Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Concerto Guide: Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins

As Vivaldi is probably the most prolific composer of concertos in music history, with 500 to his credit, I want to look at one more of his before moving on. This concerto, written for four violins and small orchestra, was also one admired by J. S. Bach, who did an arrangement of it for four harpsichords and orchestra. Here is the original by Vivaldi in a spirited performance by Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini, director:



Apart from the four soloists, the orchestra itself consists of only nine or ten members in this performance. Here is the first page of the score:

In the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin quotes a very different looking score, with many more parts, most of which duplicate other parts. As he doesn't cite a source for his score, I'm not sure why it is laid out the way it is. The one I excerpt from above is found in the Bach Complete Edition, published in 1894. A couple of unhistorical details to note. This music, first published in Amsterdam in 1711, was not published in score as we see above. Instead, it was published as a set of partbooks, i.e. one folio for each instrument. It was hugely popular and Bach undoubtedly obtained a copy. Another unhistorical detail in the performance I posted above: performances in the early 18th century would likely NOT have had a conductor. If Vivaldi were performing the concerto with his students, it is likely that he himself would have conducted while playing the first violin part as well. The "modern" tradition of having a non-playing conductor stand in front, directing every beat, comes later. It was Beethoven, conducting his own symphonies and Berlioz a bit later, who began the tradition of the virtuoso conductor.

Here is the beginning of the arrangement by Bach:


As you can see, apart from changing the key from B minor to A minor and filling in some bass lines, Bach keeps fairly close to the original. Here is a performance of the Bach arrangement. I would have liked one with video, but all that I could find were amateur performances.


One of the interesting things about this concerto, apart from its effervescent energy, is the "four soloists" who are an ensemble in themselves. This kind of concerto, very popular in the early years, is called a concerto grosso. It was soon to be largely replaced by the truly solo concerto, with only one solo instrument. But occasional examples are found later on such as a couple of piano concertos by Mozart for more than one piano, the triple concerto of Beethoven for violin, cello and piano and the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello. Examples in the 20th century are even more rare--apart from the quite different idea of the "concerto for orchestra" the example that comes first to mind is the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, op. 35 by Shostakovich, but that was likely inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso.

8 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

I always liked the idea of Concerto Grosso more than concertos for one solo instrument. I think there are great combinations to be explored. Why do you think concertos for one solo instrument became much more popular as time went one?

Bryan Townsend said...

There could be a lot of reasons for that, but one that appeals to me is kind of sociological. The concerto grosso was popular at a time when the structure of society was aristocratic. In most places there was a king, nobility and the common people. The concerto grosso reflects the relationship between the common people and the aristocracy: the many and the few (ignoring the role of the king who did not loom large in most people's lives). The solo instrument versus the orchestra was more a metaphor for the individual and society at large. It suited well the Romantic cult of the individual, pitted against circumstance and society. But there is a connection as well, as society itself is nothing but a collection of individuals, just as the orchestra is made up of individual instruments. In any case, the listener, in the solo concerto, identifies with the triumph of the soloist, just as it was the common man that was freed in the democratic revolutions of the late 18th century.

Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting. I was thinking maybe there was some more practical explanation such as that it's harder to write for more than one solo instrument or that it's harder to get more than one soloist to perform. But whether it's harder or not to write a concerto grosso depends on the circumstances I suppose. The issue of finding more than one soloist is probably troublesome for a non-famous (as in not Philip Glass famous) composer nowadays though.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I'm sure that there are practical considerations as well. Here are some:

--composers often wrote concertos as vehicles for themselves: the Mozart piano and violin concertos, the Beethoven piano concertos
--the economics of the business militate against multiple soloists. Most orchestras will hire only one soloist for a concert
--there are few groups of soloists who are ready to perform pieces like the Brahms double concerto, which would require a lot of extra rehearsal time
--concertos are commissioned by single soloists for their own use

Rickard Dahl said...

Good points. One thing I've noticed a while ago: Orchestras tend to hire soloists from outside despite probably having plenty of great players who could probably do soloist job, this is especially true for the string section (considering the huge amount of players in that section). I wonder why they do that.

Rickard Dahl said...

Although, I suppose one of the reason is that soloists are more familiar with the soloist lines as they probably played as soloist in a piece several times. Thus it saves time to pick someone who has experience with the soloist part.

Bryan Townsend said...

While orchestral players, particularly principal ones, are often up to the demands of a concerto, this is not the usual practice. The outside soloist is hired instead for a number of reasons. A soloist like Hilary Hahn is going to bring to a piece like the Beethoven violin concerto a depth of technical command and profundity of expression that she has spent her life honing. The concert master of the orchestra--any orchestra--is not going to have the same quality because he or she does not play concertos as a primary activity and probably does not play at the same level (who does?). The other reason is that orchestras hire famous soloists in order to sell more tickets.

Rickard Dahl said...

Good points. Maybe in the case of a non-established composer it would be better to let a orchestra member play the solo part and actually get a performance of the piece somewhat easier.