Thursday 23 July 2020

III - First portrait: Antonio Vivaldi

The famous composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi

The Ospedale della Pietà was founded in 1346 as a charitable institution for orphaned, abandoned or illegitimate girls.  In 1663 it had over 400 children; by 1738 this had risen to 1,000.  The Pietà was supported by the state and run by a board of governors appointed by the Venetian Senate.  As time went on, it augmented this income by giving increasingly popular concerts in its chapel, until the stage was reached when it had in effect become a musical conservatory.

Naturally there were performances of sacred choral works: among the duties of the music director was the composition each year of a minimum of two new masses and vespers settings, at least two motets each month and other occasional works.  But it was chiefly for its orchestra that the Pietà became famous.  Perhaps as a result of the competition from the other ospedali in Venice which also offered concerts, by the early eighteenth century the Pietà seems to have begun specialising in unusual instruments.  In addition to the normal orchestral complement there were lutes, theorboes, mandolins, chalumeaux, viole d’inglese, psalteries, clarinets and transverse flutes; the last two, though common enough today, were novelties in the early 1700s.

As has been true for audiences throughout the ages, one of the surest ways of pleasing was the showcase concerto.  Regular concerts meant that many such works were needed, including some for the unusual combinations of instruments which the Pietà could offer.  They were provided by the maestro de’ concerti, who was the leader of the orchestra, conductor and house composer.  For some twenty years at the beginning of the eighteenth century, that post was filled if only unofficially by Antonio Vivaldi.

The music of the early Baroque which preceded Vivaldi was based on the solo voice.  Indeed, the creation of the early Baroque style was largely the result of the evolution of opera, itself a rediscovery of the power of the voice declaiming a clearly audible text, with music that follows closely the rise and fall of speech, accompanied by spare and simple textures.  This was in stark contrast to the late Renaissance style which was polyphonic, with thick unbroken textures obscuring multiple and overlapping texts; the emphasis was on smooth part-writing, and there was little rapport between words and music.

In this respect, the traditional labels of Baroque and Renaissance are misleading.  During the three or four centuries these periods encompass, just as for the two which followed, the large-scale stylistic shifts in music tended to occur one or two cultural cycles later than for the other arts.  Nor is this surprising, any more than the fact that literature tended to be in the vanguard.  The composition of music presupposes an elaborate apparatus for its performance.  The cost and complexity of its implementation necessarily make it the most conservative of the arts in terms of uptake of new ideas.  Words, on the other hand, require minimal mediation - a copyist or printing press suffices.  Almost as soon as a new way of looking at the world has been conceived, put into words in the mind, it can be written down and put into words on the page   But converting that idea into music can take centuries.

Thus so-called Renaissance music is in fact the perfect expression of an earlier medieval society: each part is strictly circumscribed both in range and material, compositions tend to be homogeneous throughout their duration, and the overriding concern is with a harmonious whole.  The concept of soloist does not exist except as the topmost level of the hierarchy.

Similarly, early Baroque music represents the first genuine stirrings of the Renaissance spirit in the medium: it is centred on the individual not the group, it prizes passion over passivity, and contrast over continuity - all dangerously subversive ideas in a rigidly feudal world.  Matching its implicit humanism is a new-found and explicit enthusiasm for the pre-Christian era’s myths and history in all their rawness and vigour, marking a distinct break with the previous medieval obsessions with generalised pieties and anaemic hand-me-down notions of chivalrous love.  All this occurred fully two hundred years after the other arts had started to turn their thoughts in a similar direction.

Words provided the natural scaffolding for this anthropocentric style. Without them, it proved hard to write extended compositions, and purely instrumental music lagged behind the achievements in opera, whose peaks included such classically-inspired works as Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ and ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea.’  One of Vivaldi’s central achievements was the part he played in the development of extended compositional strategies, and of a viable instrumental idiom in which to implement them.

