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.
Forgetting my surroundings the other evening as I listened to a violinist just plain own a concerto, I came dangerously close to committing a major faux pas at a classical venue: clapping.
In classical music, clapping is only authorized at the close of an entire piece or, on the rarest occasions, between movements, so showing my appreciation right after an especially burning solo section would have been out of line. After all, this wasn’t any of a thousand varieties of performance where audiences respectfully but passionately interact with the music, this was a classical concert.
There’s plenty of historical and anecdotal evidence to tell us that conventions weren’t always so rigid, yet the third movement of Opus 4, Number 4 shows us one ritornello at a time:
Every time the opening ensemble phrase pops up, it’s answered by fast and furious displays from the soloist. The second solo includes [at about 1:05] a particularly angular, intricate sequence, the type of thing a listener might applaud. By this point the ritornello is so familiar that if it gets drowned out by applause (not unlike the opening bars of one jazz soloist following another at a club), the audience won’t miss much. Vivaldi is often criticized for being repetitive, but that criticism not only forgets the power of repetition, it assumes that the composer was looking to hold his audience in rapt attention at all times.
Vivaldi did understand the value and art of building bridges with listeners. The first movement of this concerto invites the audience in with a simple but infectious hook based on a descending fifth:
The soloist teases the brawny, ominous orchestra at every turn, till by the second movement [heard at 3:02 in the last clip or at the start of the following clip] the continuo drops out and the orchestra changes from dark pursuer to bright, searing accompanist:
The soloist in turn shines with one of Vivaldi’s haunting rhapsodies. The spare accompaniment allows even the slightest ornaments to Vivaldi’s line to be heard. Yet few of Vivaldi’s slow, endlessly unfolding central movements are singable or even memorable: it’s as though the composer was looking to keep the listener forever “in the moment.”
There’s no room to clap during this movement, even if one felt this type of emotional moment warranted such a reaction, yet it’s seems unlikely that audiences hearing this music as music (rather than history, culture or background) sat there quietly when the music stopped and the orchestra turned the page to the next movement. Vivaldi knew his audience and was looking to engage and impress them, not just hold them in monastic stasis.