by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2001.
If you are reading this magazine in a public space, there is a good chance that you are already listening to the music of Antonio Vivaldi. In coffee shops, gourmet-food stores, and commuter rail stations across the land, he is the Muzak of the middle classes, the backbeat of the bourgeois bustle. If Billboard had an ur-chart that measured an artist’s total exposure in the environment, "The Four Seasons" would probably land at No. 2 or No. 3, up there with "Yesterday" and "Oops! . . . I Did It Again." Adjust the chart to favor artists who have maintained their popularity over time, and Don Antonio, the Red Priest of Venice, who lived from 1678 to 1741, would sweep the field. It won’t be known until the twenty-third century whether the Beatles possess the same kind of pop appeal.
You may have pigeonholed Vivaldi as the manufacturer of five hundred sewing-machine concertos that all sound more or less the same. Put down the double latte and listen more closely. Most movements of Vivaldi concertos go on no longer than a fifties pop hit, but they are packed with information, invention, and emotion; each work is a game of twists and turns, an arrangement of artful shocks. It is difficult at first to hear the element of surprise in this composer’s language, because so many of his tricks have become clichés, but the tricks are still there to be savored: the harnessing of melody to primal rhythm; the painterly use of the orchestra; the celebration of plain chords, with wild harmonic adventures ensuing; the sense of "Checkmate!" at the end, as everything falls beautifully in place.
The stereotype of Vivaldi as a mechanical composer reflects the mechanical style that long prevailed on recordings. Neville Marriner’s classic renditions of the concertos, familiar to anyone who has experienced American drive-time classical radio, are smooth, pleasant, and slightly nauseating. But there is now a younger generation of early-music adepts who are determined to resurrect Vivaldi in all his violent grace. They are led by Il Giardino Armonico, a deliriously good Baroque band from Milan, which appeared last month at Alice Tully Hall, and which returns on February 20th to accompany Cecilia Bartoli at Carnegie Hall. If these musicians were to crowd into a Starbucks and tear into "Winter," from "The Four Seasons," the bustle would come to a shivering halt.
Vivaldi was a fiery, arrogant, faintly suspect character, whose life is documented only in intriguing glimpses. For much of his career, he was the resident composer and violin master of the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian orphanage for girls, which doubled as one of the finest conservatories in Italy. He achieved widespread fame for his first concerto publications—"L’Estro Armonico," in 1711, and "La Stravaganza," in 1716—and also acquired a reputation as a maverick. He tested the patience of his employers with insatiable financial demands, shocked pedantic minds with his disdain for convention, bristled against the slightest hint of criticism, and created a scandal by carrying on an ambiguous alliance with the diva Anna Girò. He seems to have been the Wagner of the Baroque, making enemies as easily as he made friends.
Although his music lapsed into obscurity after his death, to be revived only in the nineteen-twenties, Vivaldi was vastly influential during his lifetime. An 1802 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach makes the astonishing but apparently authoritative claim that the Master "learned to think musically" from his study of Vivaldi’s concertos. What could the creator of the "St. Matthew Passion" have owed to the inventor of "The Four Seasons"? Everything, the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff suggests. It used to be said that Bach took from his Italian contemporary a superficial interest in melody, but the influence went deeper than that. Vivaldi offered a template for building and sustaining musical tension within a steady-state harmonic universe.
Modern tonality took shape over the course of the seventeenth century, as melodic writing pushed aside the art of counterpoint, and Vivaldi manipulated the new language with godlike assurance. In a typical opening—that of the "Tempesta di Mare" Concerto is a good example—the full ensemble dances joyously around a simple tonic-dominant progression, decorating it with rushing scales, driving rhythms, and piercing timbres. If these recurring ensemble passages, or ritornellos, are played with anything less than all-out enthusiasm, they can sound static and dull. The best modern Baroque groups—Il Giardino Armonico, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and Romanesca—deliver them with lusty physicality, recapturing the freshness of the idiom.
Having seized his audience’s attention, Vivaldi liked to hold it through a sequence of mysterious digressions. In contrasting episodes, and in the slow movements at the center of each concerto, purposeful rhythm often gives way to a lethargy of suspended chords and free-floating solo lines. Early-music virtuosos such as the violinist Andrew Manze have taken to adding improvised touches to these spare, nocturnal textures; Manze’s entrancing command of Baroque violin technique can be heard on a Harmonia Mundi recording entitled "Concert for the Prince of Poland." In the Largo of the "Tempesta di Mare," he drops in an impressionistic whole-tone scale, which somehow sounds perfectly apt.
The members of Il Giardino Armonico, in their many recordings for Teldec, go even further in disrupting the courtly veneer that is associated with Baroque style. They indulge in salacious glissandos, folkish, off-center tunings, thuggish thwacks of the bow, and other touches of fancy. Is this modernist exaggeration, or is it a fair approximation of Vivaldi’s own technique? One bit of documentary evidence, a report on a Vivaldi concert of 1715, suggests that the Italians are at least headed in the right direction: "Towards the end, Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment—splendid—to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be."
You can go into Tower Records and buy a suitcase-size boxed set of the complete Mozart or the complete Beethoven. There is no sign yet of a complete Vivaldi, but watch out: the indefatigable Hyperion label, which put out thirty-seven discs of Schubert songs, has launched a survey of Vivaldi’s church music. The composer’s inspiration may wax and wane as he makes his way through the larger sacred forms, but when his mind is fully engaged the effect is tremendous; in the "Stabat Mater," he restrains his penchant for vivid contrast and allows a melancholy tune to float to celestial heights. Robert King and the King’s Consort give lustrous, immaculate performances throughout this series, which now stands at Volume Six.
The great unknown is the corpus of Vivaldi operas—at least twenty survive. Cecilia Bartoli, in her forthcoming concert with Il Giardino Armonico, will present several arias that she and the musicologist Claudio Osele have culled from the Vivaldi archives in Turin. The arias also appear on a Decca CD, "The Vivaldi Album." "Gelido in ogni vena," from the opera "Farnace," is an awe-inspiring transformation of music from "The Four Seasons": the icy chords of "Winter" underpin great downward scales of lament as the title character, gazing at the tomb of his son, rides multiple waves of grief. Bartoli will also sing two savagely expressive arias from the oratorio "Juditha Triumphans."
Vivaldi, more than any of his predecessors, saw music as an art of conflict and change. His concertos follow a seemingly predictable formula, but nothing turns out quite as expected; melodies jump from key to key, slip into the minor mode, stop short, go on longer than usual, break into fragments. One scholar has argued that this startling new language helped to create a more "active" mode of listening, in which audiences learned to follow an instrumental narrative as they would the action of an opera. It is telling that Vivaldi’s all-girl orchestra had to remain hidden behind a grille, for propriety’s sake, when it performed at the Pietà; the result must have been a kind of theatre of liberated sound, with the composer as protagonist. A century before Beethoven, the heroic age of music was under way.