The Virgin’s Lament

The Virgin's LamentIL PIANTO DI MARIA

“Travestimenti spirituali”, misattributions and transcriptions

 

At the heart of this collection of music lie a number of interwoven themes: Christ’s Passion and its imitation by the Christian martyrs; the musical practices of Holy Week; and Italian composers’ links with the German-speaking world — in particular the Habsburg Empire —and with the tradition of the seventeenth and . eighteenth centuries. In Monteverdi’s Pianto della Madonna, the Passion is seen through the eyes of the Virgin Mary, and the piece itself is a “contrafactum” or “travestimento spirituale”, a secular composition to which a sacred text has later been added. In this instance, the music is Monteverdi’s famous Lamento d’Arianna (“Ariadne’s Lament”) but with a Latin text,”Iam moriar, mi Fili”, replacing the original words, and creating an effect that is at least surprising for the modern listener. It is interesting to note that, when the Pianto della Madonna was first published in the Selva morale e spirituale in 1640-41, more than thirty years had passed since the first performance of the original opera, Arianna (in Mantua, in 1608) — evidence of the enormous fame that the Lamento, the only part of the opera to have survived, enjoyed in its day. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that Arianna had been revived in Venice in 1640, and that, before publishing the Lamento in 1623, Monteverdi had already produced a five-voice version, in his Sixth Book of Madrigals of 1614. A descending-bass structure is typical of a lament, and variations on an ostinato bass can also be found in Biagio Marines Passacaglio. Although it has secular, dance associations, the form here takes on a dramatic, expressive character: it is no coincidence that the piece comes at the end of the composer’s Sonate da chiesa e da camera, op.22 (1655), after a series of compositions more sacred in manner. In any case, the Monteverdi example shows how the same rhetorical and musical rules served for both opera and religious pieces on non-liturgical texts, such as oratorios or sepolcri, a type of oratorio performed (and generally also staged) at the Viennese court during the Easter season.

 

The curious title of Vivaldi’s Concerto, RV 129 “Madrigalesco”, which can be dated to around 1720, is probably a reference to its archaic character, and its use of bold, expressive harmonic sequences, characteristic of the late madrigals of Monteverdi and Sigismondo d’India. The madrigal was a thing of the past by Vivaldi’s time, although it continued to be cultivated by such composers as Alessandro Scarlatti, Streffani, Caldara and Lotti as a lofty, academic genre. The musical material in the Concerto “Madrigalesco” draws on Vivaldi’s own sacred vocal works, such as the Kyrie, RV 587, and the opening Adagio of the Magnificat, RV 610 (and, of course, the Magnificat is one of the Marian texts par excellence). Paul Everett has further revealed close connections (borrowings, or “musical thefts”, depending on your outlook) between the harmonic and compositional procedures used in this concerto and the overtures that Marc’Antonio Ziani, a Venetian composer of the preceding generation, wrote for his sepolcri.

 

The Sonata and Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro”, RV 130 and 169, are unusual works in Vivaldi’s output. Both are in two movements, an adagio and fugue, and seem as if they were intended to accompany some paraliturgical service between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday in the chapel at the Pieta. Probably composed around 1730, both are characterised by musical gestures expressing grief, and their contrapuntal textures and rich chromatic intensity place them far apart from the dazzling virtuosity often associated with the music of the Red Priest. In the Sinfonia, in particular, chromaticism is used as a structural element, from the introductory movement to the two fugue subjects — one ascending and the other descending — that intersect in an undoubtedly specific allusion to the cross as an image of the Passion. Apparently modelled on Vivaldi’s “Santo Sepolcro” music (an adagio and fugue), the Sonata in C minor by Johann Georg Pisendel might have been written for a similar paraliturgical use. Pisendel, Konzertmeister of the famous Dresden court orchestra, stayed in Venice between 1716 and 1717, where he was a pupil and friend of Vivaldi, who dedicated various sonatas and concertos to him.

 

The imitation of Christ’s Passion in the martyrdom of the saints is an element in the aria “Sento gia mancar la vita”, the climax of Il martirio di San Lorenzo (1710, rev. 1724) by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, instrumentalist and composer at the Viennese court. The orchestral forces used for the aria are a particular point of interest, with the inclusion of a soprano chalumeau, a forerunner of the clarinet and an instrument often used for pathetic arias in Viennese oratorios in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As in the Pianto della Madonna, so too in Giovanni Battista Ferrandini’s 11 Pianto di Maria — subtitled “Cantata sacra da cantarsi dinanzi al Santo Sepolcro” (a sacred cantata to be sung before the Holy Sepulchre) — the Passion of Christ is seen through the eyes of Mary. Born around 1710, Ferrandini emigrated to Munich when he was very young, to work at the court there as an instrumentalist and chamber composer. His Pianto di Maria was formerly attributed to Handel (as HWV 234), but a composite study of 1993 by Juliane Riepe, Carlo Vitali, Antonello Furnari and Benedikt Poensgen convincingly demonstrated this attribution to be false, and to derive from relatively recent manuscripts; older sources, closer to the time of the autograph, now lost (the piece was probably composed between 1732 and 1737), give Ferrandini as the composer. The most interesting source, a copy made by Padre Martini, might possibly derive from a manuscript taken to Bologna by Anton Raff (the tenor who sang the title role in Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1781). In any case, a possible attribution to Handel can be discounted on stylistic grounds as well: it is a remarkably original piece of work, worthy to stand beside the Pianto della Madonna published a century earlier.

 

It is Monteverdi who can be considered the fons et origo of Baroque musical vocabulary, and, in one way or another, all the works mentioned here demonstrate at least some attention to that tradition, if not an explicit backward glance to it. This is by no means something to be taken for granted in a period when all music was essentially contemporary. In addition, all the composers in this collection, Conti apart, had strong links with Venice, Vivaldi and Ferrandini having been born there. All, however, were in close contact with the German courts, particularly the imperial one in Vienna — from Monteverdi, who dedicated his Selva morale e spirituale to Empress Eleonora Gonzaga, wife of Ferdinand II, and Marini, for a long time in the service of the Prince-Elector of Bavaria, to Vivaldi, who died destitute and alone in Vienna, nine months after the death of his protector Charles VI.The Emperor had a rare devotion to music. On 23 September 1728, Abbe Antonio Conti wrote to Madame de Caylus on the subject of an encounter between Charles VI and the Red Priest: “The Emperor spoke to Vivaldi at length about music, and I’m told that in a fortnight he said more to him in private than he did to his ministers in two years.”

 

Giovanni Antonini and Cesare Fertonani
Translation: Kenneth Chalmen