PROGRAM NOTES by Jacques Ogg
Immediately after Antonio Vivaldi was born, the attending midwife gave him an emergency baptism. Was it because he was born during an earthquake? Or was it because the baby suffered from strettezza di petto (tightness of the chest), assumed to be a form of asthma or angina pectoris?
Antonio’s father played the violin in the Sovvegno dei Musicisti di Santa Cecilia under the pseudonym Giovanni Battista Rossi, which suggests that red hair was a family characteristic. Antonio Vivaldi was nicknamed il prete rosso (the red priest). In 1693, at the age of fifteen, he started his studies to be a priest, but it took until 1703 before he was ordained. Perhaps due to his weak health, he was living at home where he studied the violin with his father.
In 1704 the young il prete rosso was appointed maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale de la Pietà, one of the four institutions in Venice that took care of orphans or abandoned children. The boys, having learned a trade, would leave when they turned fifteen; the girls would stay and learn everything a young lady was supposed to know. Music was one of the pillars of their education. The fruits of this musical education were famous, and the services at the Ospedale were frequented by Venetian nobility and foreign visitors–a source of income for the Ospedale.
Venice loved lavish ceremonies and concerts–there were several competing opera houses. Some of the convents were quite liberal. For example, the nuns at San Lorenzo had a parlor where masked gentlemen would be received between noon and three in the afternoon. The prelate of Venice tried to stop this unseemly habit and bolted the outside of the front door, but the young ladies burned that door down, and in the process scorching the statue of San Lorenzo!
Vivaldi was a passionate virtuoso on the violin, so it’s no wonder the majority of his 500+ concertos were written for violin. But the second most popular instrument for his concertos is the bassoon. This is surprising when one considers the astmatic condition Vivaldi suffered from his whole life. It may have been the opera (Vivaldi wrote and produced at least 46!) that inspired him to use the vocal qualities of the bassoon, especially in the cantabile slow movements.
The innovative structure of Vivaldi’s concerti (ritornelli for the whole orchestra alternating with amazing passagework for the soloist) and the unprecedented circulation all over Europe of the prints made in Amsterdam by Estienne Roger and Michel-Charles Le Cène had an enormous impact on the music of the first half of the 18th Century. But with fame also came criticism. Benedetto Marcello wrote a satirical pamphlet ridiculing Vivaldi’s talents as composer and as impressario. And despite Vivaldi’s denial, it was widely whispered that Vivaldi had a more than professional contact with his favorite contralto Anna Girò, “Annina della Pietà.” After 1705 he stopped saying mass, supposedly because of his physical condition.
Johann Sebastian Bach was among Vivaldi’s admirers; he transcribed five concerti for harpsichord solo and three for organ solo. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor we know best as Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A Minor!
From 1723-24 and 1724-25 Bach wrote two complete Jahrgänge, or yearly cycles of cantatas for the use in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche. But by the end of 1725, his rhythm of composition slowed down considerably. In 1726 he even chose to perform a large number of cantatas by his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach who was Kapellmeister at the ducal court in Meiningen. Both cantatas we perform today were written during this period: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen was performed on October 27, 1726, and Ich habe genung only a few months later, on February 2, 1727.
Both cantatas show the Italian influence: there are no extensive choral opening movements. Also, both were probably written for the talented student Johann Christoph Samuel Lipsius, and both were recently found to have had the same librettist: only two years ago a collection of cantata texts by Christoph Birkmann was discovered, including Bach’s. Birkmann was a student of mathematics and music who gradually changed his focus to theology.
In Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (Bach wrote Cantata à Voce Sola e Stromenti, Cantata for Solo Voice and Instruments on the score) we see and hear the symbolic use of the Kreuzstab. This Cross Staff or Jacob’s Staff was a navigation tool. Carrying the heavy burden of the cross will be bearable once one follows the right path.
Bach’s manuscript shows the word Kreuzstab written as Xstab. The X in the Greek alphabeth is the Chi, the letter with which Christ is indicated. The melody of the opening aria starts with intervals that become smaller with each step, the last step leading to a note that does not fit in the harmony. That is Augenmusik (music for the eye) as this raised note (C sharp: #) carries a cross. This is a melancholical illustration of mankind following the difficult path of life with determination.
In the first recitative, the cello, independently from the basso continuo, paints the restless waves of the sea until we reach the secure harbor: heaven. The second aria reflects with dancing lightness what a relief it will be to shed all earthly distress, and the following recitativo accompagnato shows a striking change in tonality (c minor) and rhythm (triplets), where the text indicates resignation after having reached the port. In the final chorale, the text fits perfectly not only because the innocence of death is confirmed, but also because of the nautical metaphor: meines Schiffleins Ruder (the rudder of my little ship).
Ich habe genung was written for Candlemass, celebrating the purification of Maria and the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Simeon, an old man, waiting to see the Messiah, immediately recognized Jesus and considered his life fulfilled: he was now ready to die (Nunc dimittis). The first aria is a paraphrase of Simeon’s song, expressed with dark, slowly changing harmonies over a descending bassline. The long instrumental interludes illustrate his fatigue, and when the bass sings, the instruments respectfully keep silent. In the next recitativo, though starting with the same words, the perspective has changed into that of the pious spectator willing to identify with Simeon.
The second aria, “Schlummert ein,” composed with ritornellos and solos as in Vivaldi’s concertos, paints innocent death with a lilting, cantabile melody that often stops on a fermata–as if the music has already dozed off. The recitative shows impatience and anticipation of death with a descent to the lowest tone of the cello. The final aria, “Ich freue mich,” delighted in a light 3/8 measure, brings moments of joy when the bass sings “freue” a step higher in the first phrase, accompanied by a giggling oboe.
Bach must have loved this cantata very much. The manuscript shows signs of later performances. He transposed it from c minor to e minor for soprano, substituting the oboe with a flute, and he even wrote two movements in the Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach.