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ClassicsOnline Home » VIVALDI: 4 Seasons (The) (Gaohu) / BACH: Violin Concerto (Erhu)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 -1741)
The Four Seasons
J. S. Bach (1685 -1750)
Violin Concerto in A Minor
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the grandson of a baker and son of a man
who combined the trades of musician and barber. He was to spend the greater
part of his life in his native city, where, from the colour of his hair rather
than any political inclination, he was known as "il prete rosso", the
red priest. He had been ordained in 1703, when he was appointed violin-master at
the Ospedale della Pietè, one of the four establishments in Venice for the education
of girls who were orphans, illegitimate or indigent. The institutions were
famous for their music in a city that had always attracted many visitors, in
addition to its own enthusiastic musical public.
continued to work at the Pietà with relatively little interruption. He was able
to combine his duties with those of impresario and composer at the theatre of
S. Angelo from 1714, and left the Pieta in 1718 to serve briefly as maestro da
camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt. By 1723 he was back again at the
Pietà with a commission to compose and direct the performance of two concerti a
month. Meanwhile his reputation had spread widely abroad both as a virtuoso
performer on the violin and as a composer. In 1730 he visited Bohemia and 1738
led an orchestra in Amsterdam for the centenary of the Schouwberg Theatre. In
Italy his operas had been performed in Verona and in Ferrara, as well as in
Venice, where they had continued success.
In 1740 the
records of the Pieta show Vivaldi's impending departure, and the sale to the institution
of twenty concerti. We next hear of him in Vienna, where there is a record of
the sale of more compositions to Count Antonio Vinciguerra on 28th June, 1741.
A month later he was dead, to be given, like Mozart fifty years later, a poor
man's funeral. At the height of his fame he had earned large sums of money, and
one must suspect that his later poverty was due not to simple extravagance but
to the changes of fashion and to his involvement in the expensive and risky
business of opera.
prolific, composing vast quantities of instrumental and vocal music and nearly
fifty operas, Of the five hundred concerti he wrote the most popular in his
life-time as today were the four known as le Quattro Stagloni - The Four
Seasons, works that had circulated widely in manuscript before being published
in Amsterdam in 1725, when explanatory poems were added to clarify the
programme of each concerto. The set was dedicated to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a
cousin of Haydn's first patron. The title page describes Vivaldi himself as the
Count's "Maestro in Italia', as "Maestro de' Concerti" of the
Pieta, as well as "Maestro di Capella dl Camera" of Prince Philip,
land grave of Hesse-Darmstadt.
concerto, Spring, opens with the cheerful song of the birds that welcomes the
season, followed by the gentle murmur of streams fanned by the breeze: there is
thunder and lightning, and then the birds resume their song, represented by the
solo violin assisted by two other solo violins. The second movement shows the
goat-herd asleep, while the viola serves as a watch-dog, barking regularly in
each bar against the murmur of the foliage. A pastoral dance brings more
activity, to the sound of the bag-pipe, interrupted by a section for the solo
violin that seems to breathe the sultry heat of coming summer.
itself is a time of languor - "langue l'uomo, langue '1 gregge ed arde il
pino", as the introductory sonnet puts it. The music grows more energetic
as the cuckoo sings, then the turtle-dove and the goldfinch. The wind rises and
the shepherds are anxious, with some musical justification. In the slow movement
their rest is disturbed by thunder and lightning and there are troublesome
flies, and in the final movement the fears of thunder are realised as a storm
batters the crops.
opens with the dance and song of the country-people, in work that has much of
the artifice of the traditional pastoral convention. This is a celebration of
the harvest, with an excess of wine bringing sleep at the end, to pervade the
second movement. The third movement brings the hunt at dawn, with the
huntsman's horn, the sound of dogs and guns. An animal takes flight and is
pursued and dies in the fatigue of the chase.
The last of the seasons, Winter, brings cold winds, the stamping
of feet and chattering teeth. The slow movement shelters by the warmth of the
fireside, while the rain falls outside, and the last movement of this eventful
history shows people walking carefully on ice, slipping and falling and running
in case the ice breaks. The winds are at war, but there is sport to be had.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach in 1685, the youngest
son of a town and court musician and member of a family with long musical traditions.
An orphan by the age of ten, he moved to Ohrduf, where his elder brother was
organist, embarking, in 1703, on a professional career as a musician. Employment
as organist at Arnstadt and later at Mühlhausen was followed by a period of
eight years as court organist at Weimar, and a further period from 1717 to 1723
as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, the social summit of his
career. Bach left the Prince's service in 1723 to take up the position of Cantor
at the Choir School of St. Thomas in Leipzig, where he was responsible for the
music of the major city churches, and later directed the university Collegium
Musicum established there by Telemann in 1702. He remained in Leipzig for the
rest of his life.
Bach was a prolific composer, his compositions corresponding
very largely with his current responsibilities. Many of his works for organ
were written in earlier years, while his primarily secular responsibilities
at Cöthen, where the prevailing Pietism at court excluded elaborate musical
activity in church, elicited a number of instrumental compositions. Initially
at Leipzig he worked to meet the demand for church cantatas, later turning his
attention to the repertoire of the Collegium Musicum and to the collection and
publication of many of his earlier works.
The three violin concerti that survive in their original form,
the Concerto in A minor, the Concerto in E major and the Double Concerto in
D minor, scored for strings and basso continuo, were all written during Bach's
period of employment as Kapellmeister at Cöthen, where the young prince Leopold,
a keen amateur, showed a great interest in music that was only curtailed by
his marriage at the end of 1721 to a woman that Bach was later to describe as
"amusa", lacking in any musical inclinations. It was this marriage,
nine months after his own second marriage to Anna Magdalena, that caused his
application to Leipzig and his departure. The three concerti also exist in transcriptions
for harpsichord made by the composer in Leipzig, with other concerti that survive
only in such transcriptions.
Concerto in A minor opens with a characteristic figure, which forms a repeated
element in the movement. There is a fine-spun melody over a repeated bass
figure in the slow movement and a final gigue movement which includes brief
moments of technical display by the soloist.
Four Seasons In particular have provided material for other soloists, in
addition to the solo violin for which the four concerti were originally conceived.
While the violin may have been used in Chinese music to imitate the techniques
of the er-hu, the Chinese two-string fiddle, the latter has rarely been used in
classical western violin repertoire. The er-hu has a small hexagonal body of
wood, the belly covered with snakeskin. There is a tubular neck and two strings
are looped to the two large pegs at the top of the neck. The instrument has no
finger board and the bow passes between the two strings. The player sits and
holds the instrument on the knee, holding the bow under hand, as with the
Western viola da gamba.
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