• Graham Abbott

Not the Four Seasons: Vivaldi's Concertos

As you might have gathered, I find Vivaldi endlessly fascinating. Two earlier posts in this blog focus on the famous “red priest”; one is an overview of his life, the other is a survey of his church music. But in the early days on my work for ABC Radio I made two programs on Vivaldi’s concertos. The first was an in-depth look at The Four Seasons, the other - the basis of what follows - was an attempt to show what else Vivaldi had written in the concerto genre, and to dispel the myth that he wrote the same concerto hundreds of times.

Sadly, the Four Seasons script has been lost, but I’m really glad to be able to rework the other script here, because it really is amazing what this man created. It’s also amazing that despite it having been available to musicians for a century or more, most this music is rarely, if ever, played. And it should be.


Mention Antonio Vivaldi to most music lovers and I imagine the music which first comes to mind is the set of four concertos known as Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons). As is often the way with such things, a few famous pieces of music can push other equally-interesting works into the shadows. With Vivaldi, who wrote about 500 concertos, the famous four have done this with a sort of ruthless efficiency engendering an almost fanatical devotion. In this post I want us to cast our ears over some of Vivaldi’s hundreds of other concertos, to maybe help you come to see what’s there and to encourage you to explore this vast body of music on your own.

Let’s start with one of the most famous. [listen]

The term “concerto” traditionally refers to an instrumental work which contrasts one or more solo instruments against an orchestra, and in the case of Vivaldi this is certainly the case in the majority of his concertos. In the course of his life (he lived from 1678 to 1741; a recent post in this blog surveys his career), ninety of the concertos were published, which leaves about another 400 which we know from manuscript sources. In this overview I’m going to go through the published collections first. After this I’ll summarise some of the other concertos, which are immensely diverse in their scoring and design.

Antonio Vivaldi

The music I linked to earlier was one of the twelve concertos which appeared in Vivaldi’s first published collection of concertos, his opus 3. Opus 3 was printed in Amsterdam in 1711 by the publisher Etienne Roger. The collection was given the collective title of L’estro armonico, which can be translated as “The harmonic fancy” or even “The gift of harmony”. Vivaldi turned 33 in that year and by that stage had already developed an international reputation. Eight years earlier, in 1703, he had been appointed violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, one of four institutions in Venice set up for the care of abandoned and orphaned children, mostly girls. These institutions, and the Pietà in particular, placed a high emphasis on music training, and the Pietà was renowned throughout Europe for the quality of its musical services in its chapel.

L’estro armonico: title page from the first edition

Vivaldi had a long and often turbulent relationship with the Pietà, and was sacked and reinstated a number of times for various reasons. What is beyond doubt, though, is that huge numbers of his concertos were designed for the girls and women of the Pietà to play. This didn’t see Vivaldi by any means limit his focus to Venice, though; he sought international fame with a vengeance, and by choosing to publish his opus 3 with one of the leading music publishers in Europe, he set his aim high in terms of sales and impact. What actually happened, though, would have surprised even him. L’estro armonico was probably the single-most influential European music publication in the first half of the 18th century. It contains concertos featuring 1, 2 and 4 solo violins, and the bright Italian style was imitated and admired by composers great and small across Europe. This is a concerto for two violins from that collection. [listen]

Vivaldi’s next publication, his opus 4, was a set of twelve violin concertos called La stravangaza. These “extravagant” concertos are marked by deliciously bizarre twists of harmony and exciting virtuosity, features for which they were roundly criticised in some quarters after their release by Roger in 1716. The dramatic flair in La stravanganza shows real advances on the earlier L’estro armonico set, with some of the works breaking new ground in harmony, structure and technical requirements simultaneously. The seventh concerto of opus 4 - ostensibly a solo violin concerto - is one of a number in the set which call upon a second solo violin from the orchestra to join the soloist in some passages. It’s also in the four movement Baroque sonata movement structure (slow-fast-slow-fast) rather than Vivaldi’s usual concerto movement structure (fast-slow-fast). [listen]

