The Back Story
The music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was largely forgotten after his death. But in the early twentieth century, scholars and composers began to unearth many of Vivaldi’s scores, which were then acquired by the university library at Turin and made available to performers. The 1920s produced a treasure trove of such manuscripts, and the “Vivaldi Revival” was on. Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero took the lead in championing such “new” works as Vivaldi’s Gloria and The Four Seasons; the advent of the LP in the early 1950s further fed the popularity of those pieces. This Vivaldi craze would not have surprised his contemporaries. Bach studied his music assiduously, usually by copying out Vivaldi’s scores and even adapting them for his own performances. Handel undoubtedly encountered him in Venice during his own Italian years. The “Red Priest” (Il Prete Rosso) was a familiar figure both at the women’s orphanage – called the Ospedale della Pietà — where he instructed young ladies in music, and at various opera houses throughout Italy, for which he composed a large number of operas. Vivaldi’s music was influential then and remains unmistakable today. Its combination of fresh, clear melodies, lively rhythms, and brightly transparent instrumental textures will ensure its popularity for all time.
I would like to begin on a serious note this week, partly because our subject hasn’t always been taken seriously. You have probably already heard the jokes. (If not, check this out.) Diehard Vivaldi fans may take some comfort in knowing that this great Italian composer was also the butt of insults and rude humor in his own day. Benedetto Marcello’s very funny satire of the Baroque opera business, Il teatro alla moda, featured a barely disguised comic portrait of Vivaldi on its title page: he’s the little angel at the helm of the rowboat, sporting a priestly hat and playing the violin. Below, and in the book itself, he’s referred to as “Aldiviva.” Marcello takes him to task for writing oddly voiced accompaniments, arias with solos for exotic instruments, and concertos for bizarre combinations (“pizzicato instruments, trombe marine, piomè [jaw harp],” etc. etc.).
There’s more, but none of it really helps us understand Vivaldi better. All you need for that is the music, which is easily available. Let’s begin with basics about the Vivaldi concerto. There are a lot of Vivaldi concertos, and – contrary to the jokes – each has its distinctive identity, as well as certain unifying features. For example, most Vivaldi concertos come in three movements, fast – slow – fast. The fast movements are usually cast in ritornello form. What this means is that we get a returning section (ritornello = that which returns), stated at the beginning and end, and brought back in whole or part several times during the movement. In between statements of the ritornello, we get more varied material from the soloist(s), so a sketch of a whole movement would look something like this:
Ritornello I Solo I Ritornello II Solo II Ritornello III Solo III Ritornello IV
What else? The music moves away from the tonic key at some point soon after the first ritornello and usually doesn’t return to the tonic until the final ritornello. These changes of the tonal center are called modulations, and they usually take place during the solo sections. That adds further interest and tension to the solos, which are also free to introduce new, contrasting material at any point. You will often hear a cadenza from the soloist(s) near the end of the movement, before the final ritornello.
I should emphasize that no one listens to Vivaldi just to spot the formal elements. That would be like reading a novel and thinking, hey, there’s a sentence. The succession of ritornelli and solisti passages is handled so smoothly that we simply accept it, liking gliding along in a gondola and noticing the Bridge of Sighs in the distance. No, the real fun lies in the way in which Vivaldi constantly freshens the journey, fashioning a unique series of little ideas that keep us amused and diverted while the gondolier continues to propel us down this canal or that one. (And now I will abandon that metaphor.)
Listen to the opening ritornello of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major, RV 558, to hear a typical succession of those little ideas, varied and extended to form a pleasing introduction:
Now, this is rather a long opening ritornello for Vivaldi. You heard only the first minute, with a fadeout just as the closing gestures were getting underway. It’s all repeated immediately, so that the whole ritornello takes well over two minutes in performance. Still, it’s catchy, no? Part of its charm lies in the irregular way that Vivaldi applies certain rhythmic figures, especially the “dih-gah-dum” (short – short – long) that launches the first phrase and reappears sporadically after that, never exactly where you might expect it.
The same charming irregularity applies to another of his favorite devices, the sequence. Vivaldi’s music is loaded with sequences: once you hear a motive you’re almost certain to hear it repeated at a higher or lower pitch level, and then yet again, continuing upward or downward as before. Think of the passage in “Joy to the World” set to the words “And heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing…” That is a sequence. Now imagine what it would sound like if Handel (or whoever created the tune) had repeated the motive a third time, moving (again) downward. Perhaps still charming. But if he had gone on with a fourth or fifth repetition, not so charming. The rule is, two or three statements, basta, start something else. You might want to return to our first clip and listen again to the sequences, just for the fun of hearing how Vivaldi extends a figure without stepping over the line into boring or annoying.
