Previously known as The Burnt Hills Oratorio Society
The Power of Singing

Here is a preview of the program notes that will be published in the upcoming concert of Burnt Hills Oratorio Society: “Brilliant Baroque.”


Texts, Translations, and Notes on the Program

by William Jon Gray


Antonio Vivaldi: Gloria in D Major, RV 589 


The Gloria in D Major, RV 589 is Antonio Vivaldi’s best known and most performed sacred composition. The current popularity of this setting for voices and instruments of the “Gloria in excelsis” text from the Mass Ordinary is surprising, considering that Vivaldi’s sacred compositions, comprised of over fifty distinct works, were virtually unknown to all but a small circle of performers and listeners during the composer’s lifetime. On September 20, 1939, the Italian composer, pianist, and conductor Alfredo Casella chose this setting of the Gloria Mass text from among the dozens of unknown sacred vocal works of Vivaldi contained in the manuscripts of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin. The Gloria, RV 589 was given in performance for the first time in over two hundred years under Casella’s direction, on a program featuring a selection of the composer’s sacred compositions, under the patronage of the Academia Musicale Chigiana during its annual music festival (Settimana musicale). In 1941 Casella produced the first modern edition of the work for the publisher Carisch in Milan. Through this sequence of modern events a portion of a complete, eighteenth-century messa intiera (an “entire Mass”) that had been unheard and entirely forgotten since the composer’s death entered into the modern canon of Baroque repertoire, quickly gaining wide spread popularity and engendering frequent performances.

The circumstances surrounding the composition and first performances of the Gloria in D Major, RV 589 are unknown. It is clear, however, that Vivaldi was employed as a substitute choir master at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice during the years between 1713 and 1719, and again in 1739, and that he was responsible for composing sacred vocal works for the accomplished female musicians in the orchestra and choir of that Venetian institution for orphans. Examining the evidence surrounding the genesis of this work the musicologist and Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot proposed the following theory:

My hypothesis is that the present Gloria, RV 589, was composed later, towards the end of 1716, for a Mass of thanksgiving for Venetian and allied victories in the Balkans against the Ottomans, making it a companion piece to Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans… This thought is prompted by the somewhat “military character’ of the opening movement, which reminds one of the opening chorus of Juditha triumphans… The prominence of the solo trumpet in RV 589 . . . is [also] a factor favouring this theory.[1]

Is the continued popularity in our own time of the Gloria in D Major, RV 589 warranted by music of sufficient innovation and importance to earn a place for the work in the canon of eighteenth-century masterpieces? Certainly the large-scale formal organization of the eleven movements of the work reveals both a high degree of structural unity and a wide variety of affekt and expression. The overall form of the work is a cantata mass: a form which divides the rather lengthy text of the Gloria into smaller sentences and phrases for individual treatment as a succession of contrasting choruses and arias (as with the B Minor Mass of Bach). The simplicity and directness of the bright D-major tonality and bracing tempo of the opening “Gloria in excelsis” chorus, with its exuberant exclamatio of vertical leaping octaves, immediately gives way in the “Et in terra pax” to a contrasting chorus in the relative minor built upon long horizontal lines and complex harmonic modulations. The four-part head-motive imitative vocal part-writing forms a complete a cappella motet texture which functions entirely independently from the instrumental material. Likewise, the string parts constitute a complete and self-sufficient slow movement concerto grosso texture which is played simultaneously with the imitative motet. Voices and instruments explore two independent idiomatic points of view, providing layers of expression. This technique of simultaneity in choral and instrumental function was to prove very useful in the Masses of Mozart and Haydn.

“Laudamus te” is an uncomplicated Italian-style aria duetto: the texture is basically that of a single vocal line that has been divided up between two singers, alternating sections of simple imitation with Italianate passages of parallel harmonization in thirds and sixths. The brief, homophonic declamation of “Gratias agimus tibi”, with its dramatic pauses between phrases calculated to create the greatest effect in the resonance of a large church, is followed by a setting of “Propter magnam gloriam” in the strict seventeenth century imitative ricercar style.

The next two movements together form a pastoral interlude. The “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis”, set in the traditional siciliano rhythm of a Pifa (a style of Italian shepherd folk music), takes the form of a soprano aria with oboe obbligato, the double reed evoking the sound of the traditional instruments of pastoral music. The “Domine Fili unigenite” is set as a rousing country dance in the “French” style of over dotted saccadé rhythms (meaning, literally, “jerked”).

Vivaldi uses the form of the operatic scena as the model for the next three movements. The “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” is a slow, tragic aria in which the solo alto converses in a dialogue with the chorus. The brief “Qui tollis peccata mundi” replaces the transitional recitative common in an operatic scena with a freely declamatory section for chorus. The scena ends with a virtuoso coloratura fast aria (cabaletta) in a triumphal character. A sixteenth note motive derived from the opening movement can be heard in this aria, which also prefigures the reprise of that same music in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”.

