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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form
Richard Taruskin

The main protagonist and establisher of the three-movement soloistic concerto, as already mentioned, was Antonio Vivaldi, a Venetian priest who from 1703 to 1740 supervised the music program at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, one of the city’s four orphanages. The word ospedale (cf. hospital), originally meant the same thing as conservatorio (whence “conservatory”); both were institutions that maintained and educated indigent children (orphans, foundlings, bastards) at public expense, and both emphasized vocational training in music. The Pietà housed only girls, and thanks to Vivaldi’s extraordinary talent and energy, its program was outstandingly successful. The Sunday vespers concerts performed by its massed bands and choirs of budding maidens under Vivaldi’s direction were regarded as something of a phenomenon and became one of the city’s major tourist attractions.

Travelers’ reports are split between those that emphasized the young performers’ allure, and those that emphasized the fiery demeanor of il prete rosso, “the red-haired priest” who presided, when present, with his violin at the ready. “There is nothing so charming,” wrote Charles de Brosses, a French navigator, “as to see a young and pretty nun in her white robe, with a sprig of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, leading the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable.”6 By contrast, Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach, a German music patron who caught Vivaldi in action at the opera house, wrote that his playing “really frightened me.”7

Vivaldi’s official duties at the Pietà were the spur that caused him to produce concertos in such fantastic abundance. The most popular Venetian composer of opera and oratorio in his day, he was superbly prolific in those genres as well, and internationally famous. But it is with his five hundred surviving concertos (out of who can only guess how many composed?) that his name is irrevocably linked. About 350, almost three quarters, feature a single solo instrument, and of these about 230 (almost half the total) are for the violin, which was not only Vivaldi’s own instrument but the one taught to the largest number of girls at the Ospedale. Runner-up, with thirty-seven concertos, is (perhaps unexpectedly) the bassoon. There are also numerous concertos for flute, for oboe, for cello, and occasionally for rarer instruments, including some (like the mandolin and the “flautino” or flageolet) that were most often used in folk or street music—that is, by nonliterate musicians.

Some three hundred Vivaldi concertos are found today in unique manuscript copies, many of them autographs, housed since the 1920s in the National Library of Turin in northern Italy. They were deposited there by the musicologist Alberto Gentili, who tracked them down and purchased them for the library with funds provided by a local banker named Roberto Foà and a textile manufacturer named Filippo Giordano. These manuscripts had belonged to Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717–94), the Imperial (Austrian) ambassador to Venice, who later served as the “intendant” or impresario-in-charge of the Vienna opera. It is thought that he purchased the collection—either in Venice or in Vienna, where Vivaldi happened to die in 1741 while visiting on operatic business—intact from the composer’s estate, and that they represented the actual performing repertoire of the Pietà at the time of his death.

These are the concertos, in other words, that were expressly composed for the outstanding girl musicians—the figlie privilegiati, as they were called—whom Vivaldi trained and led. Published in the aftermath of World War II as a national treasure in a huge series of editions prepared by a leading Italian composer of the day, Gian Francesco Malipiero, these previously unknown Vivaldi concertos were a major spur to the so-called “postwar Baroque boom” that awakened active performing and recording interest in many forgotten repertories of “early music.” They thus have significance in the history of the twentieth century’s musical life as well as the eighteenth’s.

A concerto in C major for bassoon from the Foà deposit can serve as well as any (and better than most) in the somewhat imaginary capacity of “typical” Vivaldi concerto. It once carried the misleadingly low number 46 in the catalogue of Vivaldi’s works by Marc Pincherle, whose listing, once standard, was based on keys (starting with C); more recently it has carried equally misleading high number 477 in the catalogue of Peter Ryom, whose listings, based on instrumentation, are now supplanting Pincherle’s. In any case it well exemplifies the basic principles of concerto-writing that were à la mode in the early eighteenth century, largely because of Vivaldi’s commanding example.

Johann Joachim Quantz, a flutist and composer who in 1752 published (in the modest guise of a flute tutor) the most compendious encyclopedia of mid-eighteenth-century musical practice, called this type of concerto “a serious concerto with a large accompanying body” (the italics were his).8 What made it so was the nature of the ritornello, “majestic and carefully elaborated in all the parts,” in Quantz’s words, and containing a variety of melodic ideas. In its full form this complex ritornello functions as a frame, launching the movement and bringing it to an end, as in the main (“A”) section of a da capo aria. Elsewhere, as Quantz describes (or for any composers reading, prescribes), “its best ideas are dismembered and intermingled during or between the solo passages.”

