Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Case of Vivaldi

UPDATE: This post has been particularly hit with a bad case of link-rot, so I am replacing all the original musical clips with new ones.

Following on the last post, another well-known music joke concerns Vivaldi and goes like this: Vivaldi didn't really write five hundred concertos, he wrote the same concerto five hundred times! Bada-bing!

Antonio Vivaldi really is one of the most important Baroque composers. His career was fascinating. For thirty years his principal employment was as music instructor in the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an orphanage supported by the state. Vivaldi taught violin and wrote music for both sacred and secular occasions. The boys had to leave the orphanage at 15, but the girls could stay and received a fine musical education. Under Vivaldi's instruction and performing his music the instrumental and choral ensembles became famous throughout Europe.


Yes, Vivaldi really did write more than 500 concertos for his students: 230 for violin, others being for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d'amore, recorder, lute, or mandolin. About 40 are for two instruments and strings, and about 30 are for three or more instruments and strings. I have played on a few occasions the Concerto in D major for mandolin, known most of all in its version for guitar.

Vivaldi was much-appreciated by Bach who copied and transcribed several of his concertos. Vivaldi brought to the table a rhythmic vivacity and harmonic clarity that Bach absorbed and added to the blend of French dance genres and ornamentation and German counterpoint in his summation of Baroque style. Without Vivaldi's influence, Bach's music might have much less impact than it does. Two pieces by Bach that show this particularly strongly are the Italian Concerto for harpsichord and the prelude to the Partita no. 3 in E major for violin. Here is the first movement of the Italian Concerto on harpsichord:



Here is a violin concerto by Vivaldi from a particularly influential collection the L'estro Armonico of 1711.


There certainly are a lot of familiar sequences there. An harmonic sequence is one of the most useful and frequently used devices of the Baroque and Classical periods. The basic idea is to take a brief harmonic pattern and repeat it two or three more times at a different level. It provides both unity and impetus. Here is another first movement from L'estro Armonico.



Here is another concerto for two violins:



And finally one for four violins:


Well, it is obviously not true that he wrote the same concerto five hundred times. But the grain of truth in the joke is that he used much the same harmonic, rhythmic and melodic devices in all his concertos. Now let's hear one of Bach's violin concertos. This is the Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042 with Gidon Kremer and the Academy of St. Martins:


There is a lot more depth and interest to the harmony. Things are not nearly so predictable. The thing is that Bach does Vivaldi better than Vivaldi did.

15 comments:

Nathan Shirley said...

>>>"Bach does Vivaldi better than Vivaldi did"

I disagree. I think Stravinsky's famous quote is unfortunate because it feed so many Vivaldi haters.

Sure, Bach is one of the supreme composers, his counterpoint was untouchable. His musical forms and stylistic variety are certainly much broader than Vivaldi's. But if you really want to compare the two, Vivaldi's sense of melody is more consistently superior. Even his sense of harmony I might argue was more consistently inspired (even if less complex and evolving). This isn't to say that Bach doesn't have a plethora of compositions that exhibit harmonies and melodies equal to just about anything... but if we are really to split hairs, this is what my ear tells me. (But please don't make me choose one over the other, I couldn't live without both!).

Also, it might be argued (I won't argue it here!) that Vivaldi had more influence on the history of music than Bach. Vivaldi's style lead the way to the Classical period, not so much Bach.

So more simplistic overall sure, but I'll never be convinced Bach does Vivaldi better than Vivaldi.

It's the same when people criticize Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Complexity does not equal superiority. Beauty is far more elusive, even more complex in a deeper sense.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, is that a Stravinsky quote? I thought it was original to me! Heh.

Thanks for your argument in favor of Vivaldi. He does have a great melodic gift and he taught Bach harmonic clarity. We definitely need both!

As for beauty and simplicity, I couldn't agree more.

Nathan Shirley said...

Ha, I guess I didn't put that sentence together very well! Yeah that one was your quote, but I was trying to refer to this one-

"Vivaldi didn't really write five hundred concertos, he wrote the same concerto five hundred times!"

Which I've heard attributed to Stravinsky (although he's been known to steal phrases... even non-musical ones!).

Bryan Townsend said...

And it was Stravinsky that said that composers don't borrow--they steal!

Nathan Shirley said...

Right, and Stravinsky stole it from Picasso (substitute artists for composers), who likely stole it from someone else.

Anonymous said...

Vivaldi undoubtedly, is melancholy bach, vivaldi is more joyful and triumphant, bach is sad, even in his works in allegro bach adds a touch of melancholy. Vivaldi is much more harmonious and creative, even in its sad and melancholic music vivaldi consege be cheerful. Many people prefer bach because his music was disseminated by his sons and Mozart, and the music was not hidden. Vivaldi's music fell into darkness for centuries so it does not make people's minds. Even Handel has a style nfluenciado by English Baroque (somewhat hideous and dark) can be gayer than J. S. Bach.
The music of Bach and also to his picture: while this seems to be smiling the sad seriously.
Vivaldi and Bach have one thing in common composes for God!!

