ Concerto in D Minor (After Vivaldi): 

This is more or less a straight transcription.  It is thought among some musicologists that Bach was commissioned to transcribe these for a patron; hence, the lack of invention.  Or they were simply how Bach studied music—no one knows for sure either way.  But here is a more mature Bach, in his Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor, which is based on Vivaldi’s No. 10 for 4 violins in B minor. This is a true Conversation (seemingly composed for Gert with four harpsichords)—Bach takes a brilliant Vivaldi original to new heights, adding additional textures and harmonies.  When Gert first asked for a list of great harpsichord works, this was the first piece I thought of.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 10 in B Minor

J.S. Bach, Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor

Baroque Music VII: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Antonio Vivaldi is the first composer on this list whose name and music are likely familiar to everyone. 

That was not always the case.  Despite his profound influence on Bach and many others, Vivaldi’s compositions fell out of a favor (his virtuosity as a violinist was his primary calling card, not his compositions) and were pretty much lost to history—so much so that their rediscovery in the 1920s was a major event in music history.  And what a treasure trove they discovered:  More than 500 concertos, nearly 100 sonatas, 46 operas, tons of assorted choral and other chamber music, and much more.  New works continue to be discovered seemingly every year.  Prolific does not even begin to describe the man.

Vivaldi was born into poverty and given over to the clergy where he was to be ordained as a priest.  My recollection is that he squirmed out of actually being ordained, but whether or not he formally took his vows is irrelevant—he is known to history as the Red Priest.  He is also most closely associated with the city of Venice, then in decline from its heights as a maritime power.  Today, you cannot go 100 yards anywhere in Venice without seeing some flyer for a Vivaldi concert.  If Canaletto is our vision of Venice, Vivaldi is its soundtrack.

Bonus movie pick: If you have not watched the film The Red Violin, you should do so.  If only to see Samuel L. Jackson play a violin appraiser.  There is a bit of science fiction about the film, which I will not get into here, but will say that it takes the concept of the Conversation to new heights.  One of  the characters in the story is a child prodigy violinist, whose story is, quite clearly, based primarily on Vivaldi. That was not lost on John Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score.  Highly recommended:  One of my Top 10 films ever.

After Lully and Corelli, Vivaldi is the third major violinist-composer and, more than the others, his works are firmly associated with that instrument.  Vivaldi’s singular contribution to music is the solo concerto, which he invented and perfected, and which has remained more or less standard in construction until the 20th century.  Solo instrument set against an orchestra over three movements: fast; slow; fast.  This is the way.  

As with most virtuosi, Vivaldi wowed his audiences with shredding—you cannot play Vivaldi too fast.  Vivaldi’s innovations also included heightening of harmonic contrasts, as well as an undeniable gift for composing melodic tunes. For me, and this is perhaps because I played so many of his works growing up, his music exists almost out of time and place.  While I generally prefer historically informed performances, Vivaldi’s works benefit from speed, ferocity, and modern interpretation like none other of the period. 

Vivaldi’s most important composition, the 12 violin concertos collectively entitled L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was deemed so vulgar and profane that he was fired from his job.  Needless to say, these concerti proved to be his ticket to fame—Bach translated no fewer than half of them.  

We’ve seen pop stars before in this history.  Vivaldi was music’s first rock star.  Just hook up an electric guitar and play his stuff:  

Fitting, then, that he died tragically, poor and in ill-health, his music all but forgotten.

L’Estro Armonico upends Purcell by disposing of the melody altogether, relying solely on harmonic progressions to push the music along.  Push being the key word.  The harmonic progressions in L’Estro Armonico were the musical equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica—our understanding of the physics of music would never be the same.  The entire series is worth a listen.  Several have been grouped together by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which is available on most streaming services.  Here is one of my favorites:

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 2 in G Minor