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Antonio Vivaldi (1678 -1741) String Concerti
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 Gabrielis and Monteverdi at the basilica of San Marco, 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
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 46 operas, and possibly
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.
concertos of Vivaldi presents obvious difficulties, except in the cases where
concertos were published, thereby providing a date post quem non. At
least 44 of the concertos are designed for four-part string orchestra. some of
these have the alternative title of Sinfonia, while other works for
string orchestra without soloists appear under the alternative title of Sinfonia.
The distinction between the two is not clear, although the latter are
generally homophonic in texture, the former allowing a marginally greater
element of counterpoint. As with the solo concertos, these are in three
movements, two faster outer movements framing a central Adagio.
The Concerto in
C major, RV114, opens with a ritornello theme based on the dotted notes of
the arpeggio, a formula that Vivaldi uses with infinite variety. There is a
very short slow movement, leading to a Chaconne, a Baroque
dance-variation form that here owes something to France. The Concerto in A
minor, RV161, has a strongly marked opening theme of an ascending and
descending five-note figure. The following Largo is a mere ten bars in
length and leads to a final Allegro which makes use of a wide range in
its ritornello material.
The Concerto in
F major, RV138, one of eight in this key, bases its opening theme on the
arpeggio, leading to a chromatic slow movement and a triple rhythm final Allegro,
its ritornello theme based on the ascending scale and descending arpeggio.
The Concerto in G minor, RV157, has a syncopated opening theme, while
dotted rhythms mark the Largo and syncopation is provided in the final
quadruple-time Allegro by the use of tied notes.
The Concerto in
B flat major, RV167, has a strong opening theme, with octave leaps used to
stress the tonic key. There are off-beat rhythms in the central Andante and
rhythmic variety in the triple-time final movement. A further G minor Concerto,
the Concerto in G minor, RV153, uses the arpeggio and descending
scale in its opening, simple material from which Vivaldi creates music of the
greatest subtlety and variety. Dotted rhythms mark the central Andante and
the concerto ends in a rapid gigue-like movement.
alla rustica in G major, RV151, has a lilting 9/8 first movement, ending
ominously in the minor, leading to the sixteen-bar slow movement, capped by a
final 2/4 Allegro, its opening figure based on the descending scale. A
third Concerto in G minor, RV156, suggests the interval of an
augmented second in its opening theme, with its tied notes and consequent
syncopation, material derived from an earlier work. The thirteen-bar slow
movement leads to a final Allegro of rapid semiquavers.
The Concerto in
C major, RV113, has an emphatic opening, with a slow movement in the style
of a sarabande and a final triple-time Allegro with an opening
figure derived from the ascending notes of the triad. The final concerto
recorded here, the Concerto in D minor, RV127, has an opening
pattern of repeated semiquavers. A solemn Largo is followed by the
four-square rhythm of the last movement.
The Accademia dei Filarmonici
was established with the purpose of creating a chamber orchestra in Italy of
international reputation. Its players include many well known Italian musicians
who occupy principal positions in many of the better known Italian orchestras,
as well as teachers from a number of important Conservatories and Academies.
The orchestra plays generally without a conductor and has performed
successfully in many important cities in Italy and throughout Europe.
Recordings and broadcasts, with television appearances, have demonstrated the
refined sound quality and virtuosity of the Accademia dei Filarmonici. The
orchestra has recorded for Tactus and began its association with Naxos in 1995.
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VIVALDI: Concertos for Strings