Walter Diurno said...

I know it's an old post, nonetheless I just want to add few lines of comment. The more I listen, study and play Vivaldi, the more I dissent from Stravinsky (maybe he had a bad day or as it often happens with Igor, he forgets or deny what he has said).

I think Vivaldi is the real hearth of Baroque projected to the future of the music up to present days. Bach only occasionally can attract the distract listener of today while Vivaldi has a power that attracts the attention at the first notes. Melodic clarity and hearth throbbing harmony and bass lines (I play the double bass) give to the listener a sense of familiarity, emotion, and suspension. You can't just shut it down, you'll keep listening until the end. People understand that is old music, but it is still very much alive. Bach, even with the immense and great production sometimes it sounds dead, old and dusty, And often when it is not so "boring" it is because it sounds just like Vivaldi.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Walter. I think that even Bach might agree with you as he was an admirer of Vivaldi to the point that he copied out a lot of scores and recomposed some music by Vivaldi for his own use.

I might do a serious re-evaluation of Vivaldi myself one of these days. I am always revising my thoughts, opinions and judgements about specific music and composers.

Yara Morais said...

Nathan, your defense is just perfect! I deeply love Vivaldi's compositions due to the passion, the movement, the italian soul full of beauty and joy. Although I really appreciate Bach too, I will never agree that Bach does Better Vivaldi

Joseph Emo K. said...

I am a massive Vivaldi fan. To say that he is 'overrated' and 'dull' (words of Stravinsky) is disrespectful to Vivaldi and the Baroque Music History. Vivaldi had a big part to play in Baroque Music. He's a genius, in my opinion. 'Il Gardellino' is undoubtedly one of my favourite concertos, and particularly the 2nd movement hooks me in deeper, as the harmony is so simple yet explicit. No arguing with Four Seasons - 4 of the best concertos I've heard!

Bryan Townsend said...

You're a bit late to the party, Joseph, but thanks anyway. This six-year-old post keeps attracting Vivaldi lovers who leave comments disagreeing with me. Bear in mind that it is possible that occasionally I put up a post designed to spark controversy.

Tom Kent said...

To me, as modern experimental composer, Vivaldi is an idol, an inspiration. He takes risks. He innovates. He experiments; sometimes he fails. He's extremely varied. It is we who slip into the rut of repeating well-known works and neglecting many others. In his Concerto for viola d'amore, lute, strings and basso continuo RV540, for example, Vivaldi seems to me to experiment with the Eastern influences that are there in Vienna. Another concerto (I don't recall the number) has something like a harmonic drone, slow changes that could almost pass for 20thC experimentation.

And yet Vivaldi was a huge pop star, a celebrity like Glass or Nyman. His audience was fairly sophisticated and well-trained as listeners, much more ready than today's audiences,but above all, Vivaldi had the facility for inventing lovely melodies.


I can't find anything on influence on Mozart, whether it was direct - through the study of scores - or indirect, through the broad river of classical music development. It seems to me, listening to some earlier Mozart pieces, that it was direct. Mozart was born 78 years after Vivaldi. He was in Vienna` fifty years after Vivaldi. His dad Leopold Mozart was not around during the craze for Vivaldi, but he was a teenager studying music when Vivaldi was a very prominent opera composer. Leopold was a prominent violinist; Vivaldi was one of the greatest violinists in Europe and wrote over 250 violin concertos. CPE Bach probably heard his father talk excitedly about Vivaldi and may have inherited manuscripts. There would be old men in Vienna who had met Vivaldi. Baron van Swieten collected old scores and shared them with Mozart. Although Mozart was much inspired by Bach and Handel, there could have been Vivaldi sores as well. It seems to me a reasonable conclusion that Mozart studied at least a few Vivaldi scores at different points in his life.

Vivaldi isn't as great as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. He is in the next group down, where there are forty or thirty souls, still called great. Among that group, Vivaldi would be one of the most prominent.

Bryan Townsend said...

Tom, I can't find a single thing to disagree with in your comment! Thanks so much for taking the time. Your speculation about some influence, whether direct or indirect, of Vivaldi on Mozart is intriguing. And yes, it is we who keep flogging the same small number of pieces over and over again.

Unknown said...

love seeing how long this thread has been going haha, im 31 and a huge fan of vivaldi. The red priest is just about the only composer i can enjoy, satie being the only other. I find Antonio's music to be exciting and fast paced, i actually work out to it which confuses my gf to no end lol. Ive listened extensively to all the great composers and musicians and Vivaldi is, by far, the only one I'll always listen to. He also seems to be getting more and more popular, not had for a guy who died 300 years ago.

Bryan Townsend said...

If you are 31 now, then this thread started when you were 24!

I can certainly appreciate someone who can only listen to Vivaldi and Satie--you are a particular kind of esthete. As time goes on you might find your tastes shifting and you might wake up one day to find yourself listening to Gesualdo and Bartók. You never know!