Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Complete Bassoon Concertos Volume 1: RV 471, 476, 480, 487,493, 498 & 503
Known in his native Venice as the red priest, from theinherited colour of his hair, Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, the son of abarber who later served as a violinist at the great Basilica of St Mark.Vivaldi studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same timehe won a reputation for himself as a violinist of phenomenal ability and wasappointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Piet?á. This last was one of foursuch charitable institutions, established for the education of orphan, indigentor illegitimate girls and boasting a particularly fine musical tradition. Herethe girls were trained in music, some of the more talented continuing to servethere as assistant teachers, earning the dowry necessary for marriage.Vivaldi's association with the Piet?á continued intermittently throughout hislife, from 1723 under a contract that provided for the composition of two newconcertos every month. At the same time he enjoyed a connection with thetheatre, as the composer of some fifty operas, director and manager. He finallyleft Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where there seemed some possibilityof furthering his career under imperial patronage, or perhaps with the idea oftravelling on to the court at Dresden, where his pupil Pisendel was working. Hedied in Vienna a few weeks after his arrival in the city, in relative poverty.At one time he had been worth 50,000 ducats a year, it seemed, but now hadlittle to show for it, as he arranged for the sale of some of the music he hadbrought with him.
Visitors to Venice had borne witness to Vivaldi's prowess asa violinist, although some found his performance more remarkable thanpleasurable. He certainly explored the full possibilities of the instrument,while perfecting the newly developing form of the Italian solo concerto. Heleft nearly five hundred concertos. Many of these were for the violin, butthere were others for a variety of solo instruments or for groups ofinstruments. He claimed to be able to compose a new work quicker than a copyistcould write it out, and he clearly coupled immense facility with a remarkablecapacity for variety within the confines of the three-movement form, with itsfaster outer movements framing a central slow movement.
The girls at the Piet?á had a wide variety of instrumentsavailable to them, in addition to the usual strings and keyboard instruments ofthe basic orchestra. These included the bassoon, for which Vivaldi wrote 39concertos, two of which are seemingly incomplete. The reason for such a numberof concertos for a relatively unusual solo instrument is not known, and thefact that one concerto is inscribed to Count Morzin, a patron of Vivaldi fromBohemia and a cousin of Haydn's early patron, and another to a musician inVenice, Gioseppino Biancardi, reveals little, although it has been suggestedthat Biancardi represented an earlier tradition of bassoon playing, as a masterof its predecessor, the dulcian. This is implied by the avoidance of the bottomnote of the later instrument, B flat. The bassoon was in general an essentialelement in the characteristic German court orchestra of the eighteenth century,doubling the bass line and found in proportionately greater numbers than is nowusual. The orchestral bassoon part was not written out, unless it differed, asit very occasionally did, from the bass line played by the cello, double bassand continuo. The fact that bassoons are specifically mentioned as being amongthose played by the girls of the Piet?á seems to indicate that they were usedthere for this purpose at least. There had been solo works written for theinstrument during the seventeenth century and technical changes led to a numberof solo concertos by the middle of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless thequantity of bassoon concertos written by Vivaldi remains unusual.
Fourteen of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos are in C major. TheConcerto in C major, RV 476, starts with a lively ritornello before the entryof the soloist and the alternation of orchestral and solo passages, the lattercalling for considerable virtuosity. The slow movement provides the bassoonwith an aria which explores a full range of the instrument, its low notes incontrast to the tenor register of the principal part of the melody. Theprinciple of alternating orchestral ritornello and solo passages is dulyfollowed in the energetic last movement.
The Concerto in F major, RV 487, starts with the expectedorchestral introduction, before the entry of the solo bassoon, the solopassages marked by characteristic figuration and a use of the full range of thesolo instrument. The slow movement allows the solo instrument wide leaps andthe lively final Allegro calls for considerable agility from the soloist.
Vivaldi's Concerto in C major, RV 471, opens with the usualritornello, elements of which are to be found in a second-act soprano aria inVivaldi's opera La Griselda. The opening is echoed by the solo bassoon, whichgoes on to more rapid virtuoso figuration. The slow movement, marked Larghetto,offers an A minor tenor aria, with occasional descents to the depths,accompanied by the often unison textures of the string orchestra. The firstsolo episode of the final Allegro has wide contrasts of register, notably in adownward leap of two octaves, a continuing feature of the writing for thebassoon.
The Concerto in A minor, RV 498, has an effective openingritornello, leading to a first bassoon episode with wide leaps and a structurebased on sequences. The F major central Larghetto has a lyrical bassoon aria,again with an almost antiphonal use of upper and lower registers of the soloinstrument. The minor key duly returns for the last movement, the solo bassoonentry marked by sequential writing.
The Concerto in C minor, RV 480, starts with a unisonritornello, elaborated before the solo entry. The returning orchestralframework duly modulates, providing a structure for the solo passages, withtheir wide leaps and contrasts of register. The direction Andantino quasiminuetto, an editorial addition, indicates the metrical structure of themovement, in 3/8. It is followed by a dramatic final Allegro.
One of four concertos in this key, the Concerto in B flatmajor, RV 503, has an opening ritornello of abrupt contrasts, before the entryof the bassoon, with its wide leaps and later smoother sequential elements. TheG minor slow movement starts in a mood of melancholy, continued in a lyricalbassoon solo. The ritornello of the last movement starts with a descendingfigure, before moving to a climax. The solo episodes alternate the virtuosowith the lyrical in an effective conclusion.
The Concerto in G major, RV 493, starts with a movement inthe usual ritornello structure, containing solo episodes in characteristicfiguration. The slow movement is an E minor aria for the solo bassoon, and thelast movement is impelled forward with the customary energy, the virtuoso solopassages discreetly accompanied.