Vivaldi’S Five HundredVivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-16 Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 1–12

The twelve-measure ritornello that introduces our bassoon concerto (Ex. 5-16) consists of four distinct melodic ideas. The first (mm. 1–4) is “spun out” of a turn figure and a rising third. The second (mm. 4–7) is a spaciously textured derivation from our old acquaintance the passus duriusculus, the chromatic descent from tonic to dominant degrees, presented not as a bass but as a treble line in the first violins, played against a bass consisting of ostinato repetitions of the opening turn figure. (Mentally connect the first and last notes in every group of four eighths in the first violin part and the chromatically descending line will emerge to the eye as clearly as it does in performance to the ear; the octave Gs in between double the viola’s “pedal.” This kind of “compound” melodic line, containing two registrally separated “voices” in one, was common in Italian string music and in later music, including a lot of Bach’s, that imitated it.) The third characteristic phrase in the ritornello (mm. 8–10) is marked by a radically contrasting texture, called all’unisono because it consists of unharmonized octaves. The fourth and last (mm. 10–12) is a cadential motive that (like the second phrase) makes a playful feint toward the parallel minor.

If we label these component phrases for reference with the letters from A to D, we can easily compare the partial (or “dismembered”) internal repetitions of the ritornello with the full statement at opposite ends of the movement. In the first of them, the opening phrase (A) is balanced against a consequent phrase that telescopes truncated versions of B and D into a single four-bar span. The next internal ritornello consists of phrase A paired with phrase C, the one omitted in the previous statement. The next time, A is followed by fuller statements of B and D. The last internal ritornello is brief; it consists of nothing more than the second half of phrase B (in the major mode rather than the minor).

Each of these ritornellos is built on a different scale degree. Only the outer (full-blown) statements are based on the tonic; their harmonic stability reflects their important role in articulating the form of the piece. In between we get statements on V, vi, iii (the remotest point, articulated by the lengthiest internal ritornello), and (briefly) V again, providing a smooth “retransition” to the home key. The whole trajectory comprises a strongly directed tonal sequence embodying a characteristic “binary” or “round trip” motion: the initial swing to the dominant is prolonged through a deceptive cadence and a “regression” along the circle of fifths (that is, a move farther away from the tonic) before the dominant is picked up again and directed home: I–V–[vi–iii]—V–I.

Thus the sequence of ritornellos defines and unifies the structure of the concerto movement both melodically and tonally. In between come the solos, alternating not only with the ritornellos but with the “ripieni” or backup players who play them. In one sense—the public or “external” sense—the virtuosic solo turns are what the concerto is all about. It is the soloist one pays to hear, after all. In another sense—the structural or “internal” sense—the solos have a much less important role, merely providing modulatory transitions from one “tonicized” scale degree on which ritornellos are played to the next. They are the exact functional equivalent of the “episodes” between the expositions in a fugue.

In contrast to the ripieni, who are confined to repetitions (whether full or partial) of the ritornello, the soloist never repeats. Each episode (summarized in Ex. 5-17a-e) presents a new hurdle, progressively more challenging in its figuration: arpeggios, fast slurred scales, wide-leaping triplets, etc. Thus the typical concerto movement is a fascinating interplay of the fixed and the fluid: one body of players is confined to a single idea, while the other (here a group of one, plus continuo) is seemingly unconstrained in its spontaneous unfolding. One group only repeats, the other never repeats. One “role” is dramatically subordinate but structurally dominant, the other is dramatically dominant but structurally subordinate. Their effect together is one of complementation, of disparate parts fitting harmoniously into a satisfying, functionally differentiated whole, all of it grounded by the constant auxiliary presence of the basso continuo, everyone’s companion and aide.

Vivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-17a Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 12–14

Vivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-17b Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 30–25

Vivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-17c Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 44–48

Vivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-17d Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 162–165

Vivaldi’S Five Hundred

ex. 5-17e Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Bassoon in C major, F VIII/13, mm. 74–78

All of this suggests a social paradigm or metaphor. Indeed, the concerto form has always been viewed, in one way or another, as a kind of microcosm, a model of social interaction and coordinated (or competitive) activity. That is one of the things that has always invested its seemingly abstract patterns with “meaning” and fascination for listeners. And that fascination, along with the fascination of tonal relations with their strong metaphorically “forward” drive to completion, is what allowed “large” forms of instrumental music to emerge and to assume a place of central importance in European musical culture.

The remainder of the concerto amplifies the sense of kinship with the opera seria. The broad (largo) second movement, scored for soloist and continuo alone, is a study in “florid” song (coloratura) over a static bass—a veritable aria d’affetto (or, more precisely, an arietta, in view of its binary form). The final movement, another ritornello-style composition, brings the ripieno back. Less “serious” than the first movement, it sports a ritornello theme with only two distinct parts and a pervasive all’unisono texture. As might be expected, the two halves of the theme are complementary or, more precisely, reciprocal. Tonally, they reproduce the functions of the binary form: the first phrase makes a half cadence on the dominant, the second a full cadence on the tonic. Melodically, too, the phrases are complementary. Both feature rushing scales, first ascending then descending. Taken as a three-part whole, the concerto reproduces in its texture the effect of a typical da capo aria: outer sections with ritornellos frame a contrasting middle section in which the soloist is accompanied by the continuo instruments only.

