Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
Date of Composition: 1711, Duration: 9 minutes
Son of a St. Mark’s Cathedral violinist, Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was guided toward the priesthood from an early age. He entered a seminary in 1693 and ten years later was fully ordained. Already known for his extraordinary musical skills, he was hired in that same year as violin teacher for the nearby Ospedale della Pietá, a girls orphanage that also functioned as a music conservatory. The governors of the Pietá offered yearly contracts and Vivaldi, who seemed more than willing to step away from ecclesiastical life, worked at the institution off and on for more than thirty years. In 1716, he was named Maestro de Concerti (Director of Instruments).The school provided the perfect laboratory for Vivaldi’s creative experiments and many of his more than 600 sonatas and concertos were composed for his students to play.
Today Vivaldi’s Le quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) is certainly the composer’s most well-known and most often performed work, but it was his collection of concertos, the opus 3 L’estro armónico (Harmonious Inspiration), that first earned him an international reputation. The set of twelve concertos—four each featuring solo violin, violin duo, and violin quartet, all against a string ensemble with continuo (keyboard and bass instrument)—was published in 1711 by Amsterdam printer Etienne Roger. The entire collection was dedicated to Prince Ferdinando, heir to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The eleventh concerto in the group stands out as especially unique. The composition showcases a solo group of two violins and cello. While the second and third movements sound quintessentially Vivaldi, a haunting duet at the start introduces the two upper solo voices, followed by a response in the cello, creating a contrapuntal texture more akin to the style of J. S. Bach. In fact, the German composer, just twenty-six years old at the time of publication, was so taken with Vivaldi’s collection that he copied and arranged at least six of the concertos, including number 11, for keyboard. The success of opus 3 highlights Roger’s ability to market music across Western Europe, and the set saw twenty reprints, as well as publication in several other cities, keeping the music of Il Prete Rosso (the red priest) in front of orchestras for decades to come.
Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan
Antonio Vivaldi was the most important composer of the Italian Baroque period, although appreciation of that fact was slow in coming in later times. But during his lifetime he was celebrated all over Europe, and his compositions were highly influential—mostly notably on J. S. Bach. He wrote almost fifty operas, but is remembered now for his amazing fecundity in composing instrumental works. He wrote about five hundred concertos (not, as one unappreciative wag once said, “the same concerto five hundred times”). While many of them feature wind instruments, the majority of them are for strings, and are practically an early eighteenth-century compendium of almost every imaginative passage or technique that one could ask of them.
Vivaldi was ordained into the priesthood early on, and his probable red hair gave him the moniker, “the red priest.” He was a teacher on and off for most of his life at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (you can still see the building today, just down the quay from St. Mark’s Cathedral). The institution was basically a school for orphaned children or those born to the Venetian nobility… under awkward circumstances, shall we say? The school had very high musical standards, and the quality of its student orchestras was legendary. Vivaldi, however, was a great traveler, moving around Italy working for various patrons and taking up residencies here and there in opera houses. His publications swept Europe, and he was influential in establishing many conventions of eighteenth-century musical composition. His 1711 publication, L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was published in Amsterdam and contained twelve concertos. He was thirty-three at the time and the publication was a smash success.
The textbook orchestration for Italian concerto grosso usually contrasts a solo group of two violins and a ‘cello with a supporting string orchestra—with the usual harpsichord, of course. But in this collection Vivaldi employs a variety of forces—sometimes four, three, or one violin parts with the other instruments. No. 11 consists of the conventional solo group (two violins and a cello—the concertino) and the supporting string orchestra—also called the concerto grosso.
Here, we find the traditional three movements of a concerto—although the first movement has a short slow interlude in it. As one listens to each of the movements, the roadmap is fairly clear. The first movement opens with a section for the two solo violins, with no bass, followed by a section for the solo cello alone with the bass and harpsichord. Then—rather an exception—there’s a short slow section for everyone. There follows a fugue-like section for all, and then two alternations between the concertino (the three soloists) and the full orchestra. A short slow tag concludes it.
The second movement, traditionally the slow one, is a siciliano—the traditional Italian dance, with its characteristic dotted rhythm and swaying feeling. Here, Vivaldi’s term spiccato means—as it does in the first movement—more in the manner of separation, not the bouncing bowing to which it later came to refer. After a short section by the full orchestra, the two solo violins are featured like the first movement—with no bass. A short passage similar to the opening brings the final cadence.
The last movement has all of the varied elements of the first two movements, and more. The two solo violins again open alone, soon joined by all. After a featured passage by the solo cello, the rest of the movement is a delightful panoply of the apparently inexhaustible imagination of Vivaldi, for we hear one solo violin, two solo violins, solo cello, full orchestra, bass, no bass, and so on.
L’estro armonico was the composer’s first collection of printed concertos, and its impact was immense. It had no equal in its inspiration and as a model for other composers in the Baroque. Its imagination, technical prowess, and attractiveness make it easy to see why.
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023