Keeping Up with the Venetians — Part One

Keeping Up with the Venetians

Program Notes for Venetian Baroque: Galuppi + Vivaldi + Bortniansky

The islands in the Venetian lagoon, which by the 8th century had banded together to ally themselves with the Empire of the Romans governed from Constantinople (Byzantium), quickly became one of the inhabited world’s great centers of power and wealth. Venice’s unusual geopolitical position as an independent, wealthy republic—which some now aim to restore by way of a public referendum to secede from Italy—still gives it a special place in the European imagination.

The powers of Europe envied Venice not least for the music that accompanied the city’s public rituals, many of which are still enacted today. These include its annual “Marriage to the Sea” on Ascension Day, depicted in the 1745 painting by Canaletto, on display in the present exhibition. Music went with the Venetian Carnival, with opera, and with the rituals of the Church in its confraternities, convents and ospedali, and imposing church edifices.

The most impressive Venetian church remains the 11th-century Basilica of San Marco, originally the Doge’s private chapel. Its Byzantine cross-in-square floorplan, under five domes encrusted with gold-ground mosaics, is thought to be modeled after the imperial mausoleum of Constantinople—the Church of the Apostles—and features numerous opposing galleries that span its live, resonant acoustical space. Composers of various ages took advantage of the long time-delays, with choirs of singers and instrumentalists performing antiphonally from the galleries.

The capacity of the basilica for dramatic musical effects was increased with the advent of the Baroque styles championed by Claudio Monteverdi and his successors. Bold and often dissonant harmonies and highly ornamented melodies created new levels of tension and emotional and spiritual effect, stunning listeners from all over Europe.

A century and a half after Monteverdi, composers continued to respond to the demand for music that followed the Baroque principles worked out in Venice. Tonight’s program presents music sometimes called “late Baroque,” “Roccoco,” or “Galante,” terms that betray a competition of attitudes towards music in the late 18th century. For music of this period to be great, it needed “beauty, clarity, and good modulation” (“vaghezza, chiarezza, e buona modulazione”), at least according to the Venetian composer featured most on tonight’s program, Baldassare Galuppi.

Trained by fellow Venetian Antonio Lotti (whose manuscript for a four-part Mass is on display in the present exhibition), Galuppi’s entire career was firmly rooted in Venice, where he was born in 1706. While credited as the father of comic opera (dramma giocoso), and known for his work in the ospedali (the famous orphanage-music schools for girls and women), his most important post—held from 1748 to his death in 1785—was head of music at San Marco.

The first verse-and-respond of Psalm 69 (70 in the Masoretic numbering) opens Vespers and every subsequent Hour in the Latin rite, and on ordinary days would be sung only in chant. On more festive occasions, especially at places like San Marco, the respond received more elaborate treatment with settings for larger forces. Galuppi’s 1778 setting of the latter type contrasts a soprano-alto duet with outbursts from the full ensemble.

Galuppi, unlike his older colleague, Antonio Vivaldi, is not now a household name. In his time, though, he was famous in Venice and beyond, even garnering attention as far away as St. Petersburg.

Russian culture in the 18th century continued looking firmly West for its sources of inspiration. In 1764, after hearing in St. Petersburg a series of Galuppi’s operas (attending incognito), Catherine the Great decided to invite Galuppi for a three-year contract, which he accepted.

During his sojourn in St. Petersburg, Galuppi composed operas, ballets, and music for banquets in exquisite Venetian style that charmed his patron and her court. Yet his activities in St. Petersburg went well beyond his contractual obligations. Upon hearing the Imperial Court Cappella (the Chapel Choir), he exclaimed “Un si magnifico cor, mai non sentito in Italia” (“I have never heard such a magnificent choir in Italy”). This encounter apparently inspired him to compose church music for his new favorite Cappella.

As the Orthodox Church proscribes the use of instruments in services, Galuppi faced both the challenge to find full musical expression using voices alone as well as to set Church Slavonic, the ancient liturgical language of the Russian Church, in way that was both true to his own Venetian voice and to the Church’s established traditions.

The hymn “Only-Begotten Son” by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (d. 565) is still sung in the Orthodox church today. Galuppi’s treatment contrasts traditional homophonic sections with those in counterpoint, closing with modulating repetitions on the words “save us.”

The complete Psalm 19 (20) appears in Orthodox morning prayer as part of the “Royal Office,” in which the church prays for the sovereign. Galuppi’s choral concerto setting of the psalm utilizes only some of the verses, indicating its possible use at other occasions, either at court (perhaps at one of the banquets stipulated in his contract) or at communion in a Divine Liturgy, a common practice at the time. Its form is similar to that of comparable instrumental concertos, with a series of sections contrasting in tempo, scoring (full ensemble vs. soloists), and formal treatment. The work ends with antiphonal acclamations on “Lord, save the King” followed by a fugue on “Hear us on the day we call upon you.”

—Mark Powell

Read Part Two


7pm, Saturday, March 22 — Portland Art Museum

Buy Tickets Today!