Conversation with the Performers on YouTube
Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741), known as “the Red Priest” for his flaming red hair, was most influential in his concertos, over 400 of which were written for and performed by his young students at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice. Europeans traveled from afar to hear the orphaned girls perform at weekly Sunday concerts. His concertos soon became famous throughout Europe, their virtuosity heavily influencing violin technique as well as the concerto form. Until this point concertos had relied on counterpoint and polyphony. Vivaldi brought a dramatic simplicity to the form and created a structure which led to the classical concerto.
Born the son of a violinist at the Basilica of San Marco, Vivaldi was raised to be a priest and a musician. He attained priesthood in 1703 but was unable to say mass due to a chronic bronchial ailment, soon thereafter taking a position as violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietá, a school for orphaned girls. By the early 18th century the school was regarded as the best music school in northern Italy. This was well illustrated by the bronze plaque attached to the outside of the south wall calling down the threat of “fulmination” (being struck by lightening) on anyone who attempted to pass off his legitimate daughter as an illegitimate one in order to get her accepted into the music school. Noblemen paid for the privilege of sending their daughters to the school, which at one time had as many as 6000 students.
Vivaldi held the position of violin teacher at the Pieta from 1703 to 1738, also taking on the post of “maestro de concerti”. In this position he wrote over 400 concertos to be performed by his students at weekly Sunday concerts. The girls played, screened by lattices, for the public who were not allowed to applaud but rather had to cough, hem and blow their noses to express admiration. By 1709 his concertos were famous throughout Europe and Vivaldi soon spent much of his time traveling.
Vivaldi’s concertos usually follow a three movement pattern, beginning with an Allegro, followed by a slow movement in the dominant key, ending with another Allegro. The fast movements follow ritornello form. Simple techniques such as scale passages, arpeggios, and broken thirds achieve dramatic effects, with Vivaldi’s powerful and vital rhythmic sense driving the music and continually surprising the audience. He was the first composer to give the slow movement, with its slow cantabile melody, equal importance to the faster movements.
Concerto for Strings in D major, RV 121
Our opening concerto is one of two featured tonight for ripieno strings, meaning there is no soloist. In fact, the concerto begins with an energetic theme in unison in all of the instruments. Contrast is provided through dynamics and extended passages of harmonic suspension in the first movement, followed by a lush and stately middle movement. In the concerto's third movement, the violins' unison theme is characteristically rhythmic and exciting, with 16th notes in jagged shapes followed by brilliant descending lines. Although this concerto appears simple, it is a superb example of the charisma of Vivaldi's dynamic and energetic writing.
Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 499
Vivaldi’s thirty-nine solo concerti for bassoon make up more than ten percent of his solo concerto output, and rank second only to violin in number. None of them were published during his lifetime, and they survive only in the collection of the composer’s manuscripts that was rediscovered in the 1920s. Two of these concerti bear dedications: one to Count Wenzel von Morzin of Prague (whose orchestra included a virtuoso bassoonist named Anton Möser), and the other to a Venetian bassoonist named Giuseppe Biancardi. It has long been supposed that the remaining concerti were intended for virtuosic young women bassoonists at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. But, frustratingly, there is only circumstantial evidence that this might have been the case. Whoever played these works originally must have been virtuosic; the A minor concerto on today’s concert (RV 499) demonstrates the technical prowess that Vivaldi regularly demanded from his bassoonist(s). This is most clearly demonstrated in the outer Allegros, which each contain rapid scalar and arpeggiated passagework. The third movement is also interesting in that it does not begin with the usual orchestral ritornello; the soloist takes the lead from the very first measure. The second movement is simple in form: two short sections, each repeated. But this provides the soloist the chance to show off in another way, by ornamenting or improvising the second time through.