Back to the length issue. I think there’s a particular reason here for Vivaldi to draw out the opening ritornello. This concerto, RV 558, is scored for a small army of soloists: two recorders, two chalumeaux, two mandolins, two theorbos, two violins “in tromba marina” (low register), and violoncello. In order for all these folks to get face time, the solo passages will necessarily assume greater length. To give you an idea, listen to part of the first solo section:
So Vivaldi balances out the lengthy solo passages with a longer ritornello. The interior ritornelli are much shorter, quickly cutting back to the soloists, who now begin to appear in interesting combinations, for instance the mandolins and chalumeaux together:
The slow movements of the concerti contain their own special pleasures. Here Vivaldi is not tied down to ritornello form, and he can vary the interactions between soloists and accompaniment much more in the manner of an operatic aria. Listen to this slow movement, from RV 540. You will hear a viola d’amore, lute, and strings.
The lutenist contributes an accompaniment figure here, while the strings are muted, luminous in spite of their modest scoring. The whole effect is quite magical. In his liner notes to the CD listed below, Andrew Manze tells us that Vivaldi was quite fond of the viola d’amore, perhaps because he identified it with his longtime companion, the singer Anna Giró, also known as Anna Mantovana – d’AMore in the composer’s orthography.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another appealing facet of some Vivaldi concertos: they are early examples of program music, in which the instrumental sounds represent persons, places, things, events, and more. The Four Seasons is the trademark specimen of this type. Vivaldi actually followed the lines of four Italian poems describing spring, summer, fall, and winter in fashioning these works. Who wouldn’t enjoy Vivaldi’s Spring, with its chirping birds, flowing brooks, momentary thunderstorms, and more?
My own favorite moment in that concerto comes in the slow movement, where the poet describes “the flower-rich meadow, [where] to the gentle murmur of leaves and plants, the goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog at his side.”
In a good performance, you can hear that dog plaintively barking via the viola’s afterbeats, although a lot of today’s musicians are timid about sounding too canine there. A pity.
I really should wind up by introducing a few clips from Vivaldi’s church music, especially the evergreen Gloria, RV 589, but I am going to go elsewhere instead. As late as 1993, the distinguished Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon could declare in print that the world would never see a revival of interest in Vivaldi’s operas similar to that shown his Four Seasons or other instrumental works: “It is a rather grim irony of fate [!],” he wrote, “that [opera] is the one aspect of [Vivaldi’s] multi-faceted career which arouses little or no interest in the twentieth-century listener.” (Vivaldi did in fact spend most of his life composing operas and getting them put on.)
Well, guess what. We are now witnessing a mini-flood of Vivaldi opera recordings, not to mention many more Vivaldi operas being mounted for ticket-buying crowds everywhere. And why not? If you can enjoy a Handel opera – and they’re all over the place – you can have a ball at a Vivaldi opera, and for the same reasons. It’s all about the singing. (Back in the day, it also would have been about the marvelous stage effects, but these hold less appeal for audiences who today can pull up CGI and 3D on their living-room TV sets.) The same rhythmic verve and colorful tunes hold sway, and to them is added the perennial delight of sopranos gone wild, singers doing absolutely stunning things with their voices. Check out these clips:
These are da capo arias, incidentally. Following the vocal fireworks at the beginning, there’s a contrasting “B” section, and then the singer is expected to return to the beginning (“da capo”) and sing the first part with additional ornamentation. Although, strictly speaking, these pieces aren’t “program music” – since an explicitly expressive text is already present – they can also contain delightful pictorial phrases, as in this example:
You may notice that the Recommended Recordings seem a bit skimpy this time. There are too many good ones out there. If you are reading this, please join in the Vivaldi conversation by listing your own favorite discs, and telling us why.
Next: Beethoven and the Breakthrough Moment.
Recommended Recordings (not ranked in any order)
La Stravaganza, op. 4 (12 solo violin concerti). Rachel Podger, Arte Dei Suonatori. Channel Classics CCS 19598 (CD), CCS SA 19503 (SACD/CD), 2003.
Concert for the Prince of Poland (var. works, incl. RV 149, 253, 540, 552, 180, 558). Andrew Manze, Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907230, 1996.
Concerti per Viola d’Amore (incl. RV 97, 393–97, 540). Fabio Bondi, Europa Galante. Virgin Classics 3951462, 2007.
Vivaldi Operas (a sampler from various complete recordings). Stutzmann, Mingardo, Kozena, others. Var. ensembles and conductors. Naïve/Opus 111 OP30401, 2004.