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.
Violin Concerto in E, “La Primavera (Spring)”
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus Eight
Covering each of Vivaldi’s concertos, eventually this blog had to get to his Opus Eight and its opening work, even if most of the world has been there and done it several times over.
The forty-seven year old violinist/composer/impresario/educator was well known in his native Venice and throughout Europe by the time Opus Eight was published. Subtitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” it featured more of the rhythmic, harmonic and technical feats that had secured Vivaldi’s fame, but the first four works in the set were an event unto themselves. Each one set to a poem written by the composer and named for a different season, they remain extraordinary examples of Vivaldi’s gift for programmatic music. Yet he couldn’t have possibly known that the first concerto would grant him immortality:
People who love classical music know it. People who hate classical music know it. Between the Mozart effect and Baby’s First Classical Album, many unborn children probably know it. It’s been recorded and performed countless times, with interpretations that would have surprised and even baffled its composer. Movie and television scores keep coming back to it. For listeners who don’t hear its chirping birds or soft breezes, it still signifies elegance and refinement. Out of hundreds of other concertos, Vivaldi’s “Spring” concerto can seem like his only concerto.
Its popularity is largely due to symbolism rather than sound. Vivaldi has always been known for representational music, but unlike his “Storm at Sea,” “Slumber” and other programmatic works, “Spring” alludes to guaranteed crowd pleasers such as warmth, rebirth and love. Vivaldi paints those sensations with music that’s bright, rhythmic and compact. It’s easy to imagine Beethoven or Brahms channeling spring, but not with Vivaldi’s delivery.
That easy flow, combined with Vivaldi’s sense of symmetry and clarity, makes “Spring” as likely to accompany a joyous but peaceful celebration or fancy affair as the season itself. Its sense of deliberate calm may have been a calculated move by Vivaldi. ”Spring” is the most relaxed of Vivaldi’s four seasons: “Summer” closes with a nasty storm, “Autumn” with a hunt and “Winter” is bookended by ice raining down from above and then cracking underfoot. Aside from a barking dog and some drunken escapades, “Spring” is comparatively drama-free. Given all these associations, it’s no surprise it’s become a perennial favorite.
Unfortunately this bright, airy work has been weighed down by its own popularity. If the issue were just the sheer glut of recordings that continues to grow every year, only classical listeners would be sick of it. Yet chances are anyone who’s been on hold with their HMO or attended a wedding might be a little too familiar with “Spring.” Its hummable themes and trot can seem a little too cozy, eliciting few surprises and maybe sounding too comfortable, even twee (with overly mannered interpretations of the material doing more harm than good). After a few centuries and too many commercials, “Spring” can seem like a satire of itself. Meanwhile, the notes are still there, even if they’ve been put to service for a thousand other things besides music.
Which is why hearing just the music might be the freshest approach possible. Rather than scene painting, cultural capital or an antique, maybe it’s time to listen to “Spring” strictly as an aesthetic experience, with the sounds of the music referencing nothing else than the notes on the violinists’ fingerboards. For example, instead of imagining a chirping bird or some Arcadian stereotype, listen to a soloist skimming over the upper register and creating virtuosic lines from the orchestra’s chords:
Even that well-known melody begins to seem ingenious, the repeated notes literally jamming themselves into the audience’s memory. The central Largo in turn becomes an experiment with string sonority, as the soloist plays within and against the first and second violins’ glaze while a viola punctuates underneath:
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The absence of a bass, combined with the viola securing the lowest part, adds a suspended feel to the whole movement. That’s one subjective impression, but it’s a listener-derived impression rather than one ironed out in long in advance. Sticking to just the notes is also a good way to approach the familiar dance tropes of the third and final movement [at 6:19 in this clip]:
Vivaldi was definitely referencing dance. Yet what occasion or which dancer is inconsequential. Dance is music, and an inspiration for thousands of other works by Vivaldi and many other composers. It’s just pure dance, allowing for pure music, no titles or sonnets needed.
Vivaldi was always known for music that sounds like things, but as Maynard Solomon writes, “we all feel the impulse to remove the river from Smetana’s ‘Moldau,’ the hero from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica‘ or the ‘Jupiter‘ from Mozart’s symphony, so that we may respond openly and without limitation.” It might be helpful to stop listening to “Spring” and hear the Violin Concerto in E, Concerto One from Opus Eight.