Known in his native Venice as the red priest, from the inherited colour of his hair, Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, the son of a barber who later served as a violinist at the great Basilica of St Mark. Vivaldi studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he won a reputation for himself as a violinist of phenomenal ability and was appointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Piet�. This last was one of four such charitable institutions, established for the education of orphan, indigent or illegitimate girls and boasting a particularly fine musical tradition. Here the girls were trained in music, some of the more talented continuing to serve there as assistant teachers, earning the dowry necessary for marriage. Vivaldi�s association with the Piet� continued intermittently throughout his life, from 1723 under a contract that provided for the composition of two new concertos every month. At the same time he enjoyed a connection with the theatre, as the composer of some fifty operas, director and manager. He finally left Venice in 1741, travelling to Vienna, where there seemed some possibility of furthering his career under imperial patronage, or perhaps with the idea of travelling on to the court at Dresden, where his pupil Pisendel was working. He died in Vienna a few weeks after his arrival in the city, in relative poverty. At one time he had been worth 50,000 ducats a year, it seemed, but now had little to show for it, as he arranged for the sale of some of the music he had brought with him.
Visitors to Venice had borne witness to Vivaldi�s prowess as a violinist, although some found his performance more remarkable than pleasurable. He certainly explored the full possibilities of the instrument, while perfecting the newly developing form of the Italian solo concerto. He left nearly five hundred concertos. Many of these were for the violin, but there were others for a variety of solo instruments or for groups of instruments. He claimed to be able to composer a new work quicker than a copyist could write it out, and he clearly coupled immense facility with a remarkable capacity for variety within the confines of the three-movement form, with its faster outer movements framing a central slow movement.
The girls at the Piet� had a wide variety of instruments available to them, in addition to the usual strings and keyboard instruments of the basic orchestra. These included the bassoon, for which Vivaldi wrote 39 concertos, two of which are seemingly incomplete. The reason for such a number of concertos for a relatively unusual solo instrument is not known, and the fact that one concerto is inscribed to Count Morzin, a patron of Vivaldi from Bohemia and a cousin of Haydn�s early patron, and another to a musician in Venice, Gioseppino Biancardi, reveals little, although it has been suggested that Biancardi represented an earlier tradition of bassoon playing, as a master of its predecessor, the dulcian. This is implied by the avoidance of the bottom note of the later instrument, B flat. The bassoon was in general an essential element in the characteristic German court orchestra of the eighteenth century, doubling the bass line and found in proportionately greater numbers than is now usual. The orchestral bassoon part was not written out, unless it differed, as it very occasionally did, from the bass line played by the cello, double bass and continuo. The fact that bassoons are specifically mentioned as being among those played by the girls of the Piet� seems to indicate that they were used there for this purpose at least. There had been solo works written for the instrument during the seventeenth century and technical changes led to a number of solo concertos by the middle of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless the quantity of bassoon concertos written by Vivaldi remains unusual.
Seven of Vivaldi�s bassoon concertos are in F major. The Concerto in F major, RV 486, scored as always for the solo instrument and string orchestra with continuo, begins with an orchestral ritornello before the first solo episode, and the alternation of orchestral and solo passages, the latter calling for considerable virtuosity. The slow movement is in the form of an aria for the bassoon and continuo which explores the lyrical potentiality of the solo instrument, principally in the tenor register. The principle of alternating orchestral ritornello and solo passages is duly followed in the last movement, which bursts in with the expected energy.
The Concerto in C major, RV 475, one of fourteen in this key, starts with a unison passage, introducing the customary orchestral ritornello, its relative restraint setting off the lively virtuosity of the solo entry of the solo bassoon with its rapid characteristic figuration. The slow movement opens with an orchestral introduction before the plaintively lyrical bassoon aria. The final Allegro non molto begins with an orchestral ritornello of lively delicacy, reflected by the soloist.
The Concerto in B flat major, �La notte�, RV 501, is one of the relatively few concertos by Vivaldi that, like The Four Seasons, has a programme, suggested in the general title La notte (The night) and the movement titles. The short first movement sets the scene, the bassoon entering with its ornamented recitative-like melodic line. I fantasmi explores the dramatic possibilities suggested by the title, as the bassoon evokes the varied fantasmata of the night, followed by the relative tranquillity of Il sonno (Sleep), brought to an end only by Sorge l�aurora (Dawn breaks), the energy of the bassoon contrasted with the varied reactions implied by the orchestra, as it awakes to a new day.
The Concerto in F major, RV 488, begins with a wide-spaced figure, echoed by the bassoon in the opening of the first entry, and in what follows. The central Largo has lyrical bassoon passages with continuo, linked by the orchestra. The dotted rhythms of the last movement ritornello, with its rapid repeated notes, frame solo bassoon episodes of virtuoso display.
The Concerto in B flat major, RV 504, one of four concertos in this key, starts with an effective ritornello, the excited rapid scales of which are reflected in the bassoon solo that follows, with all its variety of figuration, a further example of the inventiveness of the composer, within a relatively restricting structure. The soloist offers a poignant aria in the slow movement, scored for bassoon and continuo. Rapid scale figuration is again a feature of the final Allegro.
Vivaldi�s Concerto in C major, RV 467, has a first movement of cheerful energy, to which minor-key touches add contrast in sequence after sequence, with every variety of figuration. The minor-key slow movement starts in a mood of melancholy, continued in a lyrical bassoon solo. The ritornello of the last movement provides the necessary element of contrast, before the demonstration of agility that marks the solo episodes that return, before the effective conclusion to a work that offers yet further evidence of the composer�s facility and infinite variety of invention.