When he started composing his concertos, it was natural that Vivaldi should draw on the well-established and highly effective tradition of vocal writing.  His earliest works in the form are almost choral in their melodies and textures.  The solo instruments take the place of the singers, while the orchestra supports their line as it would voices.  At the same time, as a virtuoso violinist himself, Vivaldi was able to introduce many strictly instrumental figurations into his music, and so to move away from the purely vocal shape of melodies while retaining their soloistic nature.  In fact it is clear that he tended to think almost exclusively in violinistic terms: even his concertos for wind instruments show the same continuous line, with little thought given for the soloists’ breathing.

Once Vivaldi had established a workable model for this new kind of concerto writing, his duties at the Pietà provided him with daily opportunities for refining it and exploring its potential.  He stripped away all the superfluities of the early Baroque style which tended to clutter the music of his contemporaries, and arrived at the characteristic Vivaldian sound and structure we know today.  It is a style based on the simplest elements of music, on arpeggios, scales, sequences and repeated notes.  In effect, Vivaldi was establishing the basic vocabulary of Classical music, a vocabulary we take for granted today, but one which needed to be extracted from the developments of the seventeenth century, and which was as radical and fundamental for its time as Wagner’s innovations were for his.

Although we tend to think of Vivaldi as a quaint byway in the history of music, his importance is pivotal.  On Bach, his influence is well attested: as a young man Bach transcribed for harpsichord ten of Vivaldi’s concertos, and it is clear how the later composer first built on, then surpassed the Venetian’s achievements.  But Vivaldi’s influence goes much further than that.  His first published set of concertos was probably one of the most important collections of instrumental works of the eighteenth century. Vivaldi largely defined the Baroque concerto as we know it.

More importantly, he had a tremendous impact on those shadowy composers whose works form the transition between the late Baroque and early Classical, the composers who were to create the environment which made the central achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven possible.  In a very real sense, Vivaldi is the grandfather of that Classicism, and it was the unique circumstances of the Pietà which acted as the catalyst in its evolution.

And yet this Vivaldi of the musicologists is not the Vivaldi the world knows.  That Vivaldi is the Red Priest - so named for his flaming mane of hair; it the Vivaldi of the ‘Four Seasons’, the Vivaldi whose music is the soundtrack of Venice.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on 4 March 1678, not far from the Pietà which was be the centre of his life.  His father was a musician who played in San Marco as a violinist; him it was, presumably, who gave young Antonio his first music lessons.  The future composer took the tonsure at the age of fifteen, and became a priest just after his twenty-fifth birthday in 1703.  For someone of his humble background, this was a sound career move. His association with the Pietà can be dated back to around the same time, when he was taken on as violin teacher.

His first publication, a set of trio sonatas, appeared in 1705, followed by a set of violin sonatas.  His earliest concertos were published in 1711 as Op 3, and bore the inscription ‘L’Estro Armonico’, a phrase referring to the flights of harmonic and poetic invention to be found in the series. The originality is indeed striking.  Where the earlier violin and trio sonatas sound like journeyman works, somewhat conventional and tentative, the concertos of ‘L’Estro Armonico’ offer us the first view of Vivaldi’s emerging style.

Inevitably the set looks both forward to the works of Vivaldi’s maturity, and back to the models it grew out of.  Thus over half of the concertos are written in the form of the old four-movement concerto grosso which alternates slow and fast sections, and pits the full string orchestra - the ripieno - against the lighter grouping of players known as the concertino. The latter are not true soloists: their material is often very similar to that of the ripieno and rarely virtuosic; instead, they act as a dramatic counterpoise to the larger body, and offer the possibility of typically baroque effects such as dynamic terracing, rhythmic intensification and melodic juxtaposition.

The actual thematic material reflects this conservatism.  The figurations are rather conventional, the overall structure episodic and the total effect less than the sum of its parts.  Even the middle slow movements - soon to be a hallmark and highpoint of the mature Vivaldi style - function less as freestanding melody than as rhetorical questions and answers between the two contrasting groups, a kind of musical stichomythia.

At the same time, the Op 3 set does offer four works which are clearly of quite a different cut.  Numbers 5,6 8 and 12 - two double concertos and two for solo violin - are three-movement works, cast in what soon became the norm for concertos of fast-slow-fast.  Structurally they are better organised, melodically they are more economical, and there is an unobtrusive but effective integration between different sections and different voices.  The solo line is more truly soloistic, with the first appearance of Vivaldi’s characteristic wide leaps and across-the-strings arpeggios.  Equally striking are the intense slow movements which have blossomed into arresting cantilenas for the solo violin over varied accompaniments.  The Vivaldi concerto was born.

