Our featured composer this evening is certainly no stranger to modern audiences. Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was one of the first Baroque composers other than Bach to gain real popularity in the second half of the 20th century, and he is therefore an important figure in the development of the historically-informed performance practice movement. Listeners, the writer of these notes included, who first fell in love with Le Quattro Staggione on vinyl LP recordings of the 1950s and early 60s heard them performed with a lot of vibrato and legato in largish orchestras using metal strings and Romantic bows. It is becoming increasingly safe to say that most listeners today find such performances less satisfying and less exciting than those of the many very talented Baroque bands playing in the same style and with the same equipment that Vivaldi himself would have used in training the orphaned girls at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. So Vivaldi has had a major role in the modern Baroque performance movement, and he also had an enormous effect on the musicians of his own time. He was a strikingly original composer in many respects and made contributions to program music, forms, violin technique, novel combinations of instruments, and musical style in general. His influence on just about everyone who wrote concerti after him was considerable, and it is impossible to consider the music of Bach without taking him into account. We have decided in these concerts to offer our versions of some of Vivaldi’s best known works. It is a real tribute to him to realize that the Gloria, The Four Seasons, the Concerto in A minor that is almost the theme song of the Suzuki movement, and the other pieces here remain fresh and engaging in spite of their familiarity.
Vivaldi’s father, Giovanni Battista, was the son of a Brescian tailor. Having moved to Venice in 1666, he worked as a barber before becoming a working violinist. By 1685 he is found on the salary lists of San Marco as G.B. Rossi, so it seems that his son’s nickname of “the red priest” indicates a family hair color. Giovanni Battista was apparently a very good violinist, in demand at church festivals and able to do some traveling to perform in various towns. He might even have written an opera and worked in theater management for a while. He married the daughter of a tailor in 1676, and Antonio was the eldest of their nine children, born on May 6, 1678. Throughout his life Antonio Vivaldi complained of “strettezza di petto,” probably asthma, and his health as a newborn was so fragile that the midwife performed an emergency baptism as soon as he was born. Most likely he learned the violin from his father, and by 1696 he was appearing at San Marco for Christmas services. Vivaldi was ordained as a priest in 1703, but stopped saying mass a few years later, presumably because music was occupying all of his attention. In 1737, he was censured for conduct unbecoming a priest, which he blamed on his health. There is the famous early 19th-century story about him rushing from the sacristy during mass to write down a fugue he had rattling around in his head; but perhaps his own version of the incident is correct, and he simply was having an asthma attack. At any rate, he remained personally observant for the rest of his life and added “Laus Deo” and other religious mottos to the beginnings of many of his autograph scores, interestingly enough especially his operas.
In 1703 Vivaldi was first appointed maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, one of four such Venetian institutions dedicated to the care of abandoned and orphaned children. The Pietà specialized in providing musical training for the girls under its care who displayed talent, and the concert-like services there in which they performed were enthusiastically attended by visitors and the Venetian nobility. In addition to teaching violin, Vivaldi was responsible for the acquisition and maintenance of the Pietà’s stringed instruments. Although his position was not renewed in 1709, it is unlikely that Vivaldi’s performance or conduct had anything to do with the decision. Perhaps, rather, he had done his job too well, and his pupils no longer needed instruction.
During this time, Vivaldi increasingly turned his attention to composition. A print of his first sonatas appeared in 1705, and some of his concertos seem to have been in circulation as early as 1708. His opus 3, the tremendously influential set of concertos called L’estro armonico, was published by Etienne Roger in Amsterdam in 1711. Roger used engraving for his publications, a much more handsome and readable process than the block type printing still used in Italy. This collection marks the beginning of the great demand for Vivaldi’s works in northern Europe and is only the first in a series of important and much emulated Vivaldi concerto prints issued by Roger. Vivaldi was reappointed to his former position at the Pietà in 1709, and in 1716 he was promoted to the position of maestro de’ concerti. It is during this period that the sacred vocal works performed here were likely composed.
We begin this evening with the Concerto in C, RV 447. This intricate and interesting piece, with a wonderfully virtuoistic solo oboe part, is one of about 15 composed for this instrument (there was a professor of oboe at the Pietà). Almost all the concertos are in the fast-slow-fast three movement form that became a model for other composers. Vivaldi’s development of and use of ritornello form for the fast movements was even more influential. In these movements, the full orchestra begins with a ritornello, or refrain, in the home key. It is followed by a succession of solo episodes with contrasting characters that modulates through different keys alternating with restatements of the ritornello theme or part of it also in different keys, and the movement concludes with a final ritornello statement back in the home key. While the basic plan is repeated over and over in Vivaldi’s fast movements, there is infinite variety in the details. This scheme proved irresistible to Bach, Telemann, and Handel, among others. The concertos known as The Four Seasons are among Vivaldi’s programmatic pieces, some of the earliest such works. For each of the four, the composer wrote his own sonnet describing the musical events. In all four, the fast movements tell a real little story while the slow movements are tableaus, like the wonderful middle movement of Winter with its tranquil image of resting by a warm fire.
Another one of Vivaldi’s innovations was the “introductory” motet, to preface a large scale sacred text—there are very few examples of these by other composers. While the introduzione al Gloria was a separate composition, it is in the same key as the famous Gloria RV 589 and contains some very similar thematic material. Since it was probably not designed to lead directly into the Gloria, we have elected to perform it here earlier in the program. Vivaldi’s many solo motets are often quite brilliantly virtuoistic and have been described as “concertos for the voice.” This motet, consisting of two arias separated by a short recitative, illustrates the strong influence of opera style on Vivaldi’s sacred music.
Another influence on Vivaldi’s sacred music is that of the concerto. The brilliant setting of the Psalm Beatus vir is the best example, since it is one long ritornello movement—Vivaldi’s longest movement by far and possibly the longest ritornello movement from the period. In this delightfully excessive Psalm setting, the vocal soloists perform the episodes and the choir for the most part does the tutti ritornelli. The main theme, a six-note phrase, is heard an astonishing 55 times.
The Gloria RV 589 is Vivaldi’s most famous sacred work and is known today simply as “Vivaldi’s Gloria,” even though there is also another setting of the text by the composer. RV 589 was composed between 1713 and 1717 during Vivaldi’s second period of employment at the Pietà and was likely intended for performance there. There are various ideas about the circumstances of the first performance. It might have been for Pietà’s festival on July 2nd of 1716, or for Christmas later that year. Another theory is that it could have been used for a service commemorating Venetian victories over the Turks at the very end of 1716, and this would explain the rather martial character of the opening movement. The first modern performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria was in Siena in 1939, making it one of the earliest works by the composer to be brought back to public attention. While Vivaldi certainly did not display a Bach-like sensitivity to detailed and profound text expression, his sense of the general mood of each phrase of text and his creative musical solutions for each are extremely effective. The brilliance and variety of textures and affect displayed in the 11 movements of this work make it a tremendously appealing example of late Baroque sacred music.