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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
“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-18a Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Four Violins Op. 3, no. 10, I, mm. 37–39

During his lifetime, the Concerto for Four Violins was one of Vivaldi’s best known works, thanks to its publication in his earliest concerto collection, L’estro armonico (roughly, “Music Mania”), op. 3, issued in Amsterdam in 1711. This book, actually printed (like most ensemble publications of the time) as a set of partbooks without score, traveled far and wide, spreading Vivaldi’s fame and making his music a model to many a farflung imitator (including J. S. Bach, who made a boisterous arrangement of the Concerto for Four Violins for four harpsichords). It was followed by several other partbook collections bearing fanciful promotional titles: La stravaganza, La cetra (“The lyre”), and the biggest seller of all, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (something like “The trial of musical skill and contrivance”), op. 8, a book of twelve concerti that came out in 1725 and made a sensation thanks to the first four items it contained.

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-18b Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for Four Violins Op. 3, no. 10, I, mm. 68–72

These four concerti, originally written for a foreign patron of Vivaldi’s, the Bohemian count Wenzel von Morzin, were arranged in a set called Le quattro stagioni, “The Four Seasons.” Accompanied by explanatory sonnets that spelled out their imagery, they were inventively detailed evocations or “imitations” of nature as manifested (respectively) in spring, summer, autumn, and winter—and (perhaps more significantly) of the sensory and emotional responses the seasons inspired. The delight audiences took from the very beginning in the composer’s powers of musical description is reflected in the popularity the Seasons already enjoyed in the eighteenth century, a popularity that crossed all national boundaries. Today, thanks to countless recordings, the set is practically synonymous with the composer’s name.

In France, where descriptive music had an especially strong tradition, and where one of the earliest important public concert series (the Concert spirituel) got under way exactly in the year of the Seasons’ publication, these concerti, particularly Spring (La primavera), became the very cornerstone of the emerging “standard repertory.” In Italy, too, the Seasons put all the rest of Vivaldi in the shade. In 1761, only a couple of decades after the composer’s death, the playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni found it necessary to remind his readers that the famous violinist who composed Le quattro stagioni had also written operas.

La primavera quickly became the most popular one of the lot, and so it has remained. It was arranged for solo flute without accompaniment by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and even as a motet (for the Concert spirituel) by the French composer Michel Corrette, who simply superimposed choral parts declaiming the words of the psalm Laudate Dominum (“Praise ye the Lord”) over Vivaldi’s instrumental parts.

As a look at the first movement of La primavera will show, the concerto form, with its constant and fluid components, proved easy to adapt to illustrative or narrative purposes. (From here on we can use the literary critic’s word mimesis—Greek for “imitation”—to encompass the gamut of illustrative or narrative functions.) Here are the first and second quatrains of the accompanying sonnet, corresponding to the movement in question:


Giunt’è le primavera e festosetti


La salutan gli augei con lieto canto,


E i fonti allo spirar de’ Zeffiretti

Con dolce mormorio scorrono intanto.


Vengon coprendo l’aer di nero amanto

E lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti


Indi, tacendo questi, gli augelletti

Tornan di nuovo al lor canoro incanto.

[Spring has come, and merrily the birds salute it with their happy song. And the streams, at the breath of little Zephyrs, run along murmuring sweetly.

Then, covering the air with a black cloak, come thunder and lightning, as if chosen to proclaim her; and when these have subsided, the little birds return once more to their melodious incantation.]

The letters running down the left margin are original. They mark the exact spots in the score to which the words refer—or rather, the exact spots where the music is designed to mime the words in question. There is no question, then, as to the composer’s exact intentions. The imitations are obvious and hardly need pointing out; and yet it will be worth our while to consider the precise relationship at various points between the musical and verbal imagery.

Letter A corresponds to the ritornello (Ex. 5-19a), which (as befits its mimetic character) is rather unusual. Instead of the usual thematic complex there is a simple bouncy tune in binary form—an imitation folk song, as it were, whose implied words, as if sung by some implied rustics who will actually appear and dance in the last movement, are suggested by the sonnet’s first line. The nature of the mimesis here is “affective,” as one might find in the ritornello of a “happy” aria. Its periodic returns continually reinforce the overall mood of rejoicing at spring’s arrival.

