Thursday, March 31, 2011


From about 1750 on, after Vivaldi’s death, Italian composers primarily produced opera. However, for about the hundred years before 1750, Italy had been prolific in the production of music for the violin, the instrument that comes nearest in sound to the human voice. By Vivaldi’s time, the music of his most distinguished predecessor, Arcangelo Corelli, who died in 1713, was starting to seem old-fashioned. Corelli also wrote concerti grossi, but Corelli did little to differentiate the music played by the full orchestra from the music of the soloists. Vivaldi provided contrast between the two.

Vivaldi's concertos provided a model for the genre for composers throughout Europe. He established the standard three-movement format, in which a slow movement appears between two fast outer movements. He was the first composer who consistently used the ritornello (refrain) form that became standard for the fast movements of concertos. The ritornello is a musical theme played by the full orchestra that recurs in different keys throughout the movement. It alternates with passages dominated by the soloist, who introduces new, often virtuosic music. Vivaldi was among the first to introduce cadenzas—passages of extraordinary technical virtuosity—for soloists.

Vivaldi’s Opus 8 concertos entitled The Four Seasons are early examples of orchestral program music—music that describes a nonmusical idea. Each of the four concertos for strings and solo violin in The Four Seasons musically represents a different season of the year. Vivaldi published poems that describe the activities and moods represented by the music. Like much of his music, these concertos are marked by vigorous rhythms and strong contrasts.

L’estro harmonico (The Harmonic Whim), a collection of 12 concertos by Vivaldi for from one to four violins, was published in 1711 and proved highly influential, especially in Germany where it was studied by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach during his formative years. Bach made transcriptions, mostly for harpsichord, of a number of Vivaldi’s concertos and sonatas for violin. For many years Vivaldi was remembered chiefly for the transcriptions made by Bach.

During his lifetime Vivaldi was admired more as a violinist than as a composer. His skills and innovations advanced bowing techniques and string-playing generally. Largely forgotten after his death, the works of Vivaldi were rediscovered toward the end of the 19th century through Bach’s transcriptions. Scholarly interest in Bach led to interest in Vivaldi’s influence on Bach. Manuscripts for a number of Vivaldi’s sacred works were discovered in the 1920s, and a complete catalogue and publication of Vivaldi’s instrumental works was finally undertaken in 1947. Vivaldi’s popularity grew steadily during the last half of the 20th century, when his position in the history of music became firmly established. Interest in his operas and religious music began to increase in the late 20th century.

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