Domenica con Vivaldi: The Fine Cliché of Art

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.

Concerto Number 3 in G Major
RV 301
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Rachel Podger
Ensemble: Arte dei Suonatori

It’s hard to argue with Jonathan Freeman-Attwood’s assessment of the third concerto in Vivaldi’s Opus 4. Cataloging the expressiveness and intricacies of each of the other twelve concertos in his liner notes to Rachel Podger and Arte de Suonatori’s recording, he describes RV301 as bit of a letdown:

A more conservative approach lies at the heart of the stock arpeggios and unisons of Concerto no. 3 in G major, where the violin solos, harmless affairs though they be, rely too heavily on cliché…There can be no doubt that both a bland ritornello and an uninflected harmonic palette can make Vivaldi a dull boy.

So what’s a listener left to do with all those “stock” figures set to a static chord progression?  With the right performers, enjoy their sheer energy, and maybe chuckle at the thought of Vivaldi phoning his commission in with something fun, zippy and guaranteed not to make it into any treatises on composition:

Harmonically, those violins thumping away behind the soloist aren’t doing anything special. They’re just big booming Baroque power chords, ultimately forgettable but for the moment as catchy as a good Anvil Chorus. As for those “bland” ritornellos, the soloist herself isn’t as harsh in her description:

Vivaldi also uses very simple tools by, for instance, making the tune leap across the two violin parts: there is an ascending triadic figure which goes to-and-fro between the fiddles [she’s referring to the section at 1:59 in this clip] as a variation on a similar tune heard earlier in a single part within the orchestra.

Sometimes it’s just about a good “tune.”

The “harmless” violin solos may be intended to simply entertain rather than to challenge. Violinists frequently toss out effects that sound tricky but are easy to play. If the dizzying patterns of this concerto [check out the sequence at 1:10!] fall upon the soloist’s fingers and the audience’s ears easily, according to Professor Freeman-Attwood there’s at least eleven (maybe ten) other concertos in this set offering more sophisticated material.

He does cite the second movement [starting at 2:47] as another example of Vivaldi’s ability to “disarm the critic with slow movements of expressive beauty.” The third movement [at 5:18], leaping along innocently like a grasshopper in the field before getting stepped on by a few sterner harmonic clashes, isn’t mentioned. That’s actually quite unfortunate. It’s important to know understand all of the “clichés” and conventions in a work of art: that way you can forget about them and listen to some good music.

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