Maria, Madre di Dio

Dating back to the very beginnings of Christianity, Mary of Nazareth has been a central figure of popular devotion. As the mother of Jesus Christ, she has been perceived throughout the centuries as the antithesis of Eve. It was she who acquiesced to God’s divine proposal. And it was she who ultimately became the instrument through which the salvation of all men became possible. After the miracle of her own birth to Anne, who had been acknowledged as sterile, Mary’s life followed a divine trajectory in which the joy of the miraculous nativity was starkly juxtaposed with an unbearable heart-rending sorrow caused by the crucifixion of her son. Virgin, mother, sister, comforter, confidante, mediator, protector, these are the many faces of Mary, which, depending on spiritual trends and sensibilities, have dominated and defined her image over the ages.

At the end of the 16th century, Baroque musicians began to move beyond the balanced and somewhat static density of Renaissance compositional practices and forms. With inspiration drawn from notions of chiaroscuro (contrast) and movement, Baroque musical expression focussed on the affective representation of the entire range of human emotions and passions. In Italy, by the turn of the 17th century, contrapuntal polyphonic music had been largely replaced by accompanied monody and stile rappresentative (representational style). From dramatic madrigal to dramma per musica (music drama), opera and finally vernacular cantata, it was above all within the genres of secular music that composers defined and refined the new, Baroque, musical style. Exemplified in the forms of recitative and aria (song), this new musical vocabulary was centred around dialogue and dramatic action. Composers further developed these forms by adapting them to the particular context of sacred song in the genres of the oratorio and the sacred cantata.

In 1703, the same year that he was ordained as a priest, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was also appointed maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pièta, one of Venice’s four orphanages for girls. In 1715, the composer was appointed interim choir master for the same institution, an enormous undertaking which, in addition to the instruction of the singers, included the playing of the organ during the services, and the composition of masses, oratorios, motets and hymns.

As early as 1712, Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer had garnered him the commission of a Stabat Mater. The poetic text of the Statbat Mater is thought to have sprung form the pen of the 13th century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi. Others, however, attribute the work to Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274). The poem consists of twenty verses, sung in their entirety during the course of the mass. During the Feast of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, which takes place on the 15th of September as well as on the Friday preceding Palm Sunday, however, the Stabat Mater was usually sung as a hymn. According to the Roman Breviary, the first ten verses were to be sung in the early evening, at Vespers; the subsequent four verses (eleven through fourteen) the following morning, before dawn, at Matins; and the final verses (fifteen to twenty) were to be sung as the sun rose, at Laudes.

Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater was premiered in Brescia on March 18, 1712, at the oratory church of Santa Maria della Pace. The composer, occupied by his many obligations in Venice did not attend the premiere. According to the musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon, the work represents: “the most sombre version of the Stabat in the history of music.” This observation undoubtedly derives from Vivaldi’s setting for alto voice, the warm timbres of which were preferred by the composer, the lack of bravura vocal effects, which serve to foreground the text, and the dramatic harmonic and rhythmic writing of string accompaniment— the whole made all the more effective by an over arching aura of pious restraint. The structure of the work is equally striking and merits comment. The music of the first three movements is repeated for movements four and six, while completely new music is used for the last three movements. Virtuosic writing, generally characteristic of Vivaldi’s vocal music, is reserved only for the work’s closing Amen.

In 1706, after just two years of residence, a young Handel (1685-1759) left Hamburg, in order to realise his dream of travelling to Italy. His sojourn, which ultimately lasted more than four years, took him to Florence, Rome, Venice and Naples; cities that dominated the Italian musical world. While in Italy he meet some of the most influential composers of the day: Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni among others. Handel’s own exceptional talents as an organist garnered him much praise and adulation and ensured his immediate acceptance within important patronage circles, particularly in Rome, where he eventually worked under the aegis of the Cardinals Ottoboni, Colona and Pamphili (who described Handel as the «new Orpheus») and the Marquis Francesco Ruspoli. Invited to attend the prestigious Accademia Arcadiana, yet too young to become a full member, Handel composed more than one hundred cantatas for this elite circle of cultivated literati, poets and musicians (among whom, A. Scarlatti and Archangelo Corelli) fascinated with the intellectual and artistic philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome.