The remaining images, B through E, correspond exactly to the four episodes that come between the ritornelli. Letter B, the singing of the birds (Ex. 5-19b), is rendered in the most straightforward way that music, the “art of combining sounds,” has at its disposal: onomatopoeia, direct “sound-alike” imitation. Birdsong had indeed long been a violinistic stock-in-trade, to the point where fastidious fiddlers like Francesco Geminiani, a pupil of Corelli who worked in England and wrote a famous treatise on violin playing, were fed up with it. In a celebrated bilious aside, Geminiani complained that “imitating the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl, and other Birds…rather belongs to the Professors of Legerdemain and Posture-masters [i.e., magicians and charlatans] than to the Art of Musick.”9 He wrote this in 1751, twenty-six years after Vivaldi’s Seasons had begun circulating in print and sounding forth from concert stages in France and England, and the composer of La primavera was surely one of the prime offenders.

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-19a Antonio Vivaldi, La primavera (Op. 8, no. 1), I, mm. 1–3

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-19b Antonio Vivaldi, La primavera (Op. 8, no. 1), I, mm. 15–18

Letter C, the episode of the brook and breezes (Ex. 5-19c), takes us back to a venerable “trope,” or mimetic convention, whereby water is evoked by means of a rising-and-falling contour that suggests its wavelike motion. The technical name for this trope is metonymy, the representation of an object through one of its attributes. Such effects were a stock device for “word painting” in sixteenth century madrigals, and “madrigalism” would not be a bad term to use to characterize Vivaldi’s mimetic devices as well, despite the transfer to the instrumental medium.

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-19c Antonio Vivaldi, La primavera (Op. 8, no. 1), I, mm. 37–41

Using it would signal the easily overlooked, somewhat paradoxical fact that to incorporate mimesis into an instrumental concerto was actually to fall back on an old practice, one that the new Italian instrumental genres were widely perceived as threatening. (Recall old Fontanelle and his lugubrious plea, “Sonate, que me veux-tu?”) Vivaldi was aware of this. He himself once used the term concerto madrigalesco to denote a piece in somewhat archaic style that used the kind of purply expressive chromatic harmonies the old madrigalists had formerly used to “paint” emotively laden words.

If we adapt the term to cover other kinds of word-painting as well, then Le quattro stagioni are also concerti madrigaleschi, and so are quite a number of other famous Vivaldi concerti, including La tempesta del mar, the item that immediately follows the Seasons in Vivaldi’s opus 8, which “paints” a storm at sea, or again the eighth concerto in the book, called La caccia, which incorporates hunting signals (and which has vocal antecedents going all the way back to the fourteenth century.

What all this shows once again, and it is something never to forget, is that new styles and genres do not actually replace or supplant the old in the real world, only in history books. In the real world the new takes its place alongside the old and, during the period of their coexistence, the two are always fair game for hybridization.

To return to our catalogue: letter D, the sudden storm (Ex. 5-19d), juxtaposes low tremolandi for the ripieni, mimicking thunder, with high scales that depict lightning.

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-19d Antonio Vivaldi, La primavera (Op. 8, no. 1), I, mm. 45–46

“Concerti Madrigaleschi”

ex. 5-19e Antonio Vivaldi, La primavera (Op. 8, no. 1), I, mm. 60–65

Thunder, like birdsong, is onomatopoeia—a natural for music. But how can music imitate lightning, which is a visual, not an aural phenomenon? Again by means of metonymy: the adjectives one might use to describe the violin scales—bright, quick, even “flashy”—apply to lightning as well; the shared attributes are what link the images. Following the storm, the ritornello takes on its minor-mode coloration, as if an affective reflection on the spoiling of the day.

Letter E, the birds’ return (Ex. 5-19e), is the masterstroke: the way the solo violins steal in diffidently on chromatic scale fragments (yes, the passus duriusculus), as if checking out the weather before resuming their song, adds a “psychological” dimension to the onomatopoetical. This is no longer the work of a professor of legerdemain or a posture-master but the work of an expert musical dramatist. And that is the other obvious resonance that lies behind Vivaldi’s mimetic practices: the opera house, where winds and storms, birds, rustic song, and all the rest were regularly evoked and compared—in the ritornelli of “simile arias”—with dramatic situations and the emotions to which they gave rise.


(9) Francesco Geminiani, The Art of Playing on the Violin (London, 1751), p. 1.

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. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05008.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05008.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-05008.xml