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.
One of the most frequent criticisms (or in the case of more erudite ears, jokes) leveled at Vivaldi is his reliance on sequences. A sequence is essentially a repeated theme played at a different pitch each time. It uses the same motif, with the same rhythm and same distance between notes, just starting on a higher or lower note with each repetition. For example, if you play E, D, C, D, E, E, E on the piano, then move it up by one note to play F, E, D, E, F, F, F and then keep moving that first note up (to G, then A, etc.) while keeping the same motion of notes, congratulations, you’ve just built on a tuneful, climactic sequence on “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
Saying that Vivaldi liked sequences is like saying that poets enjoy rhyme. Sequences are everywhere in Vivaldi’s music. The first movement of this concerto is almost entirely composed of sequences, yet somehow repetition never gets repetitive. Each sequence builds upon the last, even when they’re not using the same theme, culminating in a well-structured, elegant yet damn rhythmic exploration of musical symmetry (just click below to listen):
The infective, almost childishly stomping theme seems more like a parade of toys than an imperial procession. It struts its stuff proudly but not pompously, what little “stuff” there is. Listeners can hear when and how often themes get repeated, but there’s not much thematic variety, and the soloist relies on a catchy but modest bag of tricks. The overall impression is of raindrops hitting water, with all the ripples eventually folding in upon one another while never breaking each others’ lines.
Vivaldi’s concerto also keeps our attention even if we’re just listening to drops on the lake. It’s not the rapt intellectual attention of a Mahler symphony or “Chasin’ the Trane,” but more like a funk soloist keeping the crowd hooked with simple, trance-inducing riffs that keeps ears and hips going without taxing any brains. Part of this effect also has to do with the violinist adding textural and inflective variety, an understanding that musical repetition is an invitation for creativity and contrast, rather than slavish consistency.
Sequences are the closest thing music can get to rhyme. When we hear a sequence we sense the simultaneity of difference and similarity, how phrases sound alike even as they’re diffracted through a harmonic prism. The same thing happens when a person notices rhyme in a poem or a song, not just the way that “see” and “thee” couple to make a larger impression (even though the words may be a whole line a part), but the sheer aural sense of play, the vowels teasingly similar except for those tricky consonants making all the difference. Vivaldi liked sequences the same way poets liked rhyme; does that make Vivaldi poetic, or does that mean poets are unoriginal?