VIVALDI: Estro Armonico
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Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)
L'Estro Armonico Opus 3
Once virtually forgotten, Antonio Vivaldinow enjoys a reputation that equals the international fame he enjoyed in hisheyday. Born in Venice in 1678, the son of a barber who was himself to windistinction as a violinist in the service of the great basilica of San Marco,which continued the traditions of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi, he studied forthe priesthood, and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he establishedhimself as a violinist of remarkable ability. A later visitor to Venice was todescribe his playing in the opera-house in 1715, his use of high positions sothat his fingers almost touched the bridge of the violin, leaving little roomfor the bow, and his contrapuntal cadenza, a fugue played at great speed. Theexperience, the observer added, was too artificial to be enjoyable.
Nevertheless Vivaldi was among the most famous virtuosi of the day, as well asbeing a prolific composer of music that won wide favour at home and abroad.
For much of his life Vivaldi wasassociated with the Ospedale della Pieta, one of four foundations in Venice forthe education of orphan, illegitimate or indigent girls, a select group of whomwere trained as musicians. Venice attracted then, as now, many foreigntourists, and the Pieta and its music long remained a centre of culturalpilgrimage. In 1703 Vivaldi, known as il prete rosso, the red priest, for theinherited colour of his heir, was appointed violin-master to the pupils of thePieta. The position was subject to annual renewal by the board of governors,whose voting was not invariably in Vivaldi's favour, particularly as hisreputation and consequent obligations outside the orphanage increased. In 1709he left the Pieta, to be reinstated in 1711. In 1716 he was removed briefly, tobe given, a month later, the title of Maestro de' Concerti, director ofinstrumental music. A year later he had left the Pieta for a period of threeyears spent in Mantua as Maestro di Cappella da Camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt,the German nobleman appointed by the Emperor in Vienna as governor of the city.
In 1720 he was again in Venice and in1723 the relationship with the Pieta was resumed, apparently on a less formalbasis. Vivaldi was commissioned to write two new concertos a month, and torehearse and direct some of them. The arrangement allowed him to travel, and hewas to spend time in Rome and indirectly to seek possible appointment in Paristhrough dedications to Louis XV, which brought no practical result. Viennaseemed to offer more, with the good will of Charles VI, whose inopportunedeath, when Vivaldi attempted in old age to find employment there, must haveproved a very considerable disappointment.
In 1730 there was a visit to Bohemia; in1735 another appointment to the Pieta as Maestro de' Concerti, and in 1738 anappearance in Amsterdam, where he led the orchestra at the centenary of theSchouwberg Theatre. By 1740, however, Venice had begun to grow tired ofVivaldi, and shortly after the performance of Concertos specially written aspart of a serenata for the entertainment of the young Prince FriedrichChristian of Saxony in 1740, his impending departure was announced to thegovernors of the Pieta, who were asked, and at first refused, to buy some ofhis concertos.
In 1741 Vivaldi travelled to Vienna,where he arrived in June, and had time to sell some of the scores he hadbrought with him, before succumbing to some form of stomach inflammation. Hedied a month to the day after his arrival and was buried the same day with aslittle expense as possible. As was remarked in Venice, he had once been worth50,000 ducats a year, but through his extravagance he died in poverty.
Much of Vivaldi's expenditure waspresumably in the opera-house. He was associated from 1714 with the managementof the San Angelo theatre, a second-rate house which nevertheless began to wina name for decent performances, whatever its economies in quality andspectacle. Vivaldi is known to have written some 46 operas and possibly some 40more than this; he was also involved as composer and entrepreneur in theirproduction in other opera- houses in Italy. It was his work in the opera-housethat led to Marcello's satirical attack on him in 1720 in Il teatro allamoda, on the frontispiece of which Aldaviva, alias Vivaldi, is seen as anangel with a fiddle, wearing a priest's hat, standing on the tiller, with onefoot raised, as if to beat time, It has been suggested that "on thefiddle" has similar connotations in Italian as in English. Vivaldi had hisenemies.
The twelve concertos for strings andbasso continuo published in Amsterdam in 1711 under the title L'estroarmonico were to exert a wide influence over musical taste. Vivaldidedicated the collection to Ferdinand of Tuscany, heir to the Grand Duke CosimoIII and patron of Handel and the Scarlattis among others. The choice of theAmsterdam publisher Etienne Roger ensured sales in northern Europe, as well asin Italy, where Vivaldi's style was less of a novelty, and provided playerswith a clear text, more legible than the sonatas of Opus I and Opus II that hadbeen first brought out in Venice.
Concerto No.1 in D major
makes use of four solo violins, and a solo cello in the first movement, withdivided violas. The energetic and thoroughly characteristic first movement isfollowed by a slow movement that opens with a grandiose unison before two soloviolins, accompanied by the viola, appear in alternating episodes. The finalmovement, in the customary compound metre, contrasts solo instruments with therest of the orchestra.
Concerto No.2 in G minor
is scored for two solo violins and a solo cello, with divided violas, and openswith a slow introductory section, leading to a lively Allegro opened by thewhole orchestra but later alternating with the solo instruments. The movingLarghetto leads to a final Allegro with the mood and metre of a gigue.
Concerto No.4 in E minor
opens in the manner of an overture, moving on to an Allegro. There is thebriefest of Adagios linking this to the final Allegro.
Concerto No.7 in F major
is for four solo violins and solo cello. The central movement is an Allegro,started by the first two solo violins, and the work ends with a minuet ratherthan a gigue.
Concerto No.8 in A minor, a concerto grossowith a solo group of two violins, opens in emphatic style before passages ofcontrasting texture with the alternation of solo violins and the fullorchestra. The solo violins enter in imitation in the slow movement and thereis a final movement in which, as before, much is made of the descending scale.
The concerto was transcribed by Bach for organ.
Concerto No.10 in B minor
is again for four solo violins and cello and formed the basis of an A minorconcerto by Johann Sebastian Bach for four harpsichords. The slow movementincludes an interesting contrast of bowings and rhythms between the soloviolins and is followed by a last movement in which there is considerablevariety of texture.
Two solo violins introduce ConcertoNo.11 in D minor, entering in close imitation. The concerto was transcribedby Bach for the organ. A short slow section leads the way into a fugal Allegro,the subject announced by the cello and answered by the viola. The slow movementhas the rhythm and mood of a Siciliana and leads without a break to theimitative entries of the solo instruments in the final movement.