Harpsichordist Ian Watson returns to the front of the stage to lead a dynamic program of Vivaldi and other Baroque luminaries. Discover the virtuosity of H&H’s principal players in a breathtaking chamber concert of 18th-century music from Italian masters both at home and abroad.
- Vivaldi: Sinfonia, Il coro delle Muse
- Locatelli: Introduzione in D Major, Op. 4, No. 5
- Avison: Concerto Grosso No. 6 in D Major after Scarlatti
- Geminiani: Concerto grosso detto La follia
- Vivaldi: Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor, RV 531
- Torelli: Sinfonia for two violins and cello
- Durante: Concerto a cinque in A Major
- Vivaldi: Concerto in B Minor for four violins
Descriptions of early 18th-century performances by virtuosi generally resemble the one penned by Thomas Dampier: “He plays with so much Fury upon his Fiddle, that in my humble opinion, he must war [wear] out some Dozens of them in a year.” Dampier’s account is specific to a performance by Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695–1764), but it can also describe any of the works on today’s concert.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was born in Venice. His father was a barber-turned- violinist, an unusual change of profession for the time. Antonio was the oldest of nine children and the only one to follow music as a profession. He took holy orders on March 23, 1703, and was given the nickname il prete rosso (the red-headed priest). At some point after his ordination, he stopped saying Mass. According to Vivaldi, this was due to an illness that he described as a tightness in the chest; today, it is believed he suffered from asthma.
Beginning in 1703, Vivaldi was employed by the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four charitable institutions dedicated to the care and education of indigent children in Venice. First hired as violin master, Vivaldi’s position was later expanded to include composition and conducting. Between 1709 and 1711, he temporarily lost his post at the Pietà, probably due to the financial situation there. His work for the Pietà did not require his continued presence in Venice, so he traveled extensively and pursued his many compositional opportunities, particularly in opera. He died in Vienna on July 27, 1741.
Vivaldi composed about 770 works, including about 500 concertos. He is remembered today primarily as the composer who shaped the instrumental concerto, a piece which alternates passages for a soloist with those for orchestra. His Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor, RV531 and Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins, RV 580 both adhere to this principle of alternation, providing rich variety and contrast. Even the Sinfonia from Il coro delle Muse, RV 149, composed in 1740, follows this pattern, which Vivaldi codified and which influenced his contemporaries and future composers.
Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695–1764) was born in Bergamo in 1695 and studied some music while he was young. He went to Rome when he was 16, perhaps hoping to study with Arcangelo Corelli. It is unknown whether or not his wishes were fulfilled. In 1723, Locatelli began to travel to courts throughout Europe. He moved to Amsterdam in 1729, and remained there for the rest of his life, devoting himself to composing and revising his works for publication.
Locatelli’s Opus 4 was published by Le Cène in 1735. These 12 compositions are divided evenly between Introduttioni teatrali and concertos. Like the other works in this set, the Introduttione in D Major, Op. 4, No. 5 contains three movements (fast—slow—fast). It also uses the alternation pattern common to the concerto, with the solo passages expounding on the music of the orchestra.
The first movement is a cascade of sound with descending arpeggios in staggered, imitative entrances. The second movement differs from the first in mood, key, and figurations. The elegant melody is decorated with numerous embellishments, producing tensions against the background of calm. The final movement, a dance in form and mood, is in triple meter. As a balance to the falling figure of the first movement, the figures in this movement rise without imitation but with striking effect.
Scholars are unsure of the function of these works. They may have been stand-alone works or used as instrumental music preceding stage works, whether spoken or sung. It is also possible they had multiple uses. Also uncertain is the composition date for these works; they might have been written as early as the 1720s.
Although he had been offered positions in other cities, Charles Avison (1709–1770) chose to spend his life in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. He was organist and Director of the Newcastle Music Society, for which he organized subscription concerts beginning in 1735. His Concerto Grosso No. 6 in D Major after Scarlatti shows his preference for Italian composers, a view he made public in the prefaces to his publications. This concerto is one of 12 works Avison arranged for strings from harpsichord sonatas by the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757).
Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762) began his career as a promising violinist. His father, also a violinist, probably gave Geminiani his first music lessons. He later studied with Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), and possibly Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) in Rome.
In 1714, Geminiani moved to England. His first patron in London arranged for him, accompanied by Handel, to perform for the king. His music was highly regarded and thought to be on the same level as Corelli and Handel. After 1732, Geminiani lived in either Dublin or London, where he may have taught Charles Avison. Also in these years, Geminiani traveled, painted, and wrote an influential treatise on violin playing, as well as treatises on music theory.
Often described as his best composition, Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, La follia is a set of variations based on Corelli’s Op. 5, No. 12. La follia is a traditional chord progression and resulting bass line, which originates from an improvisational method that dates to at least the Renaissance. Geminiani’s concerto grosso preserves the composer’s individual style, while honoring his teacher Corelli. The variations are divided into three movements and incorporate the exchange between orchestra and soloist associated with the concerto.
Like the other composers on this program, Giuseppe Torelli (1658–1709) made important contributions to the concerto in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Moreover, he composed works of lasting beauty. Torelli was born in Verona on April 22, 1658. In the early 1680s, he moved to Bologna, where he played not only violin but also viola. In 1698, Torelli became the maestro di concerto for Georg Friedrich II, Margrave of Brandenburg. At the turn of the century, he returned to Italy, where he died in 1709. Known as a great violinist and composer, he is remembered today for his trumpet music as much as his works for strings.
Francesco Durante (1684–1755) composed few works for instruments alone. He was more prolific as a composer of sacred vocal works and numbered many well-known composers as his students, including Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and Niccolò Jommelli. Durante’s uncle was his earliest known teacher; the composer also visited Rome and Naples frequently. In 1728, he was appointed to the highly regarded post of primo maestro at the conservatory Poveri de Gesù Cristo in Naples. He remained there for 10 years. In 1742, he was asked to join the faculty at another Neapolitan conservatory, Santa Maria di Loreto. In 1745, he became the maestro primo at Santa Onofrio, as well. He was remembered long after his death for his skill as a composer and influence as a teacher. In 1767, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called Durante “the greatest master of harmony of Italy, that is to say, of the whole world,” a commentary not only on Durante, but also on the importance of Italy in the early part of the 18th century. The clarity of Durante’s harmonic writing is evident in his Concerto V in A Major. Equally enticing is the ease with which he moves between rhythmic patterns, creating new points of emphasis with each return.
Instrumental virtuosi were often also composers, creating difficult and challenging solo sections customized to their own performing abilities. Their compositions were both nuanced and extravagant, designed to highlight the soloist through difficult passagework as well as delicate melodies. The result, a one-of-a-kind experience for performer and audience alike, promises an endless variety of musical expression.
© Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2013
2012–2013 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Vivaldi: Concerto in B Minor for four violins
(Apollo's Fire; Jeannette Sorrell, conductor)