Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice the son of a professional violinist. Although Vivaldi underwent training for the priesthood, it was as a musician that he evidently excelled: he began playing the violin at an early age and it is known that he deputized on occasion for his father who held a post as violinist at St. Mark's. Despite his ordination to the priesthood in 1703, Vivaldi decided to pursue a musical career; his first appointment was that of maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Piet� where he maintained a teaching post on and off for much of his early life. It was here that the young composer produced a great deal of his choral music, although the works featured here were probably not among them since they are much more elaborate than anything the singers at the Piet� could have coped with.
One of the most striking features of Vivaldi's style is his ability to fashion melodies out of even a cadential fragment, and this facility is nowhere better illustrated than in the opening movement of the Gloria. The first figure, with its distinctive octave leaps, is at once rhythmically vital and harmonically stable and lends itself easily to sequential treatment. Typically for a violinist perhaps, the composer often displays a tendency to leave intricacy to the instruments and to employ the chorus homophonically, as here. The second choral movement, Et in terra pax, explores this idea further, while extending the harmonic range with a profusion of Neapolitan sixths and some extraordinary modulations. Even more unorthodox is Laudamus te in that the opening ritornello is a slightly uncomfortable seventeen bars long; Vivaldi here allows himself some florid vocal lines for the two soprano soloists and uses chains of suspensions � a favourite device. The short homophonic setting of the words Gratias agimus tibi gives way to a fugue of some dexterity, although it must be said that Vivaldi is at his best when dealing with simpler forms: the following soprano aria with obbligato oboe is a case in point. Here a long melody is gracefully unfolded in the metre of a Siciliano, while the continuo line recalls the octave leaps of the first movement. Sequence is again much in evidence in Domine Fili unigenite, the composer disregarding convention by resolving suspensions in the violin parts by downward leaps of a Seventh. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei uses contrasting forces: the alto soloist, accompanied by continuo, has descending scalic lines which are punctuated by chordal interjections from the choir and orchestra. The penitential section continues with both groups singing separate triple-time movements, and the work concludes with a recapitulation of the opening for Quoniam tu solus Sanctus and a final fugal movement.
The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court-organist and chamber-musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, he abandoned Weimar to become court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-C�then, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.
At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At C�then, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.
Bach's Magnificat was originally heard in Leipzig in 1723 in aversion in E flat major at Christmas Vespers, when movements with seasonal texts were inserted; the version included on this disc was made by Bach some years later, returning to the ordinary Magnificat text in order to make the work performable all year round. Bach's approach to the evening canticle is characteristically large-scale. There is no use of recitative, owing perhaps to the poetic nature of the text: the verses have little natural order of importance and it is appropriate that they should all be afforded extended settings. The scoring is unusually rich and includes three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, strings, continuo, and timpani � one of the largest ensembles to be assembled at the Thomaskirche in Bach's time. Bach takes a literal view of the text in which, for instance, the full five-part choir is used to demonstrate Omnes generationes (All generations) with soloists used for the more reflective movements. In a typically Bachian gesture the opening material returns for Sicut erat in principio (As it was in the beginning).
Schola Cantorum of Oxford
Schola Cantorum of Oxford is Oxford University's longest-running and most celebrated chamber choir. Much in demand for appearances at major music festivals in Britain and abroad Schola Cantorum has been conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Leonhardt, Sir Colin Davis, and Sir Neville Marriner as well as by Britten, Tippett, and Stravinsky in performances of their own music.