That breakthrough was consolidated and extended in the composer’s next published work, another set of 12 concertos - 12 would be the canonical number for musical publishing for many decades more.  The most successful and forward-looking of Op 3 moved away from using the cumbrous full concertino group towards the more supple resources of one or two violins; the concertos of Op 4 take that development a stage further by concentrating exclusively on the solo violin.  Once more, there is a sobriquet: ‘La Stravaganza’, a love of the unusual and exciting which could be equally well applied to the composer as to the works themselves.

In Op 4, that extravagance is limited to the violin part itself, now more demanding than ever, and beginning to explore the then limits of the instrument’s technique.  For the rest, the concertos represent a simplification and rarefaction of earlier ideas.

All the Vivaldi fingerprints are there: the powerfully motoric arpeggios, often based around sequences; themes formed from scales or chords; the long pedal notes; the use of the most basic harmonic progressions as musical punctuation, sometimes played in unison by the whole orchestra; the fascination with simple repeated chords played slowly and without ornament, either on their own, or acting as the barest of accompaniments to long, flowing melodies on the solo instrument; the steadily chugging walking basses; a childlike delight in the strength of the dominant seventh chord; the relentless chromatic sinking of the bass-line from tonic to dominant in minor key works; and the consistent use of a style which is essentially homophonic rather than contrapuntal.

Between publishing his Op 3 and Op 4, Vivaldi produced his first opera, ‘Ottone in Villa’.  Together with the concerto, opera forms one of the two poles of his creative life.  The origins of his mature style as a fusion of vocal and instrumental approaches to melody meant that he could move easily between the two.  Of the 50 or so operas we know about, 18 were written for the Sant’Angelo theatre in Venice; the others appeared in Venice at the San Moisè and San Samuele theatres, as well as at Rome, Verona, Vicenza, Florence, Milan, Mantua and elsewhere.

In Vivaldi’s day, it was opera, rather than instrumental music, that offered a route to fame and fortune. Instrumental music was usually printed at the composer’s expense, and unless patronage had been secured in advance therefore represented a highly speculative approach to composing.  Opera, on the other hand, provided guaranteed fees which could be substantial for an established composer.

The operas of Vivaldi which have come down to us are unremarkable as far as their subject matter is concerned.  Titles include many classical subjects, works based on Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, plus exotica like ‘Montezuma’, and ‘Guinevere, Princess of Scotland’.  Librettists included the omnipresent Metastasio, the popular Zeno and the Venetian dramatist Goldoni.   Although the latter only worked with Vivaldi on two works, the second occasion is of more than passing interest because both librettist and composer wrote under anagrammatical pseudonyms, respectively Grolo Candido and Lotario Vandini.  The fact that the name of a musician called Vandini occurs in the accounts of the Pietà in 1720 has led some scholars to read more into this than coincidence.

Opera was particularly important to Vivaldi, and not just for the financial rewards or popular acclaim it brought him.  Vivaldi seems to have had an extramusical interest in the genre on account of a certain Anna Maddelena Giro.  She became his pupil, and the leading interpreter of the contralto roles in his operas.  Vivaldi once declared that it was impossible to put on a performance of one of his operas without her, since there was no comparable singer to be found.  Evidence other than Vivaldi’s partisanship suggests that she was, indeed, a very fine singer.  Just how partisan he was is an intriguing question, one that takes us to the limits of our knowledge of the composer.

We know, for example, that he travelled for some 14 years around Europe with both Anna Giro and her sister.  We also know that in 1737 the Cardinal of Ferrara refused to let him enter that city, partly on account of his friendship with Giro.  It is hard in these cynical times not to suspect that there may have been some justification for the rumours which were obviously circulating.  But it is frustrating that on such a key issue one which would necessarily change the entire mythology of the Red Priest there can be no certainties.  Against the odd letter or report and lingering tittle-tattle from the time, we have the vast and impressive body of his works which speak directly to us, and act as a powerful advocate of Vivaldi as the sublime and poetic genius dedicated to his art rather than as a fornicating priest who wrote concertos for a living and operas for profit.  The fact that the latter is probably nearer the truth is an indication of how little the music tells us about the man.

