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The "Damnation" Sonata

In our upcoming concert, Transalpine Journey, on March 31st, we present a variety of works by Scarlatti, Biber, and Vivaldi. Read on and learn why one of the pieces on the program is called the Damnation Sonata...

The Sonata in C minor, RV 53, holds a special place in the oboe's repertoire. The manuscript is found at the Dresden library and has a very interesting history. In 1726 the young Elector of Saxony, August, traveled over the Alps to Venice, where he stayed for one season accompanied by several friends, attendants, and a small selection of musicians from the Dresden court orchestra, which was then beginning to make its mark as the finest in Europe. Its first violinist was Johann Georg Pisendel, who had been Vivaldi's student. The great composer, then at the peak of his fame, was obviously very impressed by the Dresden players, the young oboist Christoph Richters in particular, and in the following years sent many new works north on their own Transalpine Journey. Among them were everything from concertos for large orchestra with winds, to violin and even oboe sonatas, all of which remained unpublished until the mid twentieth century.

When I first began to study this striking and dramatic piece I was taking occasional lessons from my last teacher, the great James Caldwell from Oberlin College. He told me, as if sharing a secret, that he'd had a vision of the first movement: for him it represented nothing less than the temptation of the soul by the devil. As far-fetched as that may sound it made immediate sense. The bass line does indeed sound mean and menacing, while the oboe line seems pure and angelic by comparison, seemingly unaffected by the violence and ugliness underneath. Until, that is, towards the end of the movement, when a buildup of excitement leads the oboe right into the devil's arms, joining in on the brutal dotted rhythms before appearing to scurry away for the final cadence.

As Jim and I discussed this interpretation, the other movements fell neatly into line. The second movement is like the oboe's "walk on the wild side". In the bass, the same leaping motion of the first movement becomes dancelike, while the oboe goes through a veritable catalog of technical tricks and naughty intervals, as if saying "being bad is fun!" The adagio third movements is built on a four note motive spelling out the four points of the cross on the manuscript. It is clearly a prayer, a call for help, a repentance. The prayers are apparently not answered, because the last movement is set as a sort of grotesque minuet over which the oboe is forced through grueling and relentless triplets. It is the kind of dancing you would do if someone was shooting bullets at your feet. At the end our poor soul appears to be dragged kicking and screaming to the pits of Hell like Don Giovanni.

Our interpretation appeared vey convincing musically but perhaps theologically suspect in its distinct lack of redemption. Then again, while Vivaldi was himself an ordained priest he seems to have been a very unusual sort. He apparently never officiated a Mass. While he did write some beautiful sacred music, his talents were mainly devoted to the most secular genres: opera, and the new instrumental form he helped pioneer, the concerto. He never married, but inspired lurid rumors by living and traveling with the young singer Anna Giro and her sister as "personal assistants".

I've long felt that one of the drawbacks of our repertoire is that works usually don't have name, but rather a catalog number, which is helpful but can make music seem dry and distant before the first note. After all, wouldn't most people rather hear the "Jupiter Symphony" than the Symphony in C major KV550? Of course they are the same piece, but the moniker makes it much more immediately appealing and approachable than the catalog description, even if it wasn't the composer who coined it. In that spirit, I began to refer to RV53 as the "Damnation Sonata" and to my surprise and delight I've noticed other players take up the name, even without knowing its provenance.

While the "Damnation Sonata" was long considered Vivaldi's only surviving sonata for oboe, I and other players have identified more of his works that musicologists had assumed were for violin, but are much more likely to have been intended for oboe. Two are coincidentally found in the same manuscript stack in Dresden, tempting speculation that they were probably also written for Richters. We hope to program these in future House of Time concerts. We may need to find names for them first, though...


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