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Throughout his life, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) never elaborated on the sources of inspiration for his compositions. This could be one of the reasons why the spiritual kinship between his concerto pieces and Eastern European gypsy music has hitherto gone unnoticed. While this assumption may seem absurd at a first glance at the geographic situation, it becomes clearly apparent upon closer inspection.

As a virtuoso and composer, Vivaldi travelled widely. He is known to have attended performances of his operas in Prague and also in Vienna which took him close to the Balkans, and it is likely that he encountered nomadic musicians during these excursions. In fact, this was nothing unusual because Georg Philipp Telemann, who worked for a time in Poland, comments in one of his three (!) autobiographies that a skilled composer could gain enough musical inspiration to last a lifetime by listening to gypsy musicians.

Vivaldi taught for many years at the orphanage school famous for its shining musical life: the Ospedale della Pietà. This “orphanage” (in fact a home for the illegitimate daughters of noblemen) lay on the Riva degli Schiavi, the Slavic Canal. One can easily imagine how travellers arriving from Eastern European countries would perform their music with their instruments and songs, practically on Vivaldi’s doorstep!

The obvious closeness to gypsy music of the motifs used in the opening tutti in the third movement of the late concerto RV 375 to gypsy music makes it even more tempting to surmise that Vivaldi must have come into contact with music from Eastern Europe. The ragged initial sixteenth notes, the syncopated rhythms, the abrupt dynamic contrasts and the pianissimo passages that appear are almost identical in the collection of gypsy music Uhrovska (1730) and are strong evidence to support the claim in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that Vivaldi was inspired by the music of the Slavic hinterlands.

In addition to this surprising conclusion, there is an evident spiritual link that makes juxtaposing Vivaldi’s music with pieces from the Uhrovska collection (1730) remarkably satisfying. The composer and the gypsy musicians were clearly exceptional virtuosos who derived great pleasure from using their talents to exploit the limits of their instruments’ capabilities. Therefore, the special effects in the descriptive concerto La notte Op. X, No. 2, speak a very clear language. The virtuosity of the string instruments is as demanding as that of the solo recorder, whose racing fast passages contribute to the nightmarish impression evoked by a movement such as “Fantasmi.” The slow movement “Il sonno” (sleep) is in stark contrast, with its audacious chordal successions that depict the descent into deepening layers of unconsciousness.

The initial eighthnote rhythm followed by two sixteenths, of the opening tutti of the Concerto in C Major for 2 transverse flutes RV 533 has inspired us to create a Fantasia in the gypsy style that we have placed as an introduction to the concerto. The Uhrovska collection contains some pieces that use this exact rhythm to great effect. Here one can also assume that Vivaldi allowed himself to be inspired by Slavic folk music, an impression that is also strengthened by his use of only two different chords in the first bars of the opening tutti.

The addition of cadenzas is derived from Vivaldi’s own performance practice. According to eyewitness accounts, he improvised ad hoc with virtuosic “fireworks” between pieces or movements, demonstrating his extraordinary virtuosity. Written cadenzas actually exist in Vivaldi’s concerto oeuvre (such as in the Violin Concerto “Il grosso mogul”) that provide documented proof of this practice. We have added a cadenza to the Concerto in C Major P. 81 for 2 recorders, 2 violins and basso continuo, which, in this instance provides an opportunity to demonstrate the virtuosity of the two recorder players.

The Uhrovska collection (named for the eponymous town in present-day Slovakia where it was found) is a fascinating document that provides a direct glimpse into the world of gypsy music. The approximately 350 melodies it contains were probably intended to be as comprehensive a collection of gypsy music as possible. Its multi-national character documents the extent to which the gypsies—and their music with them —travelled. Hungarian melodies stand next to Czech songs and the location of Uhrovska’s discovery in Slovakia suggests further national influences.

Contrary to the oral tradition of the gypsies, in essence without written record, a travelling master violinist must have attempted to assemble the music of his people into a comprehensive “catalogue”. Few gypsies would have studied notation and so we must infer that Uhrovska was compiled by a travelling musician who had come into contact with the educated classes of his time. In this case, he utilized a sort of shorthand, leaving plenty of room for creativity.

Apart from a few exceptions, the music in the Uhrovska collection is notated in a single voice and so the bass line and the harmonic and rhythmic fleshing out in the mid-range would have been improvised. Thus, it was implied that the pieces would be arranged ad hoc by gypsy bands. We have adopted this practice and expanded the melodies into multi-voiced pieces.

The mostly single-line melodies do not provide any indications regarding formal figuration. It is impossible that a melody would have been played through only once, but even here the sequence is left to each performer. To draw a parallel, one just has to look at jazz music, where relatively short melodies are expanded into longer pieces through improvisation. This generous freedom allows the interpreters of this music quite an unusual role, because it is they who actually gives the music form. As a result, the recording sessions for the present CD were an extraordinary experience since the interpretation changed spontaneously even during recording and the music continually assumed a different form.

The melodies contain surprising “twists” that can make harmonizing in the traditional baroque sense impossible. The eventful history of the Sinti and Roma people, who during the Middle Ages found their way to Europe from their origins in India, has left its traces here and it is impossible to establish exactly how this music would have sounded. We have attempted to do justice to the inner richness of these melodies with arrangements that are as diverse as possible.

It is a further surprise to find the legend of Doctor Faustus appearing in the title of one of the pieces of the Uhrovska collection, another indication of how the various layers of the folk and sophisticated cultures were mixed.

It became obvious to us during this project that the undercurrent of kinship between these two different music styles is too insistent and that the rough and fresh gypsy music must have exerted a great fascination on a composer like Vivaldi. Although cause for speculation remains, we hope that the listener will be inclined to share our enthusiasm for this unusual musical encounter.

© Matthias Maute

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Ensemble Caprice
AN 2 9770-5
AN 2 9770-5
AN 2 9770-5

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