Concerto Grosso, op. 3, No. 11 in D Minor, RV 565

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            Antonio Vivaldi was the most important composer of the Italian Baroque period, although appreciation of that fact was slow in coming in later times.  But, during his lifetime he was celebrated all over Europe, and his compositions were highly influential—mostly notably on J. S. Bach.  He wrote almost fifty operas, but is remembered now for his amazing fecundity in composing instrumental works.  He wrote about five hundred concertos (not as one unappreciative wag once said, “the same concerto five hundred times.”)  While many of them feature wind instruments, the majority of them are for strings, and are practically an early eighteenth-century compendium of almost every imaginative passage or technique that one could ask of them.

            Vivaldi early on was ordained into the priesthood, and his probable red hair gave him the moniker, “the red priest.”  He was a teacher on and off for most of his life at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (you can still see the building, today, just down the quay from St. Mark’s Cathedral.)  The institution was basically a school for orphaned children or those born to the Venetian nobility under awkward circumstances, shall we say?  The school had very high musical standards, and the quality of its student orchestras was legendary.  Vivaldi, however, was a great traveler, moving around Italy working for various patrons, and taking up residencies here and there in opera houses.   His publications swept Europe, and he was influential in establishing many conventions of eighteenth-century musical composition.  His 1711 publication, L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was published in Amsterdam, and contained twelve concertos.  He was thirty-three at the time and the publication was smash success.

              The textbook orchestration for Italian concerto grosso usually contrasts a solo group of two violins and a ‘cello with a supporting string orchestra—with the usual harpsichord, of course.  But in this collection Vivaldi employs a variety of forces—sometimes four, three, or one violin parts with the other instruments.  No. 11 consists of the conventional solo group (two violins and a ‘cello--the concertino) and the supporting string orchestra—also called the concerto grosso.  Here, we find the traditional three movements of a concerto—although the first movement has a short slow interlude in it.  As one listens to each of the movements, the “roadmap” is fairly clear.   The first movement opens with a section for the two solo violins, with no bass, followed by a section for the solo ‘cello alone with the bass and harpsichord.  Then—rather an exception—there’s a short slow section for everyone.  There follows a fugue-like section for all, and then two alternations between the concertino (the three soloists) and the full orchestra.  A short slow tag concludes it.

            The second movement, traditionally the slow one, here is a siciliano—the traditional Italian dance, with its characteristic dotted rhythm and “swaying” feeling. Here, Vivaldi’s term, spiccato, means--as it does in the first movement--more in the manner of a separation—not the “bouncing” bowing to which it later came to refer.  After a short section by the full orchestra, the two solo violins are featured and like the first movement—with no bass).  A short passage similar to the opening brings the final cadence.

  --Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan

            The last movement has all of the varied elements of the first two movements, and more.  The two solo violins, again, open alone, soon joined by all.  After a featured passage by the solo ‘cello the rest of the movement is a delightful panoply of the apparently inexhaustible imagination of Vivaldi.   For we hear solo violin, two solo violins, solo ‘cello, full orchestra, bass, no bass, and so on.  

            L’estro armonico was the composer’s first collection of printed concertos, and its impact was immense.  It had no equal in its inspiration and as a model for other composers in the Baroque. Its imagination, technical prowess, and attractiveness makes it easy to see why.