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Encore: The Baroque Era

A man for all seasons: Antonio Vivaldi

The birth of Antonio Vivaldi (Italian, 1678-1741) was announced, no joke, by an earthquake, an auspicious beginning if ever there was one. He was known in his own time by the moniker “the Red Priest,” a cool but nonetheless self-explanatory nickname: he was an ordained priest, and he had red hair.

Vivaldi spent most of his adult life teaching music at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venice institution for poor and orphaned children. The Pietà was essentially a boarding school, and it offered a sophisticated music program for girls, directed by the Red Priest himself. The program’s musicians were exceptionally skilled and the Pietà’s fundraising concerts were famous and widely-attended. Ironically, the students were officially barred from making further use of their abilities after graduation, as women were not permitted to perform music in public. (Remember this if you’re tempted to ask about the rarity of female composers. They surely existed, but lived in a culture in which their work was sidelined at best and forbidden at worst.)

In the later years of his life Vivaldi began to fall out of favor with the Venetian public, particularly after a rumored affair with one of his singing pupils, and in 1737 he was stripped of his priesthood. Unfettered, the Red Former Priest spent the last few years of his life traveling and seeking commissions. Unfortunately, though, the popularity of his work had waned, and his biggest fan, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, died in 1740. Sans income, Vivaldi died poor and was buried beside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where a young Joseph Haydn worked as choir director.

Much of Vivaldi’s work for the Pietà was in the form of the concerto, a composition in which a prominent solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra. These were well-suited for performance at the school, as they provided accomplished students a chance to shine while the less-skilled provided accompaniment. Vivaldi wrote about 350 concertos, most for violin, but for other instruments as well, depending on the needs of his student body.

Vivaldi’s concertos typically follow to a ritornello form, in which the parts take turns defining and developing short melodies. The piece is broken down into a series of small parts, building blocks which the composer can use in many different ways. In some cases, these may take the form of a sort of “call-and-response” between the soloist and the orchestra, in others they may include a short virtuosic digression or development of a new melody.

Bassoon Concerto in A Minor, RV 498

For example, let’s look at Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A Minor, RV 498. The bassoon is the lowest-pitched instrument of the woodwind family (with the exception of its weird cousin, the contrabassoon) and has a unique, hornlike quality. Vivaldi wrote 37 concertos for bassoon, but after the Baroque it was largely sidelined and rarely saw the spotlight anymore. (Mozart, for example, wrote only one bassoon concerto, Haydn wrote none.)

I. Allegro

II. Larghetto

III. Allegro

The first movement of the Concerto in A Minor opens with a string ensemble and harpsichord, which introduce and experiment with a few different melodies using a typical ritornello format. Notice Vivaldi’s pronounced sense of rhythm, which is common in his work. (The harpsichord even serves as a sort of percussion instrument, keeping the beat at times with a single, repeated note.) Once the bassoon enters, the rest of the orchestra fades into the background, responding to it without overwhelming or challenging it. The orchestra part is effectively waiting for its turn, as it has ample opportunity to express its own ideas during the bassoon’s periodical silences. This back-and-forth trading of the spotlight between the soloist and orchestra is typical of the Baroque concerto.

The second movement effectively follows the same form but with a slow tempo instead of a fast one. The bassoon is particularly in its element here, carrying a slow and graceful melody as the string section accompanies it sympathetically. The bassoon falls silent at the conclusion and the mood is resolved by the strings.

The third movement provides some good examples of Vivaldi’s skill at coaxing emotions out of the often-staid Baroque style. The movement begins at an upbeat tempo and launches into an excited melody reminiscent of the first movement, but the mood begins to deteriorate as it goes on. Every time the bassoon enters, it seems to take on a slightly more tragic air until the piece concludes with a feeling of uncertainty and sadness.

“La Follia,” Op. 1, No. 12

Common throughout the Baroque and well into the eras that followed was the concept of a theme with variations, of which Vivaldi’s “La Follia” Op. 1, No. 12 is a prime example. It uses as its inspiration the “Folia” theme, one of the oldest European melodies known. Vivaldi was just one of dozens of composers who have worked with Folia over the years. Vivaldi begins by introducing the Folia theme without exaggeration, then begins to experiment with it. Throughout the work, the theme remains recognizable even as it transforms from a gentle lullaby to an explosive and frantic showpiece. Again demonstrating Vivaldi’s remarkable timelessness, some parts even seem to foreshadow rock and heavy metal (a resemblance so striking that even YouTube commenters pick up on it). In the hands of some composers, variations quickly become tedious, but Vivaldi reveals a world of potential inside such a simple theme, each variation imbuing it with surprising emotional zeal.

“The Four Seasons” (Op. 8 No. 4)

Vivaldi’s most famous work is probably The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos. Each three-movement concerto represents a specific season, beginning with spring and concluding with winter. This sort of representational music was rare in the Baroque, but Vivaldi proved himself to be incredibly well-suited for it. Every movement is filled with expressive energy that musically represents aspects of the seasons, from the birdsong of early spring to the rumblings of a distant thunderstorm on a hot summer day.

"Winter," I: Allegro non molto

The first movement of the “Winter” concerto is a prime example. After a relatively cheerful “Autumn” concerto, Vivaldi launches into this: a rhythmic and insistent staccato that builds into a more and more threatening mode until the solo violin enters with a virtuosic fluorish. Vivaldi depicts the freezing weather with characteristic emotion: the solo violin paints an image of cold rain and wind while the rhythmic accompaniment suggests the sound of ice particles bouncing off the windows. Throughout all of this, Vivaldi still manages to create enjoyable and memorable melodies and a good deal of creative counterpoint. It’s the perfect merging of the Baroque and the expressive styles of the future.