La stravanganza: dedication page from the first edition

After a set of sonatas (his opus 5), Vivaldi’s next two sets of concertos were published as his opus 6 by Roger in the late 1720s. It’s a testament to Vivaldi’s enormous popularity that Roger bore the publication costs himself, something which was still very unusual for publishers to do in the early 18th century. (Vivaldi was a shrewd operator and drove hard bargains when required.) Opus 6 comprises six violin concertos which are more typical of the Vivaldi style we know and love; they have less outrageous flair than the earlier two collections and were obviously issued by Roger to satisfy a growing public demand for new Vivaldi works. Typical Vivaldi they may be, but this is not to say the opus 6 concertos lack a dark side. Four of the six are in minor keys, and the solo writing is always assured and strong in its episodes which are neatly placed between orchestral statements of the main thematic material (known as the ritornello). [listen]

Roger issued Vivaldi’s opus 7, a set of twelve concertos, very soon after the opus 6. It’s mostly made up of violin concertos, but it also contains an oboe concerto. Some authorities question Vivaldi’s authorship of this, but it was published under Vivaldi’s name with Vivaldi’s approval, so he must have liked it, even if it wasn’t by him! [listen]

During the second decade of the century, Vivaldi started becoming involved in the world of opera, an involvement which would be a major part of his life until his death in 1741. This is not to say that his writing of concertos slackened off. In July 1723, for example, the governors of the Pietà contracted Vivaldi to provide two concertos a month for the institution while he was travelling all over the place supervising opera productions. This contract alone saw Vivaldi provide more than 140 concertos for the Pietà over a six year period.

Opus 8 was published in 1725 in Amsterdam by the publisher who took over Roger’s business there, Michel-Charles Le Cène. This magnificent collection of twelve concertos has the title Il cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione (The contest between harmony and invention). It comprises ten violin concertos and two oboe concertos, and the first four concertos of the set are the famous concertos representing the four seasons. Of the other ten pieces in the collection, three of the violin concertos are also programmatic: La tempesta di mare (The stormy sea), Il piacere (which can mean pleasant, or even whimsical) and La caccia (The hunt). The last movement of the hunting concerto (no 10) contains music which suggests a galloping horse. [listen]

Il cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Inventione: title page from the first edition

Vivaldi’s opus 9 was issued by Le Cène in 1727. Containing twelve violin concertos it has the title La Cetra. This title refers to a lyre, and in particular the lyre of Orpheus in Greek mythology. In the notes accompanying his recording of the set, Simon Standage explains Vivaldi’s (and other’s) use of the term La Cetra in these words: “The reference…to the lyre was not made with the intention of imitating the instrument itself, but simply as a reverential nod in the direction of classical Greece and perhaps with the implied wish that the accompanying music might exert a charm comparable to that of the lyres in mythology.”

The sixth concerto of La Cetra requires the solo violin to be tuned differently than normal, a practice called scordatura. In this case, the G and D strings are each tuned a tone higher, making the violin tuned to A, E, A and E. This makes the violin particularly bright in the key of A major and enables Vivaldi to write chords and double-stopping which are not possible on a violin tuned in the normal manner. [listen]

You’ll have noticed that with the exception of the oboe concertos in opp 7 and 8, all the previous concerto publications comprise concertos with solo parts for one or more violins. This is not to say that Vivaldi didn’t write concertos for other instruments, but it’s just that violin concertos were good business and publishers sought to meet public demand. This makes Vivaldi’s next published collection, the six concertos of opus 10, all the more remarkable, because they are flute concertos, and flute concertos were comparatively rare in those days. This was especially true in Venice where there was marked resistance to the flute gaining a permanent position on a par with that of the oboe. There, the recorder was the favoured flute-type wind instrument.

To make up opus 10 for publication in 1729, Vivaldi adapted some pre-existing concertos to make five of the six works; only one (no 4) seems to have been freshly composed. This concerto contains some truly delicious writing for flute, especially in its last movement, with some lovely twists of harmony here and there. [listen]

In the same year as opus 10 appeared - 1729 - Vivaldi’s last two published collections were also released by Le Cène, although it appears that Vivaldi had little to do with the actual selection of the concertos for these. Opus 11 is a set of six concertos; the first five are violin concertos, while the sixth is an oboe concerto version of a violin concerto which appeared in La Cetra. [listen]

The six concertos of opus 12 are a remarkable set, with some fantastic invention in the fast movements and some really beautiful writing in the slow ones. The slow movement of the fourth concerto has an airy feeling made possible by the complete omission of the bass line instruments, something Vivaldi did famously in the slow movements of the “spring” and “summer” concertos in The Four Seasons. [listen]

Vivaldi was dissatisfied with the financial returns from the last five collections published in Amsterdam and he told the English traveller Edward Holdsworth that publication inhibited the more profitable trade in manuscripts. No further publications of Vivaldi’s music appeared with his consent after op 12 was released in 1729.