Flute Concerto in G major, "Il Cavallo," RV 437
The flute concerto "Il Cavallo", or "the horse" was written in by Vivaldi in 1729. It must have been a very genteel, well-behaved horse that Vivaldi had in mind. The horse is most characterized by the up and down motion provided by the jumping octaves, sixths and fifths through out the first movement. The flute happily dances around this structure in the string instruments. The pastoral air of the middle movement brings to mind Vivaldi's writing in the slow movements of his concerto "La Notte." The third movement is unusual in that it entirely features the flute with accompanimental strings, with no orchestral ritornellos.
Concerto for Strings in E minor, RV 134 The little fugue of the previous Sinfonia leads very naturally to the larger fugue of the Concerto for Strings in E minor. This fugue also features a descending chromatic theme, which is heard in all voices throughout the first movement, ending with a clarion B pedal tone in the bass instruments. A sweet and gentle middle movement is followed by a raucous dancelike final Allegro to round out our program.
Harpsichord Concerto in A major, RV 780
In almost all of Vivaldi's writing, the harpsichord is relegated to the role of continuo instrument, creating harmonies to accompany the solo parts. Peter Ryom, who catalogued Vivaldi's work, called the Concerto in A major a "newly discovered work," and included it due to an instruction in the related concerto for violin and cello, RV 546, ó Cembalo ("or harpsichord"). The left and right hands of the harpsichord are respectively the solo violin and cello parts. The three movements have extended solos featuring the harpsichord prominently and we are pleased to have this opportunity to showcase this instrument.
Violin Concerto in E minor, RV 273
Of all of the concertos on tonight's program, the violin concerto in E minor is the most dramatic. Given Vivaldi's propensity for virtuosic improvisation on the violin this is not surprising. The first movement begins with pointed repeated figures in the orchestra, interrupted by emphatically exciting 32nd note statements that alternate with solo violin playing in a light flurry. The middle Largo movement epitomizes the melancholy beauty of Vivaldi's slow movements with the solo violin singing over repeated eighth notes provided by the upper strings. Most certainly this concerto was written for a virtuoso player-- the third movement consists of almost all technically brilliant solo passages, with only a few orchestral tuttis framing solo passagework also accompanied lightly by the upper strings.
Trio Sonata La Follia, RV 63
Although Vivaldi is wildly popular today for his concertos, his first effort, Opus 1, was a book of trio sonatas dedicated to Annibale Gambara, a Veronese nobleman. These works, published in 1705, are most certainly a tribute to Corelli, whose five collections of sonatas, published from 1681 to 1700, defined the form. Vivaldi's works won the disapproval of conservatives such as English composer Charles Avison, who was to condemn Vivaldi’s works as “only a fit Amusement for Children; nor indeed for these, if ever they are intended to be led to a just Taste in Music.” Though less well-known than his hundreds of Concertos, his sonatas display an equal proficiency and charisma. The Follia variations are written on a well-known tune, probably of Portuguese origin, dating from the early sixteenth century. The piece opens with a theme (adagio) followed by 19 variations of 16 bars each, all of them in the key of D minor, in both the slow and the fast movements. Vivaldi alternates beautifully lyrical variations with sets of energetic displays of virtuosity, shared equally between the two upper melody instruments and the basso.
Again Vivaldi explores the rich expressiveness of the cello in the Concerto in G minor, contrasting the stark opening orchestral theme, characterized by intense descending scales, with the more intimate statements of the solo cello. In the adagio second movement, the cello continues to expresslore the sadness of the descending scale struggling against measures of hope expressed in upward scale passages. The exciting final movement shows off the virtuosity of the cello in brisk 16th notes. This concerto was preserved in manuscript form in the library of an amateur cellist, Count Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn, at Wiesentheid.
Concerto for Strings in D minor, RV 127
We close tonight’s concert with the Concerto for Strings in D minor, RV 127. In this three-movement concerto, the outer movements feature the violins playing rapid 16th notes, framing a simple middle movement of cadential chords.
--Notes by Lisa Marie Lawson and David Wells
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