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8.553204 - VIVALDI: Wind Concertos
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, where the Gabrielis and Monteverdi had once worked, 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 described 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 and exercised a far-reaching influence on the music of others.
For much of his life Vivaldi was intermittently associated with the Ospedale della Pietà, one of the four famous 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 Pietà and its music long remained a centre of cultural pilgrimage. In 1703, the year of his ordination, Vivaldi, known as il prete rosso, the red priest, from the inherited colour of his hair, was appointed violin-master of the pupils of the Pietà. 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 briefly left the Pietà, to be reinstated in 1711. In 1716 he was again removed, to be given, a month later, the title Maestro de' Concerti, director of instrumental music. A year later he left the Pietà 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 to govern the city.
By 1720 Vivaldi was again in Venice and in 1723 the relationship with the Pietà was resumed, apparently on a less formal basis. Vivaldi was commissioned to write two new concertos a month, and to rehearse and direct the performance of some of them. The arrangement allowed him to travel and he spent some time in Rome, and indirectly sought possible appointment in Paris through dedicating compositions to Louis XV, although there was 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 Vivaldi visited Bohemia; in 1735 he was appointed again to the position of Maestro de' Concerti at the Pietà and in 1738 he appeared 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 his impending departure was announced to the governors of the Pietà, who were asked, and at first refused, to buy some of his concertos.
The following year 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 forty-six operas, and possible some forty more than this; he was also involved as composer and entrepreneur in their production in other houses in Italy. It was his work in the opera-house that led to Benedetto Marcello's satirical attack on him in 1720 in Il teatro alla 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" had similar connotations in Italian to those it retains in English. Vivaldi had his enemies.
Among the five hundred or so concertos written by Vivaldi there are a number of works for two or more solo instruments. These include some two dozen double violin concertos and one concerto for two cellos as well as a group of concertos for pairs of wind instruments. Two of these, both in F major, are for pairs of horns. The second of the two, the Concerto RV539 opens with an Allegro movement in which much use is made of triadic figuration in a texture that allows for the characteristic imitation of one instrument by the other. The slow movement is in the rhythm and mood of a Siciliano, started by the strings of the orchestra, and triadic figuration again finds a place in the triple metre last movement. The first of these concertos, the Concerto RV538 has a syncopated opening, in which the horns double the violins, before the first solo entry, where each takes it in turn to imitate the other. The D minor slow movement is a cello solo, with basso continuo, followed by a triple metre final movement where the triadic patterns suitable for the lower register of the natural horn predominate.
The single concerto for two flutes, the Concerto in C major, RV533, starts with brief contrasts of texture, as the flutes, doubling the violins, are accompanied in a short passage only by the violas, before the solo entries, where much use is made of dialogue between the two. A similar procedure is followed in the slow movement, where the first flute is echoed by the second, before the two join together. Each takes its turn on the thematic material of the final movement, with later dialogue between them and rhythmical combination in passage-work.
The Concerto in D major, RV122, described in the surviving manuscript as a Sinfonia, is a work of a different kind. Here the wind instruments, two oboes and a bassoon, double the strings throughout, and might without damage to the work be omitted. Two other such sinfonie survive, all in manuscripts in Dresden. The first movement of the D major Sinfonia makes typical use of octave figuration, followed by an ascending scale. The slow movement is a Siciliano and there is a brief triple metre final movement.
Players of the instrument have regretted and tried to remedy the fact that no trumpet concerto by Vivaldi exists. There is, however, a concerto for two trumpets, the Concerto in C major, RV537. In the first movement the brilliant solo entries are derived from the material of the ritornello. The slow movement is a mere six bars long, a passage of modulation by the strings, introducing the final Allegro, with its ascending arpeggios and imitation between the solo instruments, before they unite in thirds, leading to the final ritornello.
The Concerto in C major, RV560, for two oboes and two clarinets makes excellent use of the newly developed latter instrument, with some use of its then lower register. There is an opening four-bar Larghetto in which the oboes answer the clarinets and strings. This is followed by a general Allegro and the C minor entry of the oboes. The solo instruments are then deployed in pairs, often in thirds. In the F major slow movement the violins join together in a simpler texture of accompaniment to the two oboes, while the last movement allows suitable contrast between the two pairs of instruments.
In the Concerto in G major, RV545, for oboe and bassoon, there is, after the initial orchestral opening, an extended solo passage for the oboe, with bassoon accompaniment, a pattern that is continued. There is initial imitation in the slow movement, which is scored for oboe, bassoon and basso continuo. This is followed by a final Allegro molto in 12/8 where the oboe is again accompanied by the bassoon, the latter with wide leaps, a figuration that is continued in the bassoon writing that ensues.
Harpsichord after Blanchet (c. 1750) by David Rubio.
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