Vivaldi’s works for viola d’amore and a newly identified Nisi Dominus

by Leon King

This article first appeared in the Newsletter of the Viola d’amore Society of America, 2003


Vivaldi’s works for viola d’amore include the earliest known concertos for the instrument.  There is quite a lot of information available about these works but it is scattered in various books, journals and academic studies.  In the course of preparing my Urtext edition of Vivaldi’s complete works with viola d’amore I have collected this information and will attempt to summarise some of the main points.  As I was completing the final volume, the arias and numbers with obbligato viola d’amore and voice, it was announced that Michael Talbot had identified a new Nisi Dominus in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden which had been previously attributed to Galuppi.  This work contains one number with obbligato viola d’amore which will be described towards the end of this article.

Vivaldi’s association with the viola d’amore seems to have been a lifelong one.  There is evidence that Vivaldi may have encountered the viola d’amore as early as 1689 whilst deputising for his father in the Orchestra of San Marco.  One Nicolo Urio was engaged there in that year as a viola d’amore player (Selfridge-Field 1994). The first definite association we have, however, is to be found in the records of the Pietà from 1708 and 1709 when Vivaldi was paid on two separate occasions for supplying viola d’amore strings (Talbot 1993).  This raises questions about what type of strings they were.  Since Matteo Selles normally supplied strings and repaired instruments for the Pietà, Michael Talbot has surmised that Vivaldi may have had to travel further afield, perhaps as far as Milan, to obtain special strings (Talbot 2001).  This may be a clue that they were metal strings as suggested by Kai Köpp (2001).

Vivaldi’s earliest datable work for viola d’amore is the aria ‘Quanto magis…’ from the Oratorio Juditha Triumphans (1716) which was written for the Pietà and would certainly have been played by the celebrated Anna Maria.  It is notable that this date coincided with the visit to Venice of the Dresden court violinist Johann Georg Pisendel in the entourage of Augustus the Strong.  Pisendel is known to have played the viola d’amore and his long association with Vivaldi is well documented.  In any case, by 1717 Vivaldi was definitely playing a twelve stringed instrument.  This is confirmed by a contemporary eyewitness account found in documents in the Archivio Storico Comunale di Cento and the Archivio di Stato di Bologna.  This confirms that on April 25, 1717, Vivaldi played a well-received concert on “a special kind of twelve stringed viola called the viola d’amore” on his way back from Bologna in Cento (Bolletino dell’Istituto Italiana Antonio Vivaldi, 1999).  Although some of the works use only four or five strings, the autograph scores of those concertos which do have accordatura indications all give a six string tuning in support of the observation above which also proves that his was an instrument with sympathetic strings.

The obbligato part in the aria ‘Tu dormi….’ from the opera Tito Manlio (1719) was written in Mantua for the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.  There is little doubt that the viola d’amore part would have been played by Vivaldi himself.  The fact that a second copy of the opera score has the part reworked for violin suggests that Vivaldi was either unhappy with the original (which contains a number of errors and corrections) or that it was intended for use elsewhere where there might not have been a viola d’amore, or player familiar with it, available.  Even in Vivaldi’s day the viola d’amore was a rare ‘novelty’ instrument as evidenced by the Cento document and the fact that it was unusual enough to warrant special comment.

The concerto for viola d’amore and lute RV540 is known to have been performed at the Pietà in 1740 in a concert for Frederick Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony and Poland.  It was almost certainly played by Chiaretta, Anna Maria’s student and her successor as Maestra.  Chiaretta is documented as having performed in the concert in another work as a solo singer.

The six solo concertos and the unusual chamber concerto RV97 probably date from at least 1724. The evidence for this has been found in the way Vivaldi writes triple time signatures.  In datable works such as operas they are written in full up until approximately 1724.  After that time Vivaldi begins to write simply a large 3 (Everett, 1987).  All of the concertos except RV394 contain a movement in 3/8 time and all are written as a large 3.

The majority of the concertos use five or six strings and are written for chordal tunings.  However, two of the concertos, RV394 and RV396, appear to have been written for fifths tunings and only use four strings.  They have few double stops and RV396 is the only of Vivaldi’s works for viola d’amore to be notated in alto clef (an octave lower than sounding).  The Jappes (1997) have proposed that this is a type of scordatura notation to be used when the instrument is tuned in fifths to a-e1-b1-f#2.  They suggest a tuning of g-d1-a1-e2 for RV394.  The similarity in the handwriting and layout of these two manuscripts may be a clue that they are contemporary.  Further investigations into comparisons of the paper and rastrography (a technique pioneered by Paul Everett which compares the stave rulings to show whether they were created using the same tool and thus whether the paper comes from the same batch) are required to ascertain whether this theory is correct.  This technique is described in detail in Everett (1987).  Several of the concertos also exist in versions for violin (see Appendix) and RV395 has an alternative slow movement without double stops presumably added for later use as a violin concerto.  It is unsurprising that a violinist composer would sometimes write in a style suited to either instrument.  Vivaldi was an astute businessman and an opportunity to re-use material would not have been lost on him.

