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.
Ever heard the following?
Yes, that one.
The “Four Seasons,” and especially the first movement of the “Spring” concerto, have proven pretty popular even beyond ‘the’ classical music crowd. It’s not surprising, since Vivaldi provides such evocative tone poems for frigid “Winter,” arid “Summer,” cozy “Autumn” and of course warm joyous “Spring.” Vivaldi’s tour keeps on keeping on, with a slew of performances, recordings, revisits and reinterpretations that makes David Vernier’s comparison with The Fantasticks’ record-shattering 17,162 shows seem like merely a mild exaggeration.
What about this one?
RV178 doesn’t have the same descriptive thrust or thematic variety of those “other” concertos. The first movement is perhaps the most compelling, starting out with a metrical, oh-so-serious dotted figure, then (about eleven seconds into the above clip) wailing through a series of descending high notes, as though laughing, crying or otherwise dismissing the opening motif. The solo violin enters more cautiously, but by its second appearance (about 1:20) struts more securely. The second movement (starting at 3:17), orchestrated for just violin and continuo, works off a short bit of melodrama, allowing the soloist to ornament as conservatively or as freely as they desire, and the final “Allegro” (at 6:58) provides a suitably energetic ride out.
At first, RV178 might not warrant the same attention as Vivaldi’s “other” concertos. It’s in the plain Jane key of C major (no sharps, no flats, and the first key most musicians learn), and there’s not even a programmatic title to go with it like “Autumn” or “The Hunt.” It’s just another tuneful, vibrant and rhythmic ditty from the composer who boasted that he could write concertos faster than copyists could duplicate them.
RV178 actually comes from the set of twelve violin concertos published as Vivaldi’s Opus 8 and subtitled “The Contest between Harmony and Invention.” Rather than treating the title as some clever eighteenth century marketing, it might help to view it as a choice for both the performer and the audience: do we want to go with what sounds pretty and goes with the flow, or make something more? Vivaldi’s untitled, purely musical concerto is a blank slate, waiting for interpretation.
Stravinsky famously quipped that Vivaldi simply wrote the same concerto over and over again, but the great composer, critic and musical philosopher also pointed out that the most intimidating aspect of composition is the blank page in front of him. In other words, RV178 may be more of a challenge that it lets on.
Incidentally, among other dynamic concertos with titles such as “The Hunt,” “Pleasure,” and “The Storm at Sea” included in Opus 8, the set also includes four concertos named after each of the four seasons, as well as five untitled, supposedly “non-programmatic” concertos, including RV178.