For an idea of Vivaldi not at his most typical but at his most bizarre or “frightening,” consider one of his most unabashedly extravagant compositions, the Concerto in B minor for four violins. Its only rival in excess might be the concertos “per l’orchestra di Dresda,” which Vivaldi wrote on order to show off the famous orchestra maintained by the Elector of Saxony Friedrich August II, whose titles included that of King of Poland, and who kept up a “royal” court in Dresden; this concerto had a colossal concertino consisting of six instruments: an especially showy violin part for the Elector’s “concertmaster” Johann Georg Pisendel, Vivaldi’s former pupil, along with two oboes, two recorders, and bassoon.

The concerto for four violins is written in what was then a very unusual, indeed hardly used key that was reserved for very special expressive—or (in this case) impressive—effects. In all of Vivaldi’s vast instrumental output the key of B minor turns up only twelve times. One piece that uses it is a sombre “Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro” (“Sinfonia to be played before the holy tomb”). The four-violin concerto likewise exploits what was thought of as the harsh or crazed quality of the key for expressive effect. Originally played (one may assume) at the Ospedale by the master and three of his most headstrong figlie to an enthusiastic reception, the work is a veritable juggernaut. The four soloists are forever intruding with calculated unruliness on the ripieni and on one other, co-opting portions of the ritornellos, vying obsessively for the last word, forcing the music out of its harmonic sanctuaries, so to speak, and into the flux.

Very significantly, the ritornellos are highly truncated affairs, split between sequential patterning that allows harmonic “movement,” and highly repetitive ostinato patterning (especially in the outermost ritornelli) that builds tension by inhibiting harmonic movement. The soloists jack up the tension further by dividing the ripienists’ eighth notes into relentless chains of sixteenths that are maintained as a virtual rhythmic constant. The combination of this insistent rhythmic commotion with a harmonic plan that alternates between harmonically pent up, static repetition (as in Ex. 5-18a) and periodic harmonic discharge (as in Ex. 5-18b) produces an almost unbearably exciting impression of fluctuating tension and release. The solidification of tonal routines and the forms accommodating them have given the composer access to a kind of musical galvanism, resulting in a newfound ability to shock, startle, and manipulate the responses of the audience.

Which of course makes one wonder about the kind of expression audiences might have given their responses at the time. One of the most striking things we found when looking in the last chapter into the mores of the opera seria was the spontaneity and the uninhibitedness of the audience response, so unlike the behavior of “classical” audiences today. We might also reflect on the fact that interactive instrumental music—the “concertato” principle, if you will—is still practiced today as a contemporary art in various forms of “nonclassical” music. Audiences still tend to react to these musics, whether improvised (as in jazz) or memorized and reproduced (as in “heavy metal” and other forms of instrumental rock), with an unrestrained, demonstrative enthusiasm that recalls the behavior of eighteenth-century opera audiences. It is probable, therefore, that Vivaldi’s concertos were greeted by their intended audience with the kind of intense reflex response one can find now only at pop performances. The sense of occasion thus created would go a long way toward explaining the extraordinary demand these pieces excited in their time. The immediacy of audience response quickens awareness of what is being responded to. If every solo brings (or fails to bring) applause, players are stimulated to take risks in hopes of keeping the noisy feedback coming.

To gain the full flavor of a Vivaldi concerto, then, it is probably not enough to listen to even the most aggressive performance. One must imagine an equally aggressive audience—a house full of shouting, clapping, stamping listeners, and the effect their demonstrations of approval may have had on the performers. (One doesn’t have to work hard to imagine such a thing; any rock video will provide a living example.) The decorous audience behavior first demanded by composers and performers of instrumental music in the nineteenth century can cast a real pall on music written earlier, to say nothing of those who play it.


(6) Charles de Brosses, Lettres familières sur Italie, quoted in Marc Pincherle, Vivaldi, trans. Christopher Hatch (New York: Norton, 1962), p. 19.

(7) Eberhard Preussner, Die musikalischen Reisen des Herrn von Uffenbach (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1949), p. 67; trans. Piero Weiss, in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 200.

(8) Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute, trans. Edward R. Reilly (New York: Schirmer, 1975), p. 311.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 The Italian Concerto Style and the Rise of Tonality-driven Form." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05007.xml