The concertos RV392 and RV397 also seem to be connected.  Both exist in non-autograph copies in Dresden dating probably from the 1720’s.  These would have been made for Pisendel’s use.  For RV392 this is the only source, the autograph having been lost.  The autograph manuscript of RV397 in Turin has one page of the last movement missing.  Comparison of the two sources of this concerto shows that although some of the slurs are different, many of the small details and errors have been faithfully reproduced in the Dresden manuscript strongly suggesting that it was made directly from the autograph.  These two works share a musical feature not seen in any of the other concertos.  In the opening tutti sections of the outer movements the viola d’amore does not simply double the first violin line but has added chords and double stops.  The autograph score of another concerto, RV393, has similarities of layout and handwriting with RV397.  These last two also have the apparent capitalisation of the AM in Viola d’AMore in the title leading Michael Talbot (1993) to surmise that this was a witty allusion by Vivaldi to their having been written for Anna Maria. As we do not have the autograph of RV392 it may never be known if this was also the case for that concerto but it may be that these three concertos were written at the same time.

The well-known Nisi Dominus RV608 exists as a set of parts in a number of copyist’s hands including that of Vivaldi’s father.  The fact that Vivaldi retained a set of parts rather than a score suggests that even if it was written for the Pietà he was probably also used it elsewhere and would then have performed the viola d’amore part himself (Talbot, 1995).  Likewise the chamber concerto with horns, oboes and bassoon RV97 must have been written for use outside the Pietà as horns were not introduced there until after Vivaldi’s death.  Fertonani (1998) suggests the possibility of it having been composed some time after 1720-21 for the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.  Vivaldi was in his service at that time and may have continued to provide works for him for several years afterwards.  The unusual instruction for the horns and oboes to use mutes in this work is a notable feature.

Michael Talbot, acting on information from the Australian scholar Janice Stockigt regarding the instrumentation, has recently identified another Nisi Dominus (newly designated RV803) in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden as being a work by Vivaldi.  This is a work which he believes was wilfully misattributed by the copyist Iseppo Baldan to Galuppi.  Talbot reports that it is the fifth ‘lost’ psalm of a cycle sold by Vivaldi to the Pietà in 1739 (One of the others, RV795 was also misattributed to Galuppi) and that it will be the subject of an article in March 2004 in the journal Eighteenth-Century Music as well as a feature in BBC Music Magazine.  He is currently also preparing the work for publication in the New Critical Edition of Vivaldi’s works.  I will be including the number with obbligato viola d’amore along with the other obbligato numbers in my own edition.

This number with obbligato viola d’amore is the second out of eight and is scored for alto voice, viola d’amore, violins and organ.  It is in 3/8 time (written as a large 3) in D major and is written in real notation unlike the other obbligato works.  It is 75 bars long with a dal segno to bar 9 ending at bar 23.  There is no accordatura indication but it can be ascertained from the chords that a D major tuning (d)-a-d1-f#1-a1-d2 is intended, although two sets of chords (a,c,g1) in bars 12 and 13 do not lie well for ease of fingering.  This work has a typically Vivaldian sound and feel.  Many familiar features are present and are comparable to instances in other Vivaldi works.  These include the way he uses triplets, chords, syncopation, and the restatement of only the second part of the opening solo on the dal segno.  His use of fast metre notes slurred in pairs double-stopped over an open string and passages with the voice in thirds are also typical.  Harmonic features such as the rapid I – V changes, in bar 21, are recognisably Vivaldian.  Finally a very familiar device is the use of ‘bassetto’ where the bass line is indicated violini soli in passages with only viola d’amore.  (Organo solo is marked whenever the voice is present both solo and together with the viola d’amore.)  This device, violins alone playing the bass line an octave higher than written, is a technique used often by Vivaldi to lighten the bass accompaniment to the viola d’amore.  This work is a welcome and valuable addition to the repertoire of the viola d’amore and the work as a whole looks set to become a favourite.

Vivaldi’s association with the viola d’amore can be shown to have been a lifelong one beginning certainly as early as 1708 and with compositions dating from 1716 to 1740.  His writing for it is quite varied in the technical treatment of the instrument although the majority of works are in d tunings both minor and major.  With the voice it is always used to accompany an alto and scordatura notation is only used in these cases.  Known performers for whom he was writing number as few as four including himself.  He was always aware of how best to write accompanying parts so as not to overpower the delicate sound of the viola d’amore.  This body of works represents an important part of the early repertoire for the viola d’amore.  It is to be hoped that scholars such as Paul Everett will be able to apply their techniques to the further study of the manuscripts so that we may have answers to the many questions still remaining.

