Vivaldi: The Great Venetian Mass. © 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas

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Beauty to Entice the Ears

GERALD FENECH listens to a compilation mass from Antonio Vivaldi's music

'... gloriously uplifting and spiritually profound.'


The famous Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (The Red Priest) will, for all music enthusiasts, always be connected with the city of Venice. Indeed, he was born there on 4 March 1678. He was baptized immediately at his home by the midwife, the reason for which has led to speculation. Most likely it was done due to either his poor health or an earthquake that shook the city that day. But in all truth, there was no earthquake that day, and the rumour originated from another Venice 'quake' that struck on 17 April 1688.

Vivaldi lived and worked in Venice for practically all his life. But those who visit his birthplace looking for evidence of him becoming one of the greatest violinists of all time will probably be disappointed, because in addition to having little information about his life, little is left in the city. What we do know is that, after that 'emergency baptism' referred to above, the proper liturgical ceremony took place in the Gothic church of San Giovanni in Bragora, the parish of his family, in May 1678. In fact, in this wonderful church there is a plaque dedicated to him next to the baptismal font. We do not know, however, which was his house, but we can imagine a child and adolescent in St Mark's Basilica with his father, who was a violinist.

Ten years after his mother introduced him to an ecclesiastical career, Antonio went to study theology in the Church of San Geminianus, in front of St Mark's Basilica, the jewel of the Renaissance destroyed by Napoleon. In 1703 he was ordained a priest in the Church of San Giovanni in Oleo, which was also destroyed in the 1800s. He worked as violin teacher in the Pietà Church from 1703 to 1720, but the current church overlooking the 'Riva degli Schiavoni' is not the one known by Vivaldi, because the building was rebuilt in neoclassical style in 1740. Vivaldi also worked as a theatre manager in the famous Sant'Angelo Theatre, the place where he composed his most famous works. The theatre, which overlooked the Grand Canal, was destroyed in 1804 and replaced by a hotel.

In the 1730s Vivaldi left Venice never to return. He died, a poor and forgotten man, in Vienna on 28 July 1741 and was buried in a mass grave with no tombstone. Vivaldi was an extremely prolific composer writing in every genre of the time, and sacred music was no exception. But this great mass is not a Vivaldi original, and this may come as a surprise to many. The puzzling paradox is that, although the composer devoted over thirty years to writing music for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, no complete musical setting of any liturgy by him has come down to us. By intercalating existing examples of his sacred music, such as the famous Gloria, and other works given a different text to suit their new liturgical function - Sanctus and Agnus Dei - Les Arts Florissants now offers us a compelling reconstruction of a solemn Mass which the 'Red-Haired Priest' might have written, maybe for an assembly of distinguished soloists as on this recording.

Listen — Vivaldi: Agnus Dei ('The Great Venetian Mass')
(HAF 8905358 track 26, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Just for the record, these are the original pieces that form the collation of this Mass:

  • Kyrie RV 587
  • Introduction to 'Gloria': Motet 'Ostro picta, armata spina' RV 642
  • Gloria RV 589
  • Credo RV 591
  • Sanctus: Contrafactum from Beatus Vir RV 597/1 and Dixit Dominus RV 807/7
  • Benedictus: Contrafactum from Dixit Dominus RV 807/8
  • Agnus Dei: Contrafactum from Magnificat RV 610/1 & 8 and Kyrie RV 587

Musical Director Paul Agnew is overtly familiar with this edifying repertoire, and his direction has a reverential aura that is both gloriously uplifting and spiritually profound.

Listen — Vivaldi: Benedictus ('The Great Venetian Mass')
(HAF 8905358 track 24, 0:50-1:45) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Indeed, performances have an abundance of unalloyed joy and vibrant enthusiasm that portray the music in all its celestial splendour.

Listen — Vivaldi: Et resurrexit tertia die ('The Great Venetian Mass')
(HAF 8905358 track 20, 1:48-2:42) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

A curate's egg? Definitely, but then who cares when there is such beauty to entice the ears.

Copyright © 12 June 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta







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