Tag Archives: minor key

Domenica con Vivaldi: The Glowering Concerto

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 10 in C Minor
RV 196
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Unknown
Ensemble: Unknown (but definitely not “historically informed.”)

Few composers knew how to milk a minor key for such driving, at times downright sensual effects as Vivaldi, but this concerto stalks much more serious territory.  It begins so bluntly, so severely, that even the major harmonies that follow almost immediately after the introduction [about eight seconds into the following clip] fail to really lighten the mood or offer any contrast:

Violin solos are decorous but hew closely to the theme.  There’s a spontaneity and seamlessness  to those solos which, along with the storming main theme, keeps things brooding.  Vivaldi marks the first movement “Spiritoso,” which unlike “Allegro, Andante” or “Presto” doesn’t just indicate a tempo but a way to approach the music.  Whatever dark ideas are at play are meant to simply never let up.

Without the typical big finish or even a simple cadence, the soloist and the first movement just stop, mid phrase, and the central movement materializes with three notes from the strings and patches of  light between the shadows:

Those chiaroscuro progressions in turn become a reflecting pool for the soloist, who hangs some disturbing suspensions over even the sunnier harmonies [for example at 0:47 and 0:51 in the above clip].

The third movement proceeds with an inevitability and leanness which Jonathan Freeman-Attwood explained in terms of Vivaldi’s “economy of means.”  That concision reinforces both the underlying tension and Vivaldi’s moody choice of key.  Really elegant emotional blackmail here:

The contrast between the full orchestra and the lone soloist wasn’t a Vivaldian innovation, and there’s the usual ritornello form, modulations, jogging rhythm and violinistic displays we expect of Vivaldi, but the soloist’s questioning, at times desperate replies speak to a deeply personal integration between the composer’s instrumental technique and his operatic language.  Yet there’s no deus ex machina happy ending like in the stage works.  There is a concluding cadence but no sense of resolution; things just seem to stop, like an unpleasant conversation, or a very subtle attack.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Start with Enjoyment and Go from There

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 1 in B Flat Major
RV 383
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Simon Standage, violin
Ensemble: The English Concert, dir. Trevor Pinnock

This might be Vivaldi’s most fun concerto, perhaps one of the most simply enjoyable works he ever penned.  While the first work in his Opus 4 forecasts the unpredictable, extravagant displays hinted at in the set’s title, the first movement begins with an instantly memorable motor rhythm.  The opening ritornello, built off of a catchy repeated note answered by a jittery double-time phrase, predicts both the lighthearted themes of the Classical era and the booty-shaking riffs of the twenty-first century (voice it for a synthesizer, transpose it to a minor key and you might have a Lansdowne Street anthem):

The soloist [entering at 0:44 in the above clip] in turn has a ball, twisting out rapidly oscillating thirds in a taut ascending sequence, joined by a second soloist slicing away behind him.  Thanks in part to the continuously propulsive ground rhythm and subtly rising modulations, it all proceeds logically yet organically, through a total deconstruction of the theme [at 1:18] and then a seemingly inevitable minor key episode [at 1:32].  Vivaldi neither invented or even perfected these  devices, yet they transpire so effortlessly that musical technique becomes simple, timeless “good music.”

And then, a lullaby in triple meter: the second movement [at 3:10] is flowing, melodic and open to as much or as little ornamentation as the soloist desires: it works just as well as an understated respite between the fire of the outer movements, or a busily decorated bridge between them.  Depending on the listener’s interpretation, its lyricism and brevity are either an elegant contrast, or a tease.

Oddly enough, the final movement [5:27] of the first concerto in an entire set of solo violin concertos is devoted to the chop and chug of the orchestra.  The first violins harp on a descending second, as though mocking the first movement, and proceed to hog all of the attention until a brief flash of pyrotechnics from the soloist towards the end [6:59].  Vivaldi knew exactly what he was doing: the sudden contrast of instrumental texture, of a lithe soloist against orchestral brawn, makes the concluding ensemble flourish an anti-climax.  The movement ends and the rest of Opus 4 begins with curiosity as to what else Vivaldi has in mind for his protagonist.

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