Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Case of Vivaldi

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 with a little introduction:

(I like the modesty that leads Elaine to tell us all about who built her harpsichord and all about Bach, but neglects to mention her last name!)

Here is the first movement of 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:

And finally:

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:

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.


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