It would be interesting to know which of the two categories - instrumental and operatic - Vivaldi prized the most, or would have wanted to be remembered by.  The question probably never even crossed his mind.  Both genres had their attractions: the operas brought him immediate and rather ephemeral fame throughout the main operatic centres in Italy, but it was his published concertos which established his European reputation.

It is ironic that of all Vivaldi’s works, the most famous today should be in many ways the least characteristic.  ‘The Four Seasons’ form the first concertos of a set of 12 published as his Op 8.  As with the earlier Op 3, and Op 4, but unlike the rather nondescript Op 6 and Op 7 sets of violin concertos which followed, the Op 8 set was given a subtitle: ‘Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione’ - that is, the contest between compositional order and poetic inspiration.  This could easily stand as an epigraph to most of Vivaldi’s works, which combine an enormous fluency and variety of ideas with a rigorous application of Vivaldi’s own brand of the Baroque concerto form.

The collection’s subtitle is a particularly apt description of what Vivaldi attempted and achieved in the first four concertos of the set, now known by the names of the seasons.  These are not the only works with such nicknames: as well as ‘La tempesta del mare’ and ‘Il piacere’, both from the Op 8 set, there are concertos known as ‘Il sospetto’, ‘L’inquietudine’, ‘Grosso mogul’, ‘Il favorito’ and ‘L’amoroso’. But none of these attempts to follow an explicit programme in the way that the first four of Op 8 do.

Those programmes take the form of rather slight descriptive sonnets by an unknown poet, probably Vivaldi himself, printed at the head of each concerto.  Moreover, the appropriate phrase appears over the music which represents it.  Vivaldi’s skill lies in the way he adheres to the simple programme while working within the conventions of the concerto form - a true contest between ‘armonia’ and ‘invenzione’.

The concertos progress from spring through to winter.  Along the way we hear birds singing, dogs barking, fountains murmuring, summer and winter tempests, and the chattering of teeth.  It is fascinating to observe how Vivaldi marshals his favourite compositional and instrumental tricks.  Thus his rapid scales and repeated notes become storms; his languid slow movements depict the calm which comes before them, and the peaceful days spent beside the hearth while the rain - represented by pizzicato arpeggios - falls steadily outside; violin pyrotechnics act out the awkwardnesses of the drunken harvesters, the scurrying of the winter winds, the sudden falls on the ice; and even the athematic, chordal slow movement based purely on subtly shifting harmonies puts in a turn as the deep, porcine sleep of the drunkards.

Just why Vivaldi produced these concertos is a complete mystery.  There are no other works quite like them in his output, and although programmatic music had been produced by many earlier composers, this does not address the central question of why Vivaldi chose to write these concertos in precisely this way at this point.  The whole issue is bound up with a larger question about the creative process itself: what causes work x rather than work y to be written, and what determines the particular artistic path it chooses to follow?

This is a problem which is particularly acute for music, of all the arts. For literature, subject matter provides a ready starting point and structure, as does pictorial reality in representational painting; but music seems to exist outside of any such easy correlations.  Walter Pater recognised this in his famous essay on ‘The School of Giorgione’ when he wrote that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  That is,  the other arts strive to free themselves from their literalistic roots, to blur the distinction between form and content - a distinction which does not exist in most music.

It is relatively straightforward to understand where a painter such as Canaletto would have found his inspiration for the scenes of the Grand Canal - presumably on such and such a day a particular scene struck him by its compositional possibilities - and what the occasion of such a painting might be - a commission, say, for a ‘typical’ Venetian scene.  Most poets, novelists and dramatists ultimately draw on their own personal experiences, their memories and the knowledge they have accumulated, to provide them with the basis and initial impetus of their works.  But we have no such clear points of departure for Vivaldi’s music.

