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8.550189 - VIVALDI: Violin Concertos Op. 8, Nos. 5-8 and 10-12
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 -1741)
Once virtually forgotten, Antonio Vivaldi now enjoys a reputation that equals the international fame he enjoyed in his heyday. Born in Venice in 1678, the son of a barber who was himself to win distinction as a violinist in the service of the great basilica of San Marco, which continued the traditions of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi, he studied for the priesthood, and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he established himself as a violinist of remarkable ability. A later visitor to Venice was to describe his playing in the opera-house in 1715, his use of high positions so that his fingers almost touched the bridge of the violin, leaving little room for the bow, and his contrapuntal cadenza, a fugue played at great speed. The experience, the observer added, was too artificial to be enjoyable. Nevertheless Vivaldi was among the most famous virtuosi of the day, as well as being a prolific composer of music that won wide favour at home and abroad.
For much of his life Vivaldi was associated with the Ospedale della Pietá, one of four foundations in Venice for the education of orphan, illegitimate or indigent girls, a select group of whom were trained as musicians. Venice attracted then, as now, many foreign tourists, and the Pieta and its music long remained a centre of cultural pilgrimage. In 1703 Vivaldi, known as il prete rosso, the red priest, for the inherited colour of his hair, was appointed violin-master to the pupils of the Pietá. The position was subject to annual renewal by the board of governors, whose voting was not invariably in Vivaldi's favour, particularly as his reputation and consequent obligations outside the orphanage increased. In 1709 he left the Pietá, to be reinstated in 1711. In 1716 he was removed briefly, to be given, a month later, the title of Maestro de' Concerti, director of instrumental music. A year later he left the Pietá for a period of three years spent in Mantua as Maestro di Cappella da Camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, the German nobleman appointed by the Emperor in Vienna as governor of the city.
In 1720 Vivaldi was again in Venice and in 1723 the relationship with the Pietá was resumed, apparently on a less formal basis. Vivaldi was commissioned to write two new concertos a month, and to rehearse and direct some of them. The arrangement allowed him to travel, and he was to spend time in Rome and indirectly to seek possible appointment in Paris through dedications to Louis XV, which brought no practical result. Vienna seemed to offer more, with the good will of Charles VI, whose inopportune death, when Vivaldi attempted in old age to find employment there, must have proved a very considerable disappointment.
In 1730 there was a visit to Bohemia; in 1735 another appointment to the Pietá as Maestro de' Concerti, and in 1738 an appearance in Amsterdam, where he led the orchestra at the centenary of the Schouwburg Theatre. By 1740, however, Venice had begun to grow tired of Vivaldi, and shortly after the performance of concertos specially written as part of a serenata for the entertainment of the young Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony in 1740, his impending departure was announced to the governors of the Pietá, who were asked, and at first refused, to buy some of his concertos.
In 1741 Vivaldi travelled to Vienna, where he arrived in June, and had time to sell some of the scores he had brought with him, before succumbing to some form of stomach inflammation. He died a month to the day after his arrival and was buried the same day with as little expense as possible. As was remarked in Venice, he had once been worth 50,000 ducats a year, but through his extravagance he died in poverty.
Much of Vivaldi's expenditure was presumably in the opera-house. He was associated from 1714 with the management of the San Angelo theatre, a second-rate house which nevertheless began to win a name for decent performances, whatever its economies in quality and spectacle. Vivaldi is known to have written some 46 operas, and possibly some 40 more than this; he was also involved as composer and entrepreneur in their production in other opera- houses in Italy. It was his work in the opera-house that led to Marcello's satirical attack on him in 1720 in Il teatro alIa moda, on the frontispiece of which Aldaviva, alias Vivaldi, is seen as an angel with a fiddle, wearing a priest's hat, standing on the tiller, with one foot raised, as if to beat time. It has been suggested that "on the fiddle" has similar connotations in Italian as in English. Vivaldi had his enemies.
Among the various sets of concertos and sonatas published in Vivaldi's life-time, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (the contest between harmony and invention or, as Goethe later put it, between Nature and Art) enjoyed by far the widest popularity. Published in Amsterdam in 1725 the collection included Le quattro stagioni, The Four Seasons, the first four of the set, concertos which were to be transcribed for the most improbable musical forces, including fifty years later a version of Spring for solo flute by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Il cimento was dedicated to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a cousin of Haydn's later patron, and the dedication makes it clear that some of the concertos at least, and in particular The Four Seasons, had long been known to the Count.
The remaining concertos of Opus 8 have a less precise programmatic content, or none at all. Concerto No.5, La tempestà di mare, is one of four such, while Concerto No.6, Il piacere, has a title descriptive only of its general mood. Concerto No.7 is inscribed Per Pisendel, written for the well known German violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, who had spent the year 1716 in Venice as a pupil of Vivaldi, before returning to his leading position in the musical life of Dresden. The concerto is one of six that Vivaldi dedicated to Pisendel, in addition to some half dozen sonatas. Concerto No.10 makes use of a common subject of musical imitation, the hunt, and the last of the set also exists as an oboe concerto.
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