Skip to main content

Vivaldi the Teacher
November 7-11, 2018

By Bruce Lamott

[For the sake of clarity and brevity, compositions by Vivaldi in this program will be referred to by their number in the Ryom Verzeichnis [catalog], or RV].

Antonio Vivaldi

The vast majority of Antonio Vivaldi’s prolific compositions resulted from his various responsibilities in his long teaching career. Aside from his forty-six operas, most of his five hundred-plus concertos, ninety solo sonatas, and dozens of choral works resulted from his thirty-year association as teacher, conductor, and composer for the orphans in the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four such institutions with prominent musical establishments in Venice. Founded in 1336, the Pietà was unique in being both single-sex and accepting infant girls born both in and out of wedlock, provided the child was small enough to fit in a box near the door. To this day, a marble plaque embedded in the wall of a later church of Santa Maria della Pietà invokes the warning of Pope Paul III in 1548 of dire consequences for parents abandoning children there if they could afford to raise them.

Music education at the Venetian ospedali was largely based on a peer-teaching system, in which an accomplished senior student known as a figlia di cori (cori meaning musical establishment as a whole, not just singers) would be assigned to teach younger students. This minimized the number of male teachers, contracted one year at a time, in the all-female environment. After a brief stint as a priest, Vivaldi was first hired by the Pietà as a maestro di violino at age 25 in 1703. More than once his annual contract was terminated and reinstated by the board between 1703 and 1717. With his reputation grew the status of the Pietà, which elevated him to maestro di coro, allowing him to focus more on composing and conducting.

Performances at the Pietà and its rival ospedali became a must-see for visitors to Venice, and not just for the music. Contemporary accounts by male writers never fail to comment on the musicians, such as this cringe-worthy observation by the British choreographer, John Essex.

The Harpsichord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming to the Fair Sex; as the flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike; and would look indecent in a Woman’s Mouth; and the flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion.

Santa Maria della Pietà today.

While the identities of most of Vivaldi’s pupils at the Pietà are unknown, he immortalized a few by writing their names in his scores. They are identified only by their first names, such as the principal violinist known as Chiara (Chiaretta) (1718-1796) whose name appears on six concertos, including RV 372a. Known also as a singer, organist, and player of the viola d’amore, she was made a maestra (conductor) in 1762, one of adult figlie who continued at the Pietà well into middle age. The orphanage became a virtual conservatory whose alumnae became some of the most prominent instrumental teachers in Venice. However, for the majority of those women entering the secular world, exiting the Pietà also meant leaving their instruments behind, as there was no place for a virtuosa instrumentalist in the musical life of Venice or elsewhere. Only those few singers who found their way to the opera stage could continue to perform.

Vivaldi’s tutelage extended past the walls of the Pietà, however. His most illustrious pupil was undoubtedly Johann Sebastian Bach, a “distance learner” who studied, played, and transcribed music from Vivaldi’s widely circulated publications while in Weimar. Vivaldi had a more personal connection with an acquaintance of Bach,  the court violinist and later concertmaster of the electoral court of Dresden, Johann Georg Pisendel (1688-1755). Pisendel came to Venice in the entourage of Elector Friedrich August II of Saxony, and took violin and composition lessons from Vivaldi periodically for the next two years. He returned to Dresden in 1717 with over forty of Vivaldi’s instrumental works copied in his own handwriting (including tonight’s RV 507) and added to his collection several works sent by Vivaldi in the next twenty years. A century after Pisendel’s death, these works were discovered in a cabinet behind the organ in Dresden’s Electoral Court Chapel,and today they constitute the largest number of Vivaldi manuscripts outside of Italy.

Arcangelo Corelli

Corelli, Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7 in D major

Arcangelo Corelli was the most famous Italian violinist/composer of the generation preceding Vivaldi. Though his published oeuvre consisted of only six printed collections, these works were widely imitated throughout Europe. Study with Corelli in Rome was a major credential for Italian violinists, including Frencesco Geminiani. Corelli’s posthumous publication of twelve concerti grossi established a model in which a solo group of instruments (known as the concertino) alternated with the whole ensemble (ripieno, or tutti). In this concerto, Corelli adds to the textural contrast of solo and tutti by adding dynamic contrasts of soft (piano) and loud (forte).

Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Violins in C major, RV 507

This concerto, one of those copied by Pisendel and taken to Dresden, is a unique take on the concept of “Vivaldi as teacher,” as it is clearly a contest between equals. The teacher/student relationship is obscured by its near equality of solo parts, and leads us to imagine a possible face-off between Pisendel and Vivaldi himself. The responding part takes up the challenge proposed by the leading part, not in a student-level easier range but identically at the unison. The poignant Largo is a lyrical siciliana over gently rocking unisons in the violins and violas. The standoff climaxes in the final Allegro, with brilliant passagework and high-altitude leaps to the extremities of the violin’s range. The busy figuration animates a slow-moving harmonic progression which Pisendel notated in half-note chords, a clear example of “animated homophony.”

Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Oboes in D minor, RV 535

The Pietà was noted for its extensive and unusual instrument collection, and the girls played a variety of woodwinds, brass, and even timpani. Vivaldi wrote twenty concertos for solo oboe in addition to concertos for two and three oboes and concertos with other instruments, such as RV 548. In contrast with the preceding concerto, RV 535 for two oboes and strings reflects more of a teacher/student collaboration than a competition. The two oboes form a composite sound in parallel motion, with the second oboe always below the first. It opens, not with an orchestral tutti,  but rather with the soloists in a gentle dialogue with the cello and bass. Mellifluous triplets in the Largo are supported by a simple repeated bass line, and the final Allegro molto is characterized by terse, interrupted phrases.

Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Violins and Two Violoncellos in G major, RV 575

Although officially a concerto for “two violins and two cellos,” this concerto is more accurately a contest between two duos, each locked in parallel thirds. (The image of tandem skydivers comes to mind.) Running scales introduce the outer movements, while the Largo gently rocks in close harmony over a pulsing bass. The final Allegro becomes a call-and-response between the pairs of violins and cellos before the violins soar into a lyrical melody above agitated oscillations in the cellos.

Vivaldi, Concerto for Two Violoncellos in G Minor, RV 531

Freeing two cellos from their obligations in the utilitarian continuo group, Vivaldi introduces the soloists at the outset of this concerto with virtuosic passagework rather than the customary orchestral ritornello. As in RV 507, the soloists are equals, performing in competitive alternation without interference from the upper strings. A prominent figuration in the outer movements is the rapid reiteration of four notes–termed Schwärmer (“swarmers”) by German theoreticians because of its semblance to buzzing bees–familiar from its use in The Four Seasons. In the Largo, the umber sonority of a cello trio is created by the addition of the continuo cellist. The final Allegro opens with catchy offbeat syncopations before the musical acrobatics of the soloists begins again.

Vivaldi, Concerto for Oboe and Violin in B-flat major, RV 548

Vivaldi’s writing for the oboe–as well as the solo voice–is sometimes criticized for being too “violinistic,” but in this concerto, he clearly differentiates the solo instruments according to what they do best, called “idiomatic” writing. In the charming opening movement, for example, the oboe is allowed to sing above the violin’s rapid undulations without being compelled to reciprocate. Likewise in the Largo, the oboe plays a plaintive siciliana melody while the violin creates a rhythmic filigree across all four strings in the instrument. The two soloists then harmonize together in parallel thirds in the lighthearted finale.

Vivaldi, Concerto for Violin in B-flat major, RV372a “per la S.ra Chiara” Andante

In contrast to the preceding student-level works, this solo concerto was written to showcase the talents of one of Vivaldi’s most accomplished students, one of six in which her name appears. While the outer movements of the concerto are capricious and unpredictable, challenging the soloist with every “violinistic” trick in the book, the middle movement Andante is a gentle series of variations on a repeated bass line (basso ostinato). This was an opportunity for the soloist to show her expressivity and skill in ornamentation, just as was also expected of opera singers. The strings introduce the theme and maintain an affect of serenity throughout, even though the figuration of the solo violin increases in complexity with each variation and climaxes with a shimmering bariolage.

Fancesco Geminiani

Geminiani, Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, “La Follia” (after Corelli)

Our program began and ends with the music of Corelli–here transformed by his student Francesco Geminiani. A virtuoso violinist who settled in London in 1714, Geminiani cashed in on Corelli’s posthumous popularity by reworking his teacher’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord into concerti grossi by dividing the solo violin part between two players and expanding and harmonizing the harpsichord/cello continuo for a string ensemble of two violins, viola, cello, and bass. Variations on the bass line of the Spanish dance “La follia” were popular with Baroque composers including Vivaldi, and Corelli’s contrasting variations–unlike Chiara’s Andante– lend themselves to a division between soloistic virtuosic variations and harmonically sustained variations given to the orchestra.