Modo Antiquo

Antonio Vivaldi, Invicti bellate, RV 628

Motet Invicti bellate RV 628, critical edition, edited by Federico Maria Sardelli, «Antonio Vivaldi. Opere incomplete», 3, Firenze, S.P.E.S., 2007

[abstract from the critical notes, translated by Michael Talbot]]

The motet for solo voice constituted, in Vivaldi’s day, the sacred equivalent of the genre of the cantata “con Stromenti”: a solo voice – always soprano or contralto in Vivaldi – that, supported by the string ensemble, alternated arias and recitatives composed on a devotional poetic text written in Latin and optionally containing biblical references or paraphrases. These lively and, so to speak, light works constituted a very flexible paraliturgical ornament that became a useful insertion in the most varied parts of the liturgy, especially when their text took the form of a non-specific poetic-religious reflection: such a piece was known as a “mottetto per ogni tempo” (“motet for all seasons”) and could find employment on the most varied occasions of the liturgical calendar; less commonly, the motet was conceived expressly for a particular celebration, in which case it was named according to the Saint or feast for which it had been composed (“per la Solennità di S. Antonio”, etc). Identical in all respects to other motets as regards structure and performing forces, except for the absence of a concluding Alleluia, was the “introduzione”, the name given to a motet that served as a prelude to a specified part of the Mass or a psalm (“introduzione al Miserere”, “introduzione al Gloria”, etc). Although its structure, which lacks a proper ending in order to allow it to run straight into the movement that is to follow it, causes us today to classify an “introduction” as an independent genre, in Vivaldi’s day this generic distinction was probably not so neat, and “introduzioni” were regarded and remunerated as normal motets.

The Ospedale della Pietà di Venezia ordained, in a regulation of 1710, that its Maestro di coro should supply, along with other liturgical compositions, two new motets every month: there was thus a heavy consumption of these pieces, and Vivaldi must have composed many of them during the periods, albeit only brief ones, when he was called on to stand in for the Maestro di coro. During his first period of such deputizing, about two years after Gasparini’s departure, the Governors paid Vivaldi an honorarium relating to “an entire Mass, a Vespers, an Oratorio, over thirty motets and other labours”; it emerges clearly from the twice-monthly rate of delivery laid down by the regulation that these “over thirty motets” were the product of about one and a half years’ work. If Vivaldi continued until 1716 to act as Maestro di coro, it is a fair assumption that he provided about twenty-four more; to these we have to add the eleven motets identified from entries in the accounts for 1739 (these are among the last testimonies to his over thirty years long relationship with the Pietà). From these infrequent and certainly incomplete references we can form a rough estimate of around 65-70 motets written with certainty for the Pietà. To these have to be added an uncertain number of motets written for other institutions and circumstances: for instance, we know that Vivaldi composed some during his Roman sojourn of 1723-24 (today three motets from that period, RV 623, RV 626 and RV 631, remain), that he had relations with the Basilica del Santo of Padua (for which, probably, RV 634 was written) and that he sent others to the electoral court of Saxony, where two motets, RV 627 and RV 632, ended up in the collection of Zelenka; finally, it is unclear whether the “Mottetti alla sera” mentioned in a receipt for payment arising from the services performed by Vivaldi during his triumphant visit to Vicenza in 1713 were from his pen.

From this brief account of the production and destination of Vivaldi’s motets we gain a picture, even if a sketchy one, of a very large repertory comprising several dozen works; what remains today, in contrast, is a small group of 12 motets, plus 8 “introduzioni”, if we wish to regard the genres as one. This is a sad and destructive fate shared by many other genres to which Vivaldi contributed: the operas, for instance, have lost about 75% of their number, and the great oratorios three out of four. But if the perishability of the stage works was to some extent endemic in a genre dependent on passing fashion and consumer taste, the destruction or dispersal of Vivaldi’s sacred works certainly had a more direct cause: the carelessness, incompetence or sheer lack of interest in preservation shown by the Pietà. Of hundreds upon hundreds of concertos, sonatas and sacred works of every description supplied by Vivaldi intermittently in the course of 37 years, there remain, preserved by the Pietà, a mere scattered handful of separate parts for a few late works. This fate befell not only Vivaldi but also Gasparini, Dall’Oglio, Porta and the other masters who supplied it with compositions up to, approximately, the fourth decade of the eighteenth century; the surviving music belongs to the subsequent period, and one has the impression that the impulse to make and preserve manuscript copies of the works supplied to the ospedale originated directly from a decision taken on 16 March 1736 that the work of the figlie employed officially as copyists should be rewarded with special emoluments.


We therefore owe it to Vivaldi and to his effort, quite unparalleled among composers of his time, to preserve his own compositions conscientiously that a large portion of his sacred and secular compositions written for the Pietà has come down to us. But to maintain in good order such a large archive when one is engaged in a frantic activity as composer, performer, teacher and impresario is clearly no easy task; in such circumstances it can all too easily happen that a folio or a gathering disappears from a score and that a work reaches us today in that form: this is the case with two of the twelve surviving motets: Caræ rosæ respirate, RV 624, and Invicti bellate, RV 628.


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