The operas are easier to explain.  Vivaldi sought commissions, the libretto was often given, as were the requirements of the singers.  He then set about finding music which in some sense matched the words and the scenes and the voices.  Of course the central mystery of where he found that music remains; but at least a framework for its creation can be guessed at.  It is true that works in concerto form were required on a regular basis for his pupils at La Pietà; once more the individual needs of the players would have helped limit the range of compositional possibilities.  But not much.  Each time he set to work Vivaldi would be confronted by the blank music paper with only his past compositions as a guide to where he had been, and as a hint of where he might go.  Each work was potentially the exploration of a new region of his compositional world, a filling in of an empty part of the map.

The greater part of that map - and certainly the most important historically and the most familiar to present-day audiences - is occupied by the concertos.  In all there are around 480 works which can be so described.  The majority of them - 329 - are for solo instruments; 45 are for double instruments, and the remainder are a mixture of string orchestra concertos and those for other combinations of soloists.

Some of those combinations can be quite extraordinary.  The concerto ‘per la solennita di San Lorenzo’ - one of two written for that saint’s feast day - uses two oboes, two clarinets, two recorders, two violins, a bassoon - and a lute in the slow movement.  The solo and double concertos embrace most instruments of the baroque orchestra - violin, viola d’amore, cello, recorder, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and trumpet.  But the vast majority of the solo concertos - and indeed a significant part of Vivaldi’s entire output - are for the violin: around 220 have come down to us.

Of these, about a third were published in Vivaldi’s lifetime.  After the Op 8 set, came three more collections,  Those of Op 11 and Op 12, like those of Op 6 and Op 7, were probably put together by the publisher rather than the composer.  They are not works of the first order.  Most of them feel like pieces born of contractual obligations, not inner necessity, Vivaldi’s weekly concerto for the Pietà.

Happily the same could not be said about the Op 9 set.  It too bears a subtitle, perhaps indicating that the composer took the same trouble in collecting these works as he did with the other named sets.  Op 9 is called ‘La cetra’ - the lyre - and, aptly enough, a kind of Apollonian ease and mastery pervades the set.  The twelve works represent perhaps the furthest point of Vivaldi’s development in this form.

Not all are of the highest quality; but the last three concertos are as good as anything he wrote.  They are also interesting for the way in which they seem to reach out towards the future.  For example, the final movement of number 10 has a distinctly Rococo feel about it.  Even more striking are the levels of virtuosity demanded.  Rapid execution and extremely high notes are called for routinely - skills Vivaldi himself is known to have displayed to the admiration of his listeners.  Extended passages of arpeggiation across all the strings are also deployed to brilliant effect throughout.

Of the three, the last is the best.  The thematic material manages to be both distinctively melodic and yet highly integrated within the larger design of each movement.  The textures are unusually rich - thanks, in part, to the soloist’s scordatura, the retuning of the violin to allow important harmonies and figurations to be played on the resonant open strings.

But amidst all this wealth, there is one passage in the work which stands out, one which etches itself into the memory.  Towards the end of the first movement, the solo violin starts up one of those figures which are born of Vivaldi’s deep knowledge of the instrument.  It is a wide-ranging arpeggio with a tiny rhythmic kick at the end of each beat.  Its effect is quite hypnotic as the ear locks into its particular pattern which slowly shifts across the harmonies, supported by the steady quaver throb of unison violins and violas in the orchestra.

There is nothing remarkable in this: Vivaldi has used the same device with great success many times, and will use it again in the last movement of this same work.  But on this occasion something extraordinary happens: a melody emerges, a very still and wistful melody played by the first violins.  Supported by the soloist, this tiny line grows and grows, moving with the harmony as the arpeggios slowly shift.  It is one of the longest melodies Vivaldi ever wrote, and one of the most beautiful.  The moment is exquisite in its sense of total equipoise.

It is almost inescapable to regard passages such as these as personal statements.  Indeed, as Vivaldi developed the violin concerto, he seems to have stamped it with more and more of his personality.  Vivaldi was a considerable virtuoso of the violin, and these works delight in brilliant and idiomatic writing for the instrument such as only an accomplished player could produce, and such as the same player would relish to the full.  It is equally hard not to see the frequent adoption of a minor key in the slow movements of these concertos, together with the characteristic solo cantabile line supported by a very simple pattern of  orchestral chords, as further expression of Vivaldi’s deeper feelings.  They indicate a man of powerful emotions, mostly of a melancholy cast.  That they could only really find expression in this coded and covert manner probably goes some way to explaining their existence.

