Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Domenica con Vivaldi: The Rhyming 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 No. 2 in E flat
RV 259
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 6
Soloist: Federico Guglielmo
Ensemble: Arte del Arco

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):

Concerto No.2 in E flat, RV259, I. Allegro

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?

To hear the concerto in its entirety, including Vivaldi’s beautifully mysterious Largo and the energetic final movement, click here and here.

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My Latest Article on All About Jazz: Turn Up Those Footnotes!

History is really good at cherry-picking the most innovative voices for our libraries and record shelves, but often leaves out other original voices.  Here’s my profile on All About Jazz of just two of those voices in the world of jazz: Jabbo Smith and Charlie Johnson.  They never inspired an omnibook or memorial concert, but they still make for some incredible listening.

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Too Much of a Great Thing

“You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.”Cab Calloway

Alicia Anstead‘s review of Neighbors in “The Huffington Post” might well be a sneak peek into “greatness,” even if the play hasn’t been scoring rave reviews from all channels.  The play asks a lot of big, uncomfortable questions that are much larger than story, acting, sets and costumes.  “Great art” is usually what gets people talking, and it looks like Neighbors is off to a good start.

Great art, by defintion, is literally overrated: it’s discussed, critiqued, evaluated, imitated and even shunned or deflated more than other works. If Michelangelo and Pontormo were up in heaven betting on who has more admirers, detractors, journal articles, textbook references or snooty mentions at cocktail parties, it wouldn’t be hard to guess who’s buying drinks. Boccherini and Marlowe would probably end up with the tab for Mozart and Shakespeare.  Whether great art gets all that attention because it is intrinsically great, or whether the attention makes it “great,” either way it is characterized by making waves.

What about a play that  just tells a good story, or music that has a beautiful melody, solid structure and well, not much else?  They tend not to generate much chatter.  Yet the mere existence of art is a blessing, and an artist doing something well?  That’s a miracle, even if there’s more amazing miracles out there still (When a friend of mine in college who majored in composition once told me that Italian composers were “all melody,” I replied, “now I see why you never bother writing those things!”). 

So, how about all of those artists out there who are “good, but no Shakespeare/Michelangelo/Mozart?”  History is littered with those characters, a silent majority overpowered by a brilliant, stirring but admittedly overplayed majority.  Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, filled with the master’s glorious melody, ingenious counterpoint and sweeping emotion, is not exactly starving for attention. However Telemann’s setting of that text, despite having its own merits, still committed the historical crime of never bringing an audience to its knees and failing to impress my theory major friends.  Fast forwarding a few centuries and several thousand miles, jazz scholars and journalists have cherry-picked a convenient short list of musicians for us, out of perhaps hundreds of gigging, recorded musicians in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans and across the USA.   This is backed up by  books and lectures to explain how Joe Smith, Miff Mole, Buster Bailey and Don Murray were skilled, passionate players who still never approached the emotional breadth or innovations of Louis Armstrong.  Eventually you get a steady diet of wheat, without ever finding out if chaff is really that different. 

If centuries from now, drama scholars and theater patrons are still praising and debating the merits of Neighbors, hopefully they’ll also make room for the plays that are entertaining or moving without turning our social values on their heads. We might not know what great art is, but we experience what it does because we talk about it so much more than works that are..inferior? Average? Merely beautiful, or good?  From the looks of it, they’re not “bad” but they’re not “great,” much like zombies are not alive but clearly not dead.

Taking a cue from one truly great artist, here’s to all the “ungreat” out there waiting for us.

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