Appendix:  List of works (Items in italics are as specified in the manuscripts.)

RV97, F major
Concerto con Viola d’amore, 2 Corni da Caccia, 2 haubois, tutti sordini e Fagotto
Viola d’amore, 2 Horns muted, 2 Oboes muted, Bassoon and Continuo
Accordatura,  f-a-c-f1-a1-e2 (all six strings used)
Notation, real, treble and bass clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà  vol 29, f277-292

RV392,  D major
Concerto con Viola d’amore
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura,  d-a-d1-f#1-a1-d2 (all six strings used)
Notation, real, treble and bass clef
Sächsische Landesbibliothek Dresden,
Mus. 2389-0-84

RV393,   D minor  (Violin version is RV769)
Conto P Viola d’AMore
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura (d)-a-d1-f1-a1-d2 senza scordatura (five strings used)
Notation, real, treble clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 29, f319 – 323

RV394,  D minor
Conto con Viola d’Amor
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura g-d1-a1-e2
Notation, real, treble clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 29, f311 – 318

RV395,  D minor  (Violin version is RV770)
Conto con Viola d’Amore
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura d-a-d1-f1-a1-d2 (all six strings used)
Notation, real, treble and bass clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 29, f301 – 309

RV396,  A major  (Violin version is RV768)
Conto P Viola d’Amore
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura  a-e1-b1-f#2
Notation, alto clef one octave lower than sounding.
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 29, f324 – 330

RV397,  A minor
Conto con Viola d’AMor
Viola d’amore, strings and continuo
Accordatura  e-a-c-e1-a1-e2 (all six strings used)
Notation, real, treble and bass clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 29,  f293 – 300 (folio between 297 and 298 missing)
Copy (complete) Sächsische Landesbibliothek Dresden,  Mus. 2389-0-82

RV540,  D minor  (Venice, 1740)
Cocerto (sic) Con Viola d’amore, e Leuto e con tutti gl’Istrom.ti sordini
Viola d’amore, Lute, strings (violins muted) and continuo
Accordatura (d)-a-d1-f1-a1-d2 (five strings used)
Notation, real, treble clef
Sächsische Landesbibliothek Dresden, Mus. 2389-0-4

RV608,  D minor
NISI DOMINUS (Psalm 106)
Gloria Patri
Viola d’amore, alto voice, violone and organo
Accordatura, (d-a)-d1-f1-a1-d2 (four strings used)
Notation, scordatura, treble  clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 40, f251r – 297r

Quanto magis generosa…
Viola d’amor, alto voice (Juditha), violini con piombi (lead mutes) and viola and basso at final cadence.
Accordatura, eb-bb-eb1-bb1-eb2 (five strings used)
Notation, scordatura, treble clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 28, f209-302

RV738,  D minor
TITO MANLIO (Mantua, 1719)
Tu dormi in tante pene…
Viola d’amor, alto voice (Servilia), violino solo and violini con sordini
Accordatura (d-a)-d1-f1-a1-d2 (four strings used)
Notation, scordatura, treble and bass clef
Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Giordano vol 39, f172-365
(Later version with partially rewritten obbligato for violin Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino,  Foà vol 37, 120-306

RV803 D major
Nisi Dominus from: NISI DOMINUS (1739)
Accordatura (d),a,d,f#,a,d  (five strings used)
Viola d’Amor, alto (voice),Violini soli, Organo solo
Notation, real, treble clef
Sächsische Landesbibliothek Dresden,  Mus. 2389-E-5-Vivaldi
(Previously Mus. 2973-D-39-Galuppi)

Köpp, Kai (2001) Love without sympathy article in The Strad,  May 2001, vol. 112 no. 1333,  pp. 526-533
Talbot, Michael (2001) Personal correspondence
Bolletino dell’Istituto Italiana Antonio Vivaldi (1999)  Nr. 20, Milano (Ricordi) p. 137).
Fertonani, Cesare (1998) La Musica Strumantale di Vivaldi Florence: Olschki
Jappe, Michael and Dorothea (1997) Viola d’amore Bibliographie Winterthur: Amadeus Verlag
Talbot, Michael (1995) The Sacred Vocal Music of Antonio Vivaldi Florence: Olschki
Selfridge-Field, Eleanor (1994) Venetian Instrumental Music New York: Dover
Talbot, Michael (1993) Vivaldi. The Master Musicians,   London: Dent
Everett, Paul (1987) Towards a Chronology of Vivaldi Manuscripts Informazioni e Studi Vivaldiani vol. 8, pp. 90-106