Yet today, listening to his music, it is not so much the man we tend to hear as his milieu.  For Vivaldi’s works seem to speak to us directly of Venice.  But trying to pin down in exactly what this Venetian quality resides leaves us floundering; it is hard enough defining the spirit of a place, still harder trying to translate it into another medium.

At the very least, the hints of an underlying sadness to Vivaldi’s music, especially in his slow movements, chime with many people’s experience of Venice.  There is something abidingly wistful about this city built on water, a city which was once the greatest maritime power in the West, and which now is struggling just to stay above the seas it once dominated.  The glories of its architecture serve only to remind us of what Venice has lost - both in terms of its empire, and the thousands of works of art which fill foreign museums.  And out of season, when the tourists have gone and the bitterly cold wind blows along the narrow lanes and canals, Venice can be one of the loneliest places on earth.  As you walk down those empty streets it is almost inevitable that it is one of Vivaldi’s bleak and forlorn slow movements that comes to mind.

In the end, as with all music, our response to Vivaldi remains a mystery.  But unlike many other composers, including lesser ones, the man, his life and his feelings remain mysteries too.  Insufficiently appreciated in his own lifetime, and soon forgotten after it - though the influence of his music continued - little was thought worth preserving in the way of letters or memoirs of the man.  His figure emerges only sporadically from the darkness which crowds in around the small, weak lamps of history.  When he does step forward, it is only into the half-light.

For example, of the few anecdotes which have come down to us, one stands out for its oddness, its surreal disjunction from the image of Vivaldi we construct from his ordered and often serene music.  Johann Georg Pisendel was a virtuoso violinist from Dresden who was a pupil and friend of Vivaldi.  Once they were walking in tile Piazza San Marco, when Vivaldi broke off their conversation and dragged the bemused Pisendel home.  There Vivaldi explained that he had seen city constables following them, and he questioned the younger man about anything he might have said or done to warrant these attentions.  Pisendel could think of nothing, so Vivaldi went to the authorities for an explanation, and discovered that they had mistaken Pisendel for someone resembling him.  The incident is so strange and pointless that the story is surely true.  It says much about the atmosphere of Vivaldi’s Venice, and gives us a disconcerting glimpse of the man behind the music.

Even our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Vivaldi’s death is frustratingly incomplete.  Often on the move following promises of lucrative commissions, Vivaldi left Venice for the last time in the first few months of 1740.  He then disappears from view until the summer of 1741, when he was in Vienna.  And it was there, in Mozart’s final resting place, that he died.  We still have the cathedral records which list the nugatory expenses of Vivaldi’s funeral.  It is easy to imagine some clerk entering the foreign-looking name of Vivaldi in his accounts book.  As these details show, like Mozart, Vivaldi was buried in a pauper’s grave.

This unexpected link between the two composers is more apt than it might appear.  Goldoni claimed that it was through his collaboration with Vivaldi that he first gained experience in writing comedies and intermezzi which were the forerunners of the Italian opera buffa, which in turn reached its culmination in Mozart’s great trilogy of works.  The case for Vivaldi’s direct influence on Mozart is perhaps less obvious.  It is based on two factors: on the leading role Vivaldi’s concertos, known throughout Europe, took in preparing the way for the Rococo and early Classical forms which led to the creation of the symphony and the symphonic style, and on his achievements in crystallising what we now regard as the key components of the Classical vocabulary.  Without both, Mozart’s music would have been very different.  A world without Vivaldi is a world without ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’, ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Cosí Fan Tutte’.

But Vivaldi is important not just as a forerunner, as one who prepares the way for even greater things.  As we now recognise, his body of music is one of the most consistently impressive of the middle Baroque period.  And as anyone who has been to the city will attest, by some mysterious alchemy it also provides us with one of the most enduring though intangible records of his - and our - Venice.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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