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 Pieta. 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 Pieta 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 Pieta 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, in view of the range required of the bassoon in the concerto that carries his name. 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, not least in military bands. 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 Pieta 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.
Ten of Vivaldi's bassoon concertos are in minor keys, two of them in G minor. The Concerto in G minor, RV 495, opens with a menacing ritornello, leading to the entry of the solo bassoon with the usual wide leaps and contrasts between the upper and lower registers of the instrument, the solo passages, varying in key, framed by the ritornello, which returns in fuller form to end the movement. The Largo starts with the dotted unison rhythm of the strings and harpsichord, with the bassoon entering to offer an aria-like melody. The ripieno opening of the final Allegro suggests a seasonal storm, mollified at the entry of the soloist, followed by solo passages of varied rhythm.
Fourteen of the bassoon concertos are in C major, the key in which the bassoon is constructed. The Concerto in C major, RV 474, scored as always for the solo instrument and string orchestra with continuo, begins with a cheerful orchestral ritornello before the first solo episode, and the alternation of orchestral and solo passages, the latter calling for considerable virtuosity, particularly in the agility demanded and the wide leaps. The slow movement is again in the form of an aria for the bassoon which explores the lyrical potentiality of the solo instrument, principally in the tenor register, suggesting the soulful mood of the player in pastoral ease later represented in the contemporary Bonanni's Gabinetto Armonico. The final Allegro bursts in with the expected energy, its orchestral ritornello alternating with solo passages.
The Concerto in E flat major, RV 483, the only one in this key, starts with an exciting nine bars of orchestral ritornello, before the entry of the soloist, whose later episodes include demanding repeated notes and much use of scale figuration. The central slow movement is in C minor, a lyrical solo for the bassoon. The final Allegro, in 9/8, restores the original key of E flat major in its unison opening.
It has been remarked that the Concerto in B flat major, RV 502, inscribed to Gioseppino Biancardi, avoids the bottom B flat, available on newer forms of bassoon and perhaps to be expected in a work in that key, but absent on earlier forms of the instrument. The first solo entry of the opening Allegro makes much use of wide leaps, offering a marked contrast of register, going on to passages that include rapid triplet rhythms. The slow movement offers a finely lyrical aria, a further demonstration of Vivaldi's capacity for variety within a relatively limited form. The concerto ends with a vigorous Allegro, its solo episodes offering contrasts of key, rhythm and figuration.
The Concerto in C major, RV 472, allows the solo bassoon to start the first movement with five bars of quasi-recitative, before the orchestral ritornello intervenes. The solo passages call for dexterity in the manipulation of wide leaps, rapid scale passages and repeated notes. The bassoon has a part to play also in the closing bars, that might have been expected to remain only with the rest of the ensemble. The slow movement, in A minor, is followed by a cheerful final Allegro, the opening ritornello leading to the bassoon entry in rapid triplets, a recurrent feature of later solo passages.
Vivaldi occasionally recast concertos originally intended for another instrument. The Concerto in A minor, RV 500, is related to the Oboe Concerto, RV 463, in the same key, inevitable differences found principally in the writing for the solo instrument. The energetic opening Allegro is followed by a lyrical C major slow movement that makes considerable use of scale figuration and the now expected contrasts of register. The last movement remains in C major, and finds a place for elements of contrapuntal writing in its ritornello passages.
ReviewsVivaldi composed the bassoon concertos to display the virtuosity of the soloist; they require brilliance and refinement of technique for the first and last movements as well as a purity and lyricism for the slow movements. Benkocs simply shines in all of them; he has truly mastered the style." - Schwartz, American Record Guide