Arts

Of Motets and Minuets: A Look at Renaissance and Baroque Music

Janie Tompkins/The Phillipian

During the Renaissance period in Europe, a new way of thinking emphasized art and literature. Music was celebrated, and it continued to thrive entering the following period of music: Baroque. In this column, aided by ten years of musical experience and passion, I examine the musical gems of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Read on, and, I assure you, what’s below will bring music to your ears!

Nestled within “Il Giustino,” Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s stunning 1724 opera, lies the stunning aria (a solo vocal piece, often found in operas, cantatas, and oratorios and traditionally accompanied by orchestral music) sung by the main character, Giustino: “Vedrò con mio diletto,” or, “I will see with joy.” This aria has become quite famous and is frequently performed by renowned countertenors and contraltos. Although this aria plays an important role within the larger opera, it is independently notable as a perfect representation of Vivaldi’s genius; listening to the aria, we experience not only Vivaldi’s virtuosity but also his poeticism and tenderness. 

The lyrics to the aria read as follows:

Vedrò con mio diletto

(I will see with joy)

l’alma dell’alma mia

(the soul of my soul)

Il core del mio cor pien di contento.

(heart of my heart full of content.)

E se dal caro oggetto

(And if from my dear object)

lungi convien che sia

(I be far away)

Sospirerò penando ogni momento.

(I’ll be sighing, suffering every moment.)

The aria opens with a majestic, steady accompaniment line. Traditionally executed by strings and a harpsichord, this accompaniment immediately sets a minor tone for the piece. The minor tone itself is quite artful because it represents the bittersweet nature of the text: although contented, the soul suffers in its loneliness. The accompaniment is textbook Vivaldi, given its repetitive quick-note pattern driving the piece forward and is also particularly virtuosic. Its construction allows for space between the notes, bringing airiness, yet each note has an inherent shape and depth which overall creates a stunningly round, resonant line. 

After a concise, dulcet opening, the accompaniment silences and the vocalist enters alone. This adds to the dramatic effect of the aria, since the accompaniment builds towards its introduction of the vocalist’s presence, who can then emotionally utter the first line: “I will see with joy.”

After this musical moment, the accompaniment re-enters and with the accompaniment’s presence, the vocalist is positioned to freely express themself musically—or “ad lib.” In general, it is customary in baroque styles that the vocalist “ad libs” on occasion by adding in trills or passing tones. The function of these embellishments is to highlight the growing intensity within the piece. In this aria, Vivaldi provides countless opportunities to “ad lib,” which allows for intimate, personalized renditions of the aria. We see major improvization opportunities on the words, “cor” (heart) in the first verse, as well as, “penando” (suffering) in the second verse, because these words span long phrases of connected notes, called melismas. Therefore, vocalists can take advantage of the sumptuous, foundational accompaniment underneath these long strings of notes and personalize the written rhythms and note-patterns. Some professional vocalists sing these words simply and later embellish them to facilitate musical progression within their performance.

When we zoom out of these specific musical events, we can admire the meticulous architecture of the vocal line that creates the diverse beauty within the piece. We can certainly accredit this to Vivaldi’s masterfulness, as dynamic expression in baroque contexts is manifested within the musical construction. Vivaldi’s artful construction of the vocal line in this aria also feeds into the piece’s lyrical nature. In the first repetition of the first verse, for example, the construction of the vocal line allows for delicacy, as seen in the ascending note patterns and arching phrases. In the next, immediate repetition of the first verse, however, the shapes of the vocal lines are downward and frowning, bringing forth a more ominous tone. We can compare corresponding portions of each repetition of the first verse and observe how they structurally contribute to this atmospheric shift:

Repetition 1 of verse 1

Repetition 2 of verse 1

This portion of music is the candential ending to the first verse, as composed in both the first and second repetitions of the first verse. The notes in the first repetition and the trill (tr) both constantly rise upward, in fact, into a major key, at that! In the second repetition, however, the notes have a downward momentum and the trill resolves downward into the initial minor key. Observing these differences is important and changes the listening experience. 

I highly recommend that you give Vedrò con mio diletto” a listen—the first time I listened to it, tears welled in my eyes. 

Click here to listen to one of Virmani’s favorite recordings!