The Pieta in Venice, where Vivaldi was the violin master at the beginning of the 18th century
Listening: Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was ordained a priest in 1703, when he was appointed the violin master at the Ospedale dell Pieta. The red priest, il prete rosso, remained at the Pieta for most of his career until 1740, and died in Vienna.
Most of us probably know him for The Four Seasons, which celebrates God’s creation – his Autumn Concerto is a celebration of the harvest. But his Gloria represents the high baroque tradition.
Vivaldi kept on returning to the Pieta, but moved finally from Venice to Vienna in 1740. He died there the following year, and – like Bach less than 10 years later and Mozart 50 years later – he received a poor man’s funeral.
And so we should remember that when we are looking at this period in Church history, we are looking at was the age of Handel, Mozart Bach, and the Wesley brothers.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German-born, British baroque composer who was a leading composer of concerti grossi, operas and oratorios. Handel, who was born in Halle, began his career in Hamburg, and lived for a time in France before moving to London in 1710. He then lived for most of his adult life in England, becoming a British subject in 1727.
A prolific composer, he was much admired by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His choral anthems and religious oratorios include the Messiah, Zadok the Priest, Samson and Judas Maccabeus. Of these, the most famous is probably his Messiah, an oratorio set to texts from the King James Version of the Bible. His Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral taking part.
Many people today only know passages of scripture because of parts of the libretto from Handel’s Messiah they have memorised: think of Handel’s Messiah, think of the Hallelujah chorus, and think: “For unto us a child is born.”
Handel’s oratorios continue to be the mainstay of amateur choral societies on these islands.
Drawing on the techniques of the great composers of the Italian baroque, as well as the music of Henry Purcell, Handel deeply influenced in his turn many composers who came after him, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His work helped lead the transition from the baroque to the classical era.
He is commemorated as a musician in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on 28 July with Johann Sebastian Bach and Heinrich Schutz.
Listening: Mozart, Sanctus and Benedictus, Coronation Mass
Karl Barth famously said of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): “Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart.”
Mozart’s principal patrons were the Archbishops of Salzburg and Vienna, with whom he often quarrelled and by whom he was regularly dismissed.
His last job was as the unpaid assistant to the Kapellmeister of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, whom he hoped to succeed.
His Requiem was one of his last and one of his greatest works. It was commissioned in July 1791 by Count Franz Walsegg zu Stuppach, to commemorate the death of his wife. Mozart’s widow later claimed the composer felt the commission was a premonition of his own death.
He died on 5 December 1791, aged 35, and was buried in an unmarked grave. The Requiem was uncompleted, and the version we know now was completed by others from his notes.
Mozart’s other works include the Coronation Mass, completed in 1779 when Mozart was only 22 or 23 – not for the crowing of a king or emperor, but for the annual commemoration of the crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mozart’s Masses continue to influence Christian worship in all traditions. But does anyone care whether Mozart was a Catholic or Bach was a Protestant?
Listening: Bach, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata no. 174).
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a child of the German Lutheran Church, was deeply influenced by Vivaldi. Bach worked for much of his life at Saint Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. His setting of the Latin Magnificat, a canticle that has retained its place in the Lutheran liturgy, was written for his first Christmas in Leipzig.
But Bach saw himself not as a supreme genius but as one of God’s craftsmen. He wrote that music should have no aim other than the glory of God and the “re-creation of the soul … Where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting.”
Bach inscribed the scores of all his religious music with dedicatory abbreviations such as JJ (Jesu, juva – Jesus, help me) at the beginning, and at the end: SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the Glory).
His works include the Saint John Passion, the Saint Matthew Passion, Magnifcat, a number of Mass settings, and three complete cycles of cantatas, taking up 60 hours. The cantatas, each 20 or 25 minutes long, were mostly written for Sunday services that began at 7 a.m. and that lasted for four hours. His two settings of the Passion combine deep religious feeling and intense drama, held together with giant intellectual control. The two Passions and his Mass in B minor are his greatest achievements.
