Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.
Opus 4, La Stravaganza: Violin Concerto #1 in B flat Major
Solo Instrument: Violin
Vivaldi cut right to the chase when he titled his Opus 4 “La Stravaganza.” Literally “eccentricity” or “extravagance,” the technical demands, harmonic audacity and sheer rhythmic cojones of this collection of concertos for solo violin and orchestra stood the contemporary musical establishment on its head. Think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but for violinists and composers of the eighteenth century.
Vivaldi also cut right to the chase when introducing his artistic credo on this set. The first of these twelve works opens with a deceptively simple ritornello, built off of infectiously catchy repeated notes:
As a composer, Vivaldi is known for consolidating and popularizing the three movement, fast-slow-fast, single soloist concerto form. Yet as a crowd-pleasing performer, he internalized the age-old concept of “Give ‘em plenty o’rhythm, baby!”
The soloist sprints into the picture with an incisively oscillating figure, which Vivaldi spins into an ascending sequence. This combination of repetition and rise amps up the energy further through playful exchanges between violin and orchestra, with the opening theme rematerializing like the chorus of a good pop song.
The second movement takes things down a notch with a warm, flowing rhapsody that dips dramatically into the minor key:
Venice was an opera hotbed (though by Vivaldi’s time it was fast becoming supplanted by Naples), and Vivaldi’s slow movements cast the vocalisms that the public craved in Vivaldi’s tense, yearning musical language. Like many of Vivaldi’s slow arie without words, this movement also leaves room for interpretation and improvisation by the soloist; this was music for a live performer, not a textbook or an archive.
Vivaldi’s rowdy concerto draws to a close with a bit of flame throwing from the soloist, yet the third movement mostly concentrates on a stomping orchestral melody marked by sudden octave ascents in the violins:
It also whets the listener’s appetite for more of the innovations and nuances that Opus 4 has to offer, such as the seductive textures of the second concerto, the earnest country gigue of the fifth concerto or the chromatic meandering of the eighth concerto, which can barely accommodate the tripartite form Vivaldi himself clung to. As far as introductions go, the first concerto of Opus 4 is a succinct statement of things to come, as well as thing that will never be the same.