Toronto-based Tafelmusik is one of the world’s leading period performance ensembles, renowned internationally for its distinct, exhilarating, and soulful performances. Founded in 1979 by Kenneth [...]
They spoke about it
Tafelmusik baroque Orchestra brilliantly performs eight of the twelve concertos included in Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico, considered to be the most influential collection of baroque orchestral music.
The most popular composer for the violin, as well as player on that instrument, during these times, was Don Antonio Vivaldi […] if acute and rapid tones are evils, Vivaldi has much of the sin to answer for.
?Charles Burney, General History of Music (1789)
Antonio Vivaldi and la Pietà
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the son of Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, an accomplished violinist employed at St. Mark’s. The Visitor’s Guide to Venice of 1713 mentions “among the best who play the violin are Gian. Battista Vivaldi and his son, priest.” Antonio received his early education from his father. In 1703, he was ordained priest, but only said Mass for a year or so, apparently on account of his severe asthma. It is quite likely that a desire to pursue a career in music was also a strong factor in his decision to set aside his duties as priest. Within months of his ordainment Vivaldi was appointed violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà.
The Pietà, founded in 1346, was one of four Venetian institutions for children who were either illegitimate, orphaned, or abandoned. They were supported by public funds, private donations, and money they raised for themselves at concerts. At one time it was estimated that some 6,000 children were in the care of these institutions, and at some point during the history of the Pietà, its charges became exclusively female. Venice was one of the musical capitals of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and musical education became an important part of the curriculum at the four Ospedale. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Pietà in particular had virtually become a conservatory of music, and its concerts began to enjoy enormous prestige and popularity. A Russian visiting in 1698 wrote:
In Venice there are convents where the women play the organ and other instruments and sing so wonderfully that nowhere else in the world could one find such sweet and harmonious song. Therefore people come to Venice from all parts with the wish to refresh themselves with these angelic songs.
Vivaldi’s early years at the Pietà were spent teaching the violin and viola d’inglese, and providing sonatas for both himself and his charges to perform at public concerts. The Pietà governors seemed to have regarded their small staff of male teachers and instrument keepers as “a necessary evil.” Contracts were never issued for more than a year at a time, and terminated whenever it was thought that the girls and women could manage on their own. Vivaldi was dismissed in 1709, but rehired two years later when the string program apparently needed a boost. It was in this year that Vivaldi published his first set of instrumental concertos, L’estro armonico, Op. 3, considered by many music historians to be the most influential collection of instrumental music to be published in the entire eighteenth century. Certainly it marked a significant shift in Vivaldi’s career and reputation, as well as in the repertoire of the Pietà orchestra. Its success assured Vivaldi of ongoing employment at the Pietà, where he was eventually named maestro de’ concerti, and an international reputation as a virtuoso violinist and innovative composer. When tourists arrived at the Pietà they not only expected “angelic song,” but also devilish playing of astonishing concertos.
Vivaldi : L’estro armonico
Vivaldi had published his first two opuses, both of violin sonatas, through one of the Venetian publishers, known for being technically and commercially backward. He must have had a sense of the significance of his first concerto publication, as he risked the expense of having it engraved by Estienne Roger of Amsterdam, and gave the collection an arresting title: L’estro armonico. Although commonly translated into English as “Harmonic fancy,” the word oestrus means “heat, stimulus, vehement impulse, frenzy,” an allusion to the startling passion and energy of the concertos. The collection consists of twelve concertos, divided into four groups. Each group opens with a concerto for four violins, followed by a concerto for two violins, and ends with a concerto for solo violin. A cello is intermittently also given a solo role.
The four-violin concertos are particularly innovative: the four soloists are accompanied, not by an orchestra, but by two violists, a solo cellist and continuo. The soloists are called upon to form the orchestra as required in a form which combines elements of the concerto grosso and the solo concerto. It is a form which Bach was to call upon when he composed his famous Brandenburg Concertos. Indeed, Bach was among the many overt admirers of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico —he transcribed six of the twelve concertos for keyboard: the solo-violin concertos Nos. 3, 7 and 12 for solo harpsichord, the two-violin concertos Nos. 8 and 11 for organ, and the four-violin concerto No. 10 for four harpsichords with string orchestra.
L’estro armonico was one of the first sets of Italian concertos to be published outside of Italy—Corelli’s benchmark Opus 6 Concerti Grossi did not appear until three years later. Vivaldi’s concertos fascinated musicians throughout Europe and established the model of the eighteenth-century concerto. L’estro armonico was enormously successful: Roger printed it no less than 20 times before the firm closed in 1743, at which point the 230 pounds worth of plates for opus 3, as well as the 51 remaining unbound copies, were valued at a price of 143 florins, higher than any other Vivaldi opus. Numerous English and French editions also appeared, and manuscript copies of individual concertos from the collection abound.
© Charlotte Nediger