Venetian musician, Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most fertile and original composers of the eighteenth century, especially in the field of instrumental music, so much so that he enjoyed the admiration of Johann Sebastian Bach. His very rich production, forgotten at his death and rediscovered two hundred years later, reveals inexhaustible skills of imagination, inventiveness, brilliance and cantability.
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and studied music with his father, a violinist in the Chapel of San Marco. He was ordained a priest in 1703, earning the nickname of the “Red Priest” for the color of his hair. Due to poor health, he soon obtained a dispensation from priestly practice and was thus able to devote himself entirely to music.
From 1703 to 1740, albeit not continuously and with periods of absence, Vivaldi held various musical positions at the Ospedale della Pietà, a charitable institution for the musical education of orphaned girls. His first assignment was that of violin teacher and later Vivaldi composed most of his concerts, cantatas and sacred music for the hospital putte, some of which are known for their skills as singers or instrumentalists.
The Venetian composer knew fame and recognition throughout Europe for his activity in the field of instrumental and vocal music, as well as as a musical director and impresario: he wrote music for many Italian and foreign nobles and princes and made numerous trips abroad, where some of his collections were published. However, his notoriety faded in the last years of his life and when he died, in Vienna in 1741, he was very poor.
The rediscovery of Vivaldi’s work
Vivaldi‘s work was rediscovered and re-evaluated in the first half of the 1900s. Until then he was known only to the scholars of J.S. Bach for the interest that the great German composer had shown for his music, so much so that he transcribed some concerts and took the structures and style as an example.
To date, about 450 concerts are known, for various formations including solo concerts, more than half for violin, with string accompaniment, concertos for string orchestra and continuo and other combinations.
The structure is often in three movement (Allegro – Adagio – Allegro) and sometimes they had descriptive titles: “Le quattro stagioni“, “Il Gardellino“, “La Notte“, “La tempesta di mare” etc.
Others were gathered in collections, all published in Amsterdam between 1710 and 1730, such as: “La Stravaganza“, “Il cimento dell’armonia“, “La cetra“, and, perhaps the most important, “L’estro armonico“.
Style and innovation
The collection “L’estro armonico” was so appreciated by Bach that he transcribed nine of the twelve concertos that compose it, adapting them for various instruments (six for the harpsichord, one for four harpsichords and two for organ). It contains 4 Concerts for violin obbligato, 8 large Concerts, with 2 or 4 violins obbligato.
In this work we find all the expressive power of Vivaldi, the rhythmic pulsing, the harmony in the song of the adagio, the sliding polyphony in the fugato, the timbre research and the invention of sound, the virtuosity full of expressiveness.
The solo concerts are conceived according to the Tutti and Solo scheme, with a more virtuosic structure in the first movement. The second movement, slow, allows the soloist to perform in musical blooms of great cantability.
Vivaldi in the Estro Armonico collection finds its originality in creating new expressive ways by exploiting the overall structures that descend from the ancient polyphonic organization of the Venetian choirs, the so-called Cori Battenti.
Another work of great artistic value is n. 8 “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione” which begins with the concerts of the Four Seasons. The structure is that of a solo concert but the musical material is organized with new criteria. Vivaldi to free himself from traditional forms creates a new expressive freedom through the description of naturalistic atmospheres using wonderful coloristic and imitative effects.
Vivaldi‘s invention is amazing in all of his 450 concerts but it is not easy to enter his world of “complex simplicity” and counter the idea that he always wrote the same concert.
Vivaldi has not written more than 400 concerts, but four hundred times the same concert
Vivaldi‘s misunderstanding lies first of all in not deepening the writing and the musical texture. With the recurring presence of progressions and repeated notes, it is easy to dismiss his music as a mere compositional exercise and almost always the same. He is an author who apparently seems simple. It is much less so if we analyze how it should be performed.
In Bach‘s music, it is easier to understand the meaning, because the structures are extremely clear, but in Vivaldi there is often something that is hidden or is in the background and that must be highlighted through interpretation. The more the music seems horizontal and devoid of verticality and complexity, the more it is necessary to understand how to read between the lines, to rediscover the intermediate voices and the melodic lines or harmonies hidden in them.
