Monday, April 11, 2022

Vivaldi’s “Al Santo Sepolcro”: Instrumental Music for Holy Week Devotions

The music of the Baroque composers never ceases to astonish and delight me. As a new discoverer of classical music toward the end of high school, I listened to composers from a wide variety of periods, including very modern art music. In graduate school I gravitated toward the great romantics (Brahms, Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner…). As time went on, I found myself turning more and more to Handel, Bach, Telemann, et al., and, yes, Vivaldi, who in my opinion is hugely underrated. It was, I think, countertenor Andreas Scholl’s version of the Stabat Mater that did the most to elevate his profile for me.

On the same disc as that performance there is a recording of a two-movement instrumental work entitled Sonata “Al Santo Sepulcro,” in Eb Major (RV 130). Later I learned that he wrote a companion work, the Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepulcro,” in B minor (RV 169). The title alone is fascinating: what exactly is a sonata or symphony “at the holy sepulchre”? An online commentary reads:
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.

Unfortunately I lost my liner notes from the Scholl disc, but I recall reading that the best scholarly guess is that this music would have been played at a moment when ministers and people were directing their attention to one of the “sepulchers” or tombs set up in a side chapel, which is a common custom in Europe. We tend to think nowadays of Lent and especially Passiontide as a period in which no instrumental music should be performed, and there is something appropriate in that austere approach, which brings the West and East together for a short time in a common reliance on the human voice alone; but our forefathers seem to have had a more flexible attitude about the inclusion of at least some such music in Passiontide and Holy Week, at long as it was thoroughly suited to the character of the days, as indeed these works by Vivaldi are. Moreover, they seem to be intended for paraliturgical or devotional use, where more flexibility has always existed (one need only think of the very popular “Seven Last Words” oratorios that found room on Good Friday, before Pius XII’s “Solemn Afternoon Liturgical Action” more or less drove them out).

Both works are astonishing for their beauty and intensity of feeling, fully in that idiom of “Passion music” for which Bach was to become much more famous. Let’s listen first to the Sinfonia, of which many recordings are available. I have selected three of rather different character:

Vivaldi’s Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepulcro,” in B minor (RV 169), with his autograph score:

Karajan’s sensuous romantic interpretation with full orchestra:

In a more sprightly early music approach:

Then there is the Sonata “Al Santo Sepulcro,” in Eb Major (RV 130), also in two movements:

Listening to this ravishing music, inspired by the Catholic liturgical calendar and the mysteries it brings to life each year, should give us pause about our ecclesiastical priorities. Why are we so afraid of incorporating beauty like this into our churches and devotions? Martin Mosebach says at one point that loving the beautiful (and admitting it!) is an “unforgivable sin” in modern times: it is instantly written off as a hypocritical aestheticism that cares more about frissons than about faith and good works. And yet, no period in Church history has ever neglected the beautiful as we do — even the greatest ages of faith and good works, which we admire from a distance because we cannot measure up to them.

The fine composer Antonio Lotti had to compete against Giovanni Porta and two other composers for three years in order to gain the position of maestro at San Marco’s in Venice. Three years of competition—with Lotti’s abilities! Lotti’s little finger, nay, his left eyebrow, had more talent in it than the whole lot of establishment liturgical musicians who rule the postconciliar roost today. Even more remarkably, Monteverdi, known as a genius even in his own day, had to apply for a job in Venice after being turned down by Rome. So full of music and art was the old world that accomplished composers had to compete vigorously against one another for their posts.

There is good, serious, lofty church music being written today; it even finds performances, mostly in conservative and traditionalist spheres. But we have a long way to go before we recover a unified culture of worship, sanctity, beauty, and social Catholicism, all inseparable.

Here is a final question: Why are we so timid when it comes to seeking and bestowing patronage? Do we somehow think it is indecent or unloving to spend our wealth on beauty, on a sonata or sinfonia for Holy Week, when there are people starving? Are not people starving for meaning, beauty, and worship, as well? Mother Teresa — who knew a thing or two about poverty — said there were different kinds of poverty, and that the poverty of Western people, with full bellies and empty souls, was the worst.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the custom of having the best of instrumental music during certain transitional moments in liturgy or certain devotions should be revived. We might start with these works by Vivaldi.


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