While in Italy and above all while in Rome, Handel wrote a large number of religious works such as the Dixit Dominus (April 1707), the Laudate pueri Dominum (July 1707) and the oratorio La Resurrezione (1708). He also composed numerous sacred cantatas, settings of Latin or vernacular Italian texts, of which a selection were devoted to the Marian cult—somewhat paradoxical considering the composer’s own Lutheran background and religious up-bringing. (For Lutherans, God, Christ and the Holy Ghost are the fundamental focus of devotional practices in which neither the Virgin Mary nor the Saints are accorded any special veneration). When one of his august patrons invited him to embrace the Catholic faith, Handel diplomatically if not boldly replied that while he did not feel qualified to enter into a discussion of such matters, he had every intention of living and dying according to the faith to which he had been born and in which he had been raised, whether or not it was the true one.

A commission of Cardinal Colonna for the celebration of the Feast of the Madonna del Carmine, the cantata Ah! Che troppo ineguali was composed in 1708. The fact that the text implores the Queen of Heaven to restore peace to earth provides a contextual link between the work and the War of the Austrian Succession, which had a direct impact on several regions of Italy. Under the articles of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) the duchy of Milan and the Kingdom of Naples—Spanish possessions prior to the commencement of hostilities in 1701—were ceded to Austria, becoming part of the Hapsburg Empire. The cantata consists solely of an opening recitative, followed by a da capo aria. Of particular note is the first section of the aria. Here the vocal part is framed by an instrumental ritornello of dramatic breadth and intensity, characterised by an opulent play of heart-rending dissonances. The starkness of the second section of the aria is underscored by the absence of any instrumental ritornello.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) is without a doubt one of the most significant figures of Baroque music. He played a determining role in the evolution of opera, oratorio and the cantata. An incredibly prolific composer, Scarlatti has left to posterity one hundred operas, fifteen masses, thirty oratorios and more than six hundred cantatas. All this from a man whose career was divided between Naples and Rome.

The antiphon Salve Regina dates from the 11th century and has been attributed to both Hermannus Contractus, a monk at the abby of Reichnau and Adhemar de Monteil, Bishop of Puy. By 1140, it had become part of the Cistercian antiphonary. Later in the 12th century, by way of rounding out the text, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux added the now familiar final triple invocation O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria. The Salve Regina was normally sung at Compline, the final service of the liturgical day.

There are no less than five extant motet Salve Regina settings by Scarlatti, including the one performed here, scored for two voices, violins and bass continuo. Manuscript evidence suggests that work likely dates from February 1703. The work which is divided into six relatively short movements constitutes a veritable oratorio in miniature. Each section of the composition is delineated by elements which not only set it apart from the preceding and following movements but also perfectly underscore the dramatic content of the text. In this Salve Regina setting, Scarlatti employs musical elements derived from his operatic compositions—unexpected harmonic shifts, dissonances, bravura vocal writing, cadenzas, dramatic pauses and juxtaposition of vocal colours—to create an aural spectacle which directs the listener towards a state of inward contemplation.

In the past attributed to Handel, recent research has revealed that the cantata Il pianto di Maria was written by the less familiar Venetian composer Giovanni Battista Ferrandini (ca. 1710-1791). Ferrandini began his musical studies in Venice with Antonio Biffi, but left the city at an early age to pursue a music career at the court of Munich, where he lived most of his life. In archival documents for the year 1722, the composer is listed as an oboist at the court of Duke Ferdinand of Bavaria. In 1732, Ferrandini was appointed as chamber composer to the elector Karl Albrecht of Bavaria. Renowned as an opera composer, his Catone in Utica was chosen for the inauguration of the new opera house in Munich (1753). Due to ill health, the composer left Munich in 1755 for Padua, where he eventually settled. Leopold Mozart and the young Wolfang visited Ferrandini in 1771.

The cantata Il pianto di Maria was more than likely composed in 1735. While the author of the poem remains unknown, the text appears to have been inspired by that of the Stabat Mater. In addition to the more traditional da capo aria forms, Ferrandini also employs the cavatina—a type of bipartite aria, without repetitions, often embedded within a recitative. Here in this work the cavatina is followed by recitative after which the cavatina is repeated, giving the section the form and feel of an extended aria da capo. Throughout the cantata Ferrandini alternates the use of recitativo secco (recitative accompanied only by basso continuo) with recitativo accompagnato (recitative accompanied by the entire instrumental ensemble). Instead of finishing with an aria, the work ends with an agitated accompanied recitative, which creates an aura of febrile anxiety—an emotion perfectly in keeping with the final textual image, of the crucified Christ, flanked by two criminals, yielding up his spirit as the earth begins to tremble.

© Mario Lord, 2003 Translation by Traçantes, Service de rédaction et de traduction de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique.