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The Baroque Concerto: Part 2

The MHS Review 380 Vol. 11, NO. 2 • 1987

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Richard Carlin


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In the first part of this article (see Release 378 of the Review), we discussed briefly the growth of the concerto from its roots in other vocal and instrumental forms. Key to this growth were the contributions of several Italian composer/violinists. The greatest of all, Antonio Vivaldi ( 1678-174 I), is highlighted in one of the featured releases in this issue. His work influenced Telemann and Bach in Germany and many lesser-­known composers throughout Europe. Two of these composers lived and worked in England, and their music is represented in a second release focusing on the baroque concerto in that country.

Today, when we think of composers and musicians we think of two distinct classes of people: one class creates the music the other performs it. However, through such of the history of classical music, composers were also performers; in fact, many were just as famous for their instrumental skills as they were for their own compositions. In the early years of the 18th century, the violin was becoming the favorite instrument for these composer/performer, particularly in Italy. They were to create new styles of playing the instrument within the concer­to form.

Arcangclo Corelli (1653-1713) is credited with creating the concerto grosso form. Born in the outskirts of Bologna, Corelli did not come from a musical family but early on showed talent on the violin. By the age of 13 he was studying in Bologna, and a short four years later he was elected to the prestigious Academia Filarmonica in that ci­ty. By 1670 he had settled in Rome, and in the following decades found patronage. Around 1680, foreign visitors described per­formances of a new type of musical com­position led by the able Italian. It was what we now call the concerto grosso (literally "big concerto").

In the concerto grosso, the orchestra is split in two. One part, called the soli (the term concertino is also sometimes used), is the smaller part, featuring two solo violins and, as accompaniment, cello and harp­sichord. The larger half is called the ripieno and is made up of the entire orchestra. In the concerto grosso, these two parts per­form in a call-and-response style; the con­trast between the soft tones of the soli and the robust sound of the ripieno is what distinguishes this concerto form The contrast was quite impressive to the: listeners of Corelli's day who had never heard anything quite so dramatic.

In the following year,; many more master violinist/composers would come forward from the Italian countryside. Antonio Vivaldi was next in this distinguished line. His fame today rests almost entirely on four concerti that have become staples of the concert repertoire: The Four Seasons. Yet, Vivaldi published 74 other concerti in his lifetime, besides operas and other works, while some 700 or so pieces remain in manuscript. All in all, he wrote over 500 violin concerti and another I 00 or so for other solo instruments. Revered in his lifetime by some, reviled by others, Vivaldi had a huge impact on European classical music over the following century. Today we recognize why Johann Sebastian Bach laboriously copied Vivaldi's concerti by hand, hoping to understand some of their genius: Vivaldi was a master of the concer­to form, and a virtuoso melodic stylist.

Born in Venice in 1678, the son of a barber/violinist, Vivaldi was ordained as a priest in 1703. In the same year he was hired as a violinist and composer for the: Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, a home for orphaned girls. I Jen: young girls were trained in the art of music; many became well-known soloists throughout Italy, while others won the hearts of young noblemen while perfor­ming at the home's Sunday concerts. Vivaldi was an ideal teacher; besides mastering the violin, he was also a talented performer on organ and harpsichord. The Ospedale pro­vided Vivaldi with 37 years of uninterrupted income, plus a home orchestra of talented musicians to perform his compositions. It also provided him with an unending supp­ly of soloists on a variety of instruments, an ideal situation for someone who wish­ed to experiment with different types of solo, duo, and trio concerti

Vivaldi's concerti were dismissed by many contemporary critics as merely vehicles to show off the composer's phenomenal talent. That Vivaldi was a great violinist goes without question, one con­temporary account describes his virtuosic technique, while adding the typical criticism mat such virtuosity was not musically pleas­ing: "He placed his fingers but a hair's breadth from the bridge so that there was hardly room for the bow. He played thus on all four strings ... at unbelievable speed .. .I cannot say that it captivated me, because it was more skillfully executed than pleasing to hear " However, another contemporary critic commented astutely that Vivaldi "had the honour of being thought mad for at­tempting in ... performance what many a sober gentleman has since done uncen­sured."

Vivaldi was one who explored the stratosphere of the violin's fingerboard; he may even have had a special violin made with an extra-long neck in order to facilitate playing these very high notes. He also was master of me bow, even composing some concerti with instructions for each solo string instrument to use a different type of bowing, so that each voice could be heard as totally unique . Because he wrote many pieces that described natural sounds, he was dismissed by many as being interested in specia1 effects rather than musical depth. But it also points out that Vivaldi was ob­viously a master at manipulating the tone of the violin, which would involve all aspects of his technique.

Vivaldi is generally credited with making the three-part form of quick-slow-quick the standard in concerto writing. The fact that he chose this form for all of his concerti had an enormous impact on other European composers who emulated his works. Vivaldi also developed the ritornello form for the quick movements. Ritornello simply means the repetition of the principal theme. Usual­ly this repetition occurs through different keys and in different instrumental voices. In the hands of the master composer, it is an effective way of building interest and variety In the work.

On this recording we have a chance to sample Vivaldi's works for solo instruments other than the violin, including the baroque recorder, flute, and oboe. The oboe works are particularly interesting, showing Vivaldi's full knowledge of what was then little-known Instrument. Vivaldi compos­ed 10 oboe concerti, and nearly as many works featuring the oboe in a solo capaci­ty. The oboe was just coming into its own during Vivaldi's day. Previous double-reed instruments were loud and brash in tone, and could be used only for special emphasis (like horns) in the orchestra. Now the oboe was refined so that its melodic capabilities could shine,

The oboe concerti heard here come from Vivaldi's op. 8 set of 12 concerti which includes the famous Four Seasons. Although these two concerti were scored for the violin, the D minor, in particular, fits the oboe so well that it may in fact have originally been performed on this instrument.

The Flute Concerto heard on this recor­ding is the famous La tempesta di mare (The ocean storm). The many roroco effects performed by the flute soloist depict stor­my weather at sea. Compare these energetic bursts energetic melody with the charming Recorder Concerto in C major also heard on this recording. Hcrc, emphasis is given to the singing range of the flautino (today more commonly called the sopranino ), or highest-voiced member of the recorder family.

The English composers Boyce and Wood­cock give us yet another side of the develop­ment of the concerto. Although influenced by Vivaldi and other Italian models, the English went their own way. They favored a four-pan work (also favored by the Ger­man Telemann), based on an earlier concer­to model. (An exception is Woodcock's Flute Concerto, which follows closely the model of Vivaldi.) They also worked with a greater sense of the total ensemble sound rather than highlighting the virtuosic and flamboyant soli pan.

The English clearly show the influences of their German and Italian contemporaries. Boyce in his E minor Concerto Grosso draws heavily on Handel's Messiah in theme and tone. This popular work had taken the English musical world by storm. Woodcock in his Concerto in E-flat for oboe also draws on Handel (in fact, this piece was attributed to Handel when it was first published in 1927). Like Handel, he borrows melodic themes from Telemann for his concerto. But the English could also craft concerti that were uniquely their own. Boyce's B minor Concerto Grosso harks back to the pre-­Corelli style of Purcell. Distinctive, early-­style counterpoint is the hallmark of this work. Finally, Woodcock's Concerto for flute shows an English flavor in the Vivace, whose melody is derived from English folksong. Also, we must remember that the flute solo parts, so highly Italianate here, would have been improvised by Woodcock (or whoever was the soloist at the time of the performance).

Although today the baroque concerto as espoused by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Boyce, and Woodcock may seem slightly primitive to us, we must remember how revolutionary it was in its time. It led the way to more serious and complicated or­chestral works. Without these landmark ex­plorations, there could not have been the great concerti of Beethoven or Mozart, or indeed the great symphonies of Beethoven and his successors. It is not an exaggeration to say that in melodic and structural development, and in the exploration of new instruments such as violin, flute, and oboe, that these composers forecast the growth of classical music to its highest form.

Richard Carlin is the author of the four­-volume The World of Music (New York, Facts on Ftle, 1987), which includes a volume called European Classical Music.

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