He died in Vienna, where, like Mozart over 40 years later, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Few of his compositions were published in his lifetime, and the first public performance of the Saint Matthew Passion did not take place until 1829 – 79 years after his death – when it was conducted by Mendelssohn in Berlin.
Other composers and hymn writers:
An early Anglican composer of this period was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), who is remembered for his many anthems, including My heart is inditing, Rejoice in the Lord alway, and O praise God in his holiness.
The hymns of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, were first published in this period in 1737 in South Carolina.
Irish composers at the time include two members of the Church of Ireland. Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist, is commemorated with a monument in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and is remembered today for Carolan’s Concerto. Edward Bunting (1773-1843), the Armagh-born collector of Irish ballads and the organiser of the Belfast Harp Festival, was the church organist in Saint George’s, Belfast, Saint George’s, Temple Street, Dublin, and the newly-built Saint Stephen’s in Mount Street, Dublin.
In architecture, this was the period of baroque and rococo.
Christopher Wren (1632-1723) completed Saint Paul’s Cathedral a century after Saint Peter’s had been completed in Rome. When we compare both buildings in imperial capitals, their domes, their lengths, and their name, it is worth asking what was being said?
Wren was born into the High Anglican tradition; his father was Dean of Windsor, his uncle, the Bishop of Ely, was imprisoned by the Puritans.
Apart from Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s great legacy is the wonderful collection of Wren churches in the City of London. He was strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance and current thinking in French architecture. His great opportunity to rebuild the churches of London was created by the great fire of London (1666). He built churches that were filled with light, and with a great sense of openness and space, and he provided the typical Anglican compromise between altar and pulpit.
Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the architect and artist who completed the square in front of Saint Peter’s in Rome (1656-1667). Accomplished as both an architect and a sculptor, Bernini’s art represents the high baroque tradition of the Counter-Reformation. His famous works include the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa of Avila.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt challenges stereotypical images of life in Dutch Calvinist society
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was probably the greatest religious painter in the Protestant tradition. Born in Leyden, Holland, he frequently worked on religious and Biblical themes and, in all, produced 90 versions of the Passion story in paintings and etchings. He has been described as the “artist of the soul.”
Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was the finest exponent of rococo in Italy. His works are to be seen in churches throughout Venice, and there is at least one in the National Gallery in Dublin.
The Ancient of Days by William Blake, who has given us unforgettable images of God
William Blake (1757-1827) was another of the great artists and poets of the time. He often illustrated his own works of poetry, but was not popular in his own lifetime. In England, he is best known for his poem Jerusalem, which was inspired by John Milton, and his paintings have left many with unforgettable images of God as creator.
We have already referred to the literary contributions of Jonathan Swift, the philosophical writings of George Berkeley, the poetry of Charles Wesley’s hymns, and now to William Blake.
In Ireland, there was a contemporary impact that is in danger of being forgotten today. For example, Boulter’s letters were edited for publication by his secretary, Ambrose Philips, who was immortalised as the “Namby-Pamby” of Pope’s satire.
But the writers in this period included John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of Pilgrim’s Progress, which remains a spiritual classic to this day.
Among the laity of the Church of Ireland at this time, we might consider Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), author of The Vicar of Wakefield, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) from a family of prominent Nonjurors, and Sydney Lady Morgan.
Piaras Mac Gearailt (1709-1791), the leader or “high sheriff” of a famed court of poetry at his home in Ballymacoda, now the last remaining Gaeltacht in East Cork. He was attacked by his fellow poets for his membership of the Church of Ireland. His poetic riposte, in Irish, An answer to Thomas Barry, shows his personal faith and trust in Christ:
Do not harbour anger
In your minds for me,
Enough that heaven’s wrath
Is launched, my friends,
And to guard the soul
I urge the Son of God;
Though I am a sinner
Sunk in the world’s mire,
Fettered in the world’s chains,
Still to the mild nurse
of Christ I cry
“Dispel my sighs,
Relieve me of this curse!”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar in the B.Th. Year II course on Church History on Thursday 5 February 2009.