Keeping Up with the Venetians — Part Two

Keeping Up With The Venetians

Continued from Part One

Program Notes for Venetian Baroque: Galuppi + Vivaldi + Bortniansky

Galuppi further exceeded his contractual duties by teaching composition to some of the Cappella singers. One such singer was the Ukrainian Dmitro (or more commonly Dmitry) Bortniansky.

When Galuppi left St. Petersburg in 1769, he took the 18-year-old Bortniansky with him back to Venice, where he continued to teach him. Bortniansky eventually returned to St. Petersburg where he won his teacher’s post as the director of the Imperial Court Cappella, the first director not to have been imported from abroad. There he thrived, writing hundreds of compositions for the Cappella, inspired by his Venetian teacher and forebear.

The two works by Bortniansky on the program are paired as Galuppi’s: the first a short motet from the Divine Liturgy and the second an expansive composition sung for special occasions. Bortniansky’s setting of the short Marian hymn “It is truly right” is characterized by its directness of expression, particularly through contrasts of loud and soft (dynamics) and an extended melisma on the final word “magnify.” The larger work, the Te Deum, commonly sung for services of thanksgiving, overtly displays the influences of his teacher’s Venetian style: a Baroque concerto in three movements of contrasting tempos and time signatures (with a slow middle movement in the relative minor key), ending with an emphatic and driving finale.

Bortniansky’s teacher, upon his return south to Venice, didn’t only work for San Marco; Galuppi also returned to work for a number of the Ospedali, in particular the Ospedale degl’Incurabili, for which he wrote in 1772 the setting of the Nunc dimittis heard tonight. Services in the Ospedali chapels were often sung in plainchant, yet for festal occasions, new music would have been the order of the day. Such an occasion is depicted in the picture by Gabriel Bella on display in the present exhibition, Orphan Girls Singing for the Dukes of the North.

Characteristic of the “galant style,” composers of this time often wrote out precisely the ornamentation they desired the singers and instrumentalists to perform. One such example is the Nunc’s second movement “Lumen ad revelationem” featuring firework vocalism by a soprano soloist. Galuppi’s manuscript (nearly illegible since he suffered from a Parkinson’s-like illness near the end of his life) notes the solo was for Serafina Teresia Miller, one of the residents of the Incurabili for whom a number of other composers wrote virtuosic arias. Miss Miller and her fellow performers would have never been visible, as all the women (singers and players) would have made their music behind a screen, something we have opted not to recreate for tonight’s performance.

For the second half of our program we open with a short concerto for strings by one of the city’s now most famous musical sons, Antonio Vivaldi. Its robust, processional opening invokes the Venetian penchant for ceremonial pomp. A cadential two-bar violin solo after the first moment leads into a jaunty set of variations on a repeated bass line.

The largest work on the program, Galuppi’s setting of Psalm 50 (51), was probably intended for use at the Holy Week service of Tenebrae prior to Easter, likely composed between 1740 and 1751 for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, before Galuppi went to St. Petersburg. The scoring is for Soprano and Alto soloists as well as full chorus: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. But how could it be that a work for mixed choir could be performed by an all-female ensemble? Musicologists have wrestled with this issue for some time, but current scholarship (and creative experimentation with living female singers) seems to indicate that there were indeed women in the Ospedali who could sing as low as the written bass part in these works. The bass part in the Miserere never goes below A, and usually stays in a higher range. Similar conclusions have been reached about Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Gloria, which was written for the all-female choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, and presented convincingly by an all-female ensemble in a recent BBC documentary. For tonight’s performance we shall use a modern egalitarian component of the women and men.

Galuppi’s setting of Psalm 50 is divided into separate movements of contrasting tempos and scoring. Each movement, in good Baroque style, aims to depict a single affect or emotional state, often with colorful word painting through musical effects, throughout with “beauty, clarity, and good modulation.” The movements designated for soloists are particularly stirring in their harmonic tension and flourish, pushing the voices to the far limits of virtuosity to match that of their instrumental counterparts, an impressive artistic achievement among many that makes us even today want to keep up with Venetians.

—Mark Powell


7pm, Saturday, March 22 — Portland Art Museum

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