Fortunately, huge numbers of Vivaldi’s concertos, both published and unpublished, survive in manuscript copies. Vivaldi scholarship took a huge leap forward in the 1920s with the discovery of the composer’s own personal archive of scores, which is now housed in Turin. The staggering variety of instrumentation, let alone formal and harmonic variety, should put to bed for ever the myth that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto hundreds of times.

Canaletto: The Mouth of the Grand Canal (Venice), looking West towards the Carità (1729-30)

Of the 500 or so known authentic Vivaldi concertos, nearly half - about 230 - are violin concertos. Amazingly, the next most frequently-used solo instrument is the bassoon. There are about 40 Vivaldi bassoon concertos known, and his writing for this instrument is evidence that the Pietà - or some other place - had some amazingly virtuosic bassoonists available in an age when bassoon concertos were otherwise extremely rare. [listen]

The next most frequent solo instrument in the surviving Vivaldi concertos is the cello, for which there are about 30 known examples. It is really astounding that after catering so wonderfully for his own instrument - the violin - Vivaldi should lavish such huge numbers of solo works on the two bass line instruments, bassoon and cello, which in his day were rarely heard as “front line” soloists. The cello concertos are as demanding and as virtuosic as anything he conceived for other instruments. [listen]

Continuing the list of Vivaldi’s featured solo instruments in descending order of frequency, we come to the oboe concertos - about 20 - and the flute concertos - about 15. After this there are seven surviving concertos for viola d’amore, a violin-type instrument with extra strings which vibrate in sympathy with the notes played on the regular strings. It was almost obsolete even in Vivaldi’s day, but clearly he wanted to encourage some player or other at the Pietà who was a talented exponent of this instrument. [listen]

Viola d'amore

There are many concertos for other instruments - recorder, a small recorder called a flautino, and mandolin, for example - but beyond this there are the works for multiple soloists. Some of Vivaldi’s concertos for two soloists pair similar instruments, like two violins or two trumpets, but some call for unusual pairings, like violin and organ, or viola d’amore and lute. We know of about 30 concertos requiring three or more soloists and some of these call for very new or very rare instruments, such as the clarinet, the early form of the clarinet known as the chalumeau, large lutes called theorbos, timpani, and unusually-adapted violins called “violins in tromba marina”. This concerto calls for eleven soloists: two recorders, oboe, chalumeau, violin, two “viole all’inglese” (viola d’amore-type instruments), two violins in tromba marina and two harpsichords. Somewhere in the background there’s a string orchestra accompanying all that… [listen]

Finally, there are six concertos with soloists accompanied by not one but two string orchestras. Some of these have a single violin as the soloist, another calls for two solo organs, while yet another calls for two solo violins and two solo organs. This grandest of these is a spectacular concerto in A, calling for two violins, two recorders and a cello as soloists with the first orchestra, while the second orchestra has two violins, two recorders, cello and organ as its soloists. [listen]

And in addition to all this (!) there are two other fascinating areas of Vivaldi’s concerto writing. The first of these are the roughly sixty concertos which have no soloists at all. These are works for string orchestra which Vivaldi titled “concerto” but which have no solo part. They seem to embryonic symphonies (and some are called “sinfonia” rather than “concerto”); they’re a fascinating precursor to the symphonies of the later Italians such as Sammartini. [listen]

The other type of concerto Vivaldi wrote had no orchestra. These are works for an ensemble of at least three soloists with continuo, and more than twenty of them survive. The instruments combine and divide to make alternating tutti and solo textures, exactly as JS Bach did with the eleven players in his third Brandenburg concerto. [listen]

Ghezzi: Caricature of Vivaldi (1723)

Vivaldi’s concertos form an staggering body of work. There are always new things to discover, and I hope that you’ll have been encouraged by this post to explore the riches which await in all those concertos we might call “not the Four Seasons”.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2006.

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