The work is concluded with a standard fugal setting of “Cum Sancto Spiritu”. This movement is a borrowing of a double chorus setting on the same text by the Venetian composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. Vivaldi made several judicious changes to the Ruggieri, improving the composition in the process, including re-assigning most of the material delegated to the secondo coro in the Ruggieri to the orchestra, creating a dialogue texture between the chorus and the instruments.


[1] M. Talbot, The Sacred Vocal Music of Antonio Vivaldi. Florence, Olschki, 1995.


George Frideric Handel: Messiah, HWV 56


MAJORA CANAMUS. [Virgil: Eclogue IV][1]

And without Controversy, great is the Mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the Flesh, justify’d by the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the World, received up in Glory.

In whom are hid all the Treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge.

Charles Jennens, Librettist [I Timothy 3, 16; Colossians 2, 3]


George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany on February 23, 1685, and died in London, England on April 14, 1759. He composed Messiah in a burst of activity spanning a little over three weeks during the summer of 1741. The work was premiered in Dublin, Ireland at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street on April 13, 1742. Handel continually revised the work for his own performances over the next fifteen years.

Messiah may be the most frequently performed and least understood major choral work in the repertoire. The very fact of its enormous appeal, practically from its inception, has obscured the true nature and origins of this highly unusual work. Modern listeners regard Messiah as the sine qua non of the oratorio genre, and it has achieved status as one of the great western cultural icons. Perhaps the work’s continued popularity in the increasingly secular environment of our own time is due, in part, to its ability to speak afresh to each succeeding generation, in language rich enough to accommodate a wide range of moral, philosophical, and religious interpretations.

It is ironic that the original inspiration for Handel’s best-known composition came not from the composer himself, but from Charles Jennens, an educated and wealthy devotee of Handel’s music. As a conservative religious scholar and aggressive supporter of the Church of England, Jennens’ life was devoted to evangelism and the study and dissemination of Christian doctrine. It was Jennens’ unique idea to construct a sacred oratorio on the subject of Messiah using only words from scripture, and it was his genius to wed his masterfully constructed sequence of scriptural excerpts with the expressive power of Handel’s music.

It is equally ironic that Handel, a North German-born composer, trained in Italy, is remembered today as a composer of English oratorios, particularly of the large-scale choral variety. Handel was best known in his own time as the “famous composer of Italian Musick”, meaning, specifically, Italian opera in the opera seria style. Opere serie were serious psychological and political dramas, usually involving a small number of characters drawn from the history and legends of classical antiquity. The basic building block of the opera seria was the da capo aria, a type of virtuosic vocal showpiece in tri-parte form. Handel was the acknowledged master of the Italian da capo aria, and as an indication of how far afield Handel ventured from his predominant style of composition, it is useful to note that of Messiah’s fifty two separate movements, only three are in the da capo aria form.

The English oratorio was the final achievement of Handel’s career, and it was not one that he anticipated. The fickle English public’s taste for Italian opera had begun to change in 1728 with John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, an English play with ballad tunes which satirized the stylized conventions of Italian opera. “The taste of the town is so depraved, that nothing will be approved of but the burlesque. The Beggar’s Opera entirely triumphs over the Italian one”. Even with the steady decrease in audiences throughout the 1730’s, Italian opera still seemed a viable London enterprise to Handel, who would not commit his final destiny to English oratorio until after the London success of Messiah.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the fame and legacy of Messiah is to be found in the text and music itself. Not only were the forms and conventions of the English oratorio atypical of the vast majority of Handel’s Italian operatic works, but the very concept and style of Messiah was highly unusual, even by the standards of Handelian English oratorio. Messiah has not plot in the ordinary sense. One of only two Handel oratorios to use a completely scriptural text, the textual ideas are developed exclusively through the use of allusion. Unlike an operatic plot where people participate in events as part of a real-time drama, Messiah has no actual characters, and events are evoked in the manner of poetry, recalling meaning and significance without narration or description. In other words, the emphasis is not so much on what is happening or to whom it is happening as much as it is on why it is happening and what it might mean.

The unusual style of the music is, in part, attributable to the innovative construction of the text. Freed from the concerns of plot and character development, Handel was able to employ musical form as a dramatic/rhetorical device in itself. Textual ideas are grouped together and developed through the employment of two, three, and four movement musical “cells” frequently comprised of a Recitative presenting the “Thesis”, and Aria developing the main “argument”, and a Chorus, drawing the “thesis” and “argument” together into a “conclusion” elucidating the larger significance.

The greatness of Messiah – perhaps Handel’s most untypical oratorio – is derived on the one hand from its fusion of the traditions of Italian opera, English anthem, and German Passion, and on the other from Handel’s ability to express, in a broad, ecumenical manner, some of the larger religious/philosophical themes of its masterful text. It remains, nonetheless, in the words of its devout librettist Charles Jennens, an “elegant entertainment”, on how ever a lofty level, not an act of worship

[1] The Latin expression paulo maiora canamus, translated literally, means let us sing of things a little more elevated (Virgil, Eclogue IV, 1): Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus! (“Sicilian muses, of things a little more elevated let us sing!”.) The phrase is quoted to shift from frivolous arguments to more profound topics, or from a painful topic to a more consoling one.