A Musical Year – January. Vivaldi. Nisi Dominus

My music for January is by Vivaldi, from his Nisi Dominus Rv 608, the largo Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum in my version sung by Andreas Scholl.

This piece gives me two images: 1. Hilly landscapes covered in snow where black trees are silhouettes up against a blue sky. A narrow border of snow on each branch and twig that when the icy breaths of wind reaches them send sprinklings of white to the ground. All is silent, solitary and cold. Beautiful.
2. A misty, greyish brown landscape in the marshes outside Venice in winter. Desolate, silent and bleak. All movement is slow and apparently aimless.

Depending on my mood I think of the bleak or the beautiful landscape. Both of them have a certain somber tone.

The text is from the fifth book of Psalms (Old Testament), Psalm 127 (Psalm 126 in the Latin vulgate) and reading that reveals that this is not about coldness and snow but about sleep given by God as opposed to vain work without God.

The whole psalm reads:

27:1 Unless Yahweh builds the house,
they labor in vain who build it.
Unless Yahweh watches over the city,
the watchman guards it in vain.
127:2 It is vain for you to rise up early,
to stay up late,
eating the bread of toil;
for he gives sleep to his loved ones.
127:3 Behold, children are a heritage of Yahweh.
The fruit of the womb is his reward.
127:4 As arrows in the hand of a mighty man,
so are the children of youth.
127:5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.
They won’t be disappointed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.

The lines in this largo read in Latin: “cum dederit dilectis suis somnum, ecce hereditas Domini filii mercis fructus ventris” – I have highlighted them in the English translation. There is an alternative translation of the first line: for he provides for his beloved during sleep.
In either case sleep is a blessing and I think Vivaldi expresses this perfectly in this calm little piece.
I find it interesting that the text is about sleep and that I get pictures of winter when I listen to it. Sleep and winter are connected in the sense that they are both images of death. In this case I think of a slow, soft death. The psalm talks of sleep as a reward or the reward coming during sleep. Christianity is very much about the afterlife and I see these lines as a parable. As blessed sleep is given after a day’s hard work, so is Paradise open after the toils of life.

As a curiosity Marie provided my with the perfect quote. In her December literary post she cited Joyce. That quote gives me the same feeling as Cum dederit.

January is cold and silent like this largo. Or would be if this year was normal. But global warming has reached Denmark too and we have blossoming cherry trees and birds singing two or three months in advance. I don’t like it at all. This is not a silent death with promise of spring. This is too noisy and too warm and I miss clear, cold days of blue sky and frost. Winter here is a sort of cleansing and without it I fear the climatic confusion will continue far into the year.
I dream of the sound and feeling of Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum.



January 7, 2007. A Musical Year, Music, The course of the year.


  1. kiwinomad06 replied:

    Funnily enough I am listening to this music a lot at present, in Latin.
    I am on holiday and took quite a few photos in my local cathedral, enjoying experimenting with light, natural and flash. I have put together a simple slide show, and it was the music of Nisi Dominus that has seemed to fit best.

  2. Kevin replied:

    I really loved your article; very personal and touching.

    Last time I heard this song, it was accompanied by scenes of life in developping countries, in the documentary ‘Home 2009’. I was deeply moved by both the song and the images.

    • Anonymous replied:

      Is not this a beautiful old melody, older by far than Vivaldi — do you not hear an old grandmother holding her grandchild in her lap, humming and singing — while outside Venice’s Gran Canal flows on?

      And is not the old lady thinking of all she still has to do before she too can sleep, she too can rest?

      San Francisco — out of my window the Pacific ocean and above me the wild seagulls crying.

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