Musicologists often unify concert structures in the form of alternating fast and slow tempo, thus killing Vivaldi‘s creativity. We have cases of small introductions (4 or 8 bars) that go beyond the context of the entire movement and that are often misinterpreted by both reviewers and performers. These are introductory themes, which sometimes recur later, written with large musical values (which are therefore slower) used to introduce the harmony of the movement itself or to interrupt the rhythm of the Allegro theme and thus make it stand out more. Perhaps Vivaldi imitates the structure of the Gabrieli concerts where there was a great alternation of slow and fast musical passages.
One example among all to illustrate Vivaldi‘s genius is the Concerto for 2 oboes and orchestra in D minor. In the last movement, normally indicated with Allegro molto, there are 8 bars that form an introductory Adagio clearly indicated by the author with a “wide” writing, therefore forcing slowdown and then giving more prominence to the fast theme, proper of the Allegro. This Adagio is repeated, entirely or in part, also during the rest of the movement, creating a sudden break in the fast rhythm, with an effect that I would define as “Theatrical” but, alas, often ignored by the performers.
Vivaldi‘s work also includes vocal music, such as melodramas and sacred works (46 known works), of a high level that is probably still to be discovered.
About fifty melodramas documented between 1713 and 1739, two per year on average for twenty-seven years; nineteen scores preserved. These are the numbers of Vivaldi‘s musical work, of which we still know too little today because there are no critical editions or complete recording. Yet this important sector of Vivaldi‘s catalog often contains sublime, incisive, colorful, iridescent music. This is the case of the “Orlando falso pazzo“, the first opera written by the Red Priest for Venice, in November 1714, the second after his debut in the theater with Ottone in the Vicentine villa in 1713. Transposing the sapid and galvanizing language of revolutionary instrumental concerts: a challenge accepted and won, a last breath of life in the Venetian opera, before the definitive decline in the face of the spread of Neapolitan fashion.
Among the sacred masterpieces of Vivaldi, perhaps the most recent discovery among his vast repertoire, it is a must to mention the magnificent “Gloria”.
Notes that rise to the right, a musical shorthand, and then the cages, the dense crosses to cancel. The sealing wax stains. The impetus: “If you don’t like this, I don’t want to write about music anymore”, Written on the music of an aria in “Orlando falso pazzo“.
It is uncertainty, torment: a clear line on that same sentence, to contradict it. The effort, the imagination. The restlessness, the haste. The gentle fury of Antonio Vivaldi bursts from the never revealed work, all that lies behind his immense work that continues to be enriched with new discoveries.
“Per li coglioni” (for the imbeciles). Autographed inscription in the ciphered bass of the Concerto for violin and strings RV 340 to indicate that only the incapable needed the writing of the numbers in the basso continuo to be able to develop it.
It can be said that Vivaldi invented what is modernly called the post-it: when the writing was “too much” he enlarged the page with sheets glued to the score.
But equally interesting, in addition to this anxiety, this rampant haste, are the second thoughts, such as the gluing in wax of two pages of Ottone in Villa, the infinite lattices of crosses placed on the parts to be rewritten.
The biographical mysteries, the gaps not yet filled on the priest who could not say mass because he had asthma attacks on the altar according to the rumors of the time, the fragile musician whom Venice considered a violin virtuoso but of which a satire (by Benedetto Marcello) made a ruthless caricature of him, a “mediocre composer” for Goldoni, intertwined with the fascinating history and the discovery of manuscripts. On his death, in poverty in Vienna in 1741, his brother a barber Francesco sold the manuscripts to a bibliophile. Then another passage and another, up to the Durazzo family, with the inheritance of the library divided between two children, between Piemonte and Liguria. Finally, the discovery, in 1927, of a part, in the Collegio San Carlo of Borgo San Martino, founded by Don Bosco, thanks to a coincidence, that is, the renovation works that made it necessary to sell the books, and the wit of the then director of the National Library of Turin called as consultant, Luigi Torri, who with the help of the musicologist Alberto Gentili sought a patron who would buy the manuscripts and donate them to the State. Same procedure, although less fast, for the recovery of the other half of Vivaldi‘s texts. The two buyers, the stockbroker Foà and the textile industrialist Giordano, the fathers of the rediscovered Vivaldi, both asked for the funds to be named after their children who died prematurely.
An unusual and discussed interpretation of the Four Seasons
Concerto in C per Mandolino, Archi e Cembalo RV 425