Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) is the most prolific composer of Baroque orchestral music. His vast output totals over five hundreds concertos, which includes solo concertos for various instruments and orchestra, concerti grossi for groups of two or more soloists with orchestra, and ripieno concerti, that is, orchestral works without soloists. About half of Vivaldi’s solo concertos are for the violin, among which the most famous today are the Four Seasons. Other important concertos include twenty oboe concertos, thirty-nine bassoon concertos, as well as sixty-three concertos for orchestra without soloists. It is through his concertos that Vivaldi exerted profound influence on his contemporaries, including J. S. Bach, Handel, and Telemann.

The four concertos in today’s program, representing the three kinds of concertos, are structurally conceived in the three-movement, fast-slow-fast mold: the first movement in ritornello form, featuring the alternation between orchestral and soloistic sonorities and emphasizing the change of tonalities; the second continuing lyrical melodies or expressive harmonies, and the third a dance-like finale. Nonetheless, each concerto possesses its own musical identity with special musical characteristics.

Concerto in A Minor, RV 522, is the third of four concertos for two violins and orchestra in the collection of twelve concertos for violins, Opus 3, entitled “L’estro armonico,” published in 1711. As the title suggests, this is music inspired by harmony. With the presence of two solo instruments, this concerto is characterized by an abundance of musical dialogues, duets and imitations, particularly in the tuneful second movement.

The two concertos for double reed instruments are clear indications of the surprisingly high level of performance skills that Vivaldi’s wind players possessed. The Oboe Concerto in F, RV 455, consists of two whimsical fast movements characterized by the frequency of irregular phrase structures, and a slow movement that is a duet for oboe and violin. By comparison, the Bassoon Concerto in D Minor, RV 481, is a weightier and more serious work. This may be due to the lower tessitura of the bassoon, the nature of the Larghetto second movement, which is an arietta with a short introduction in dotted rhythm, and the frequent appearance in the two fast movements of extended melodic and harmonic sequences with four or even five repetitions instead of the more usual three.

Concerto in E Minor, RV 133 is a concerto without soloists. It consists of three distinctive movements of contrasting orchestral sonorities and expressive character. The first movement features the extensive use of harmonic sequences, the second a melodic sequence built upon a stepwise bass-line moving from the tonic note to the dominant, followed by three elaborated cadences; and the third a rondo that alternates between a short refrain with three new alternating couplets of increasing lengths.

Vivaldi was born in Venice and died in Vienna, but was also active in Mantua and Rome for many years. It is most likely that the initial impetus for writing concertos was his appointment as maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice in 1703. The Pietà was a kind of orphanage for girls in Venice that had an exceptionally strong music program. Vivaldi’s duties there included directing the orchestra, teaching the violinists, and composing music for their performances. He held the position until 1716, but continued to compose music for this institution for many years following.

His duties at the Pietà also included composing sacred music for the weekly performances of its choir and orchestra. The Gloria in D Major, RV 589, composed in 1715, is undoubtedly the composer’s best-known sacred choral work. This joyful setting of the traditional hymn of praise from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass consists of twelve sections.

© 2008 John Hsu