A test of fantasy, emotions and nature
A clear survival of Baroque taste enlivens Vivaldi’s music, in a period otherwise dominated in Italy by Arcadian aesthetic values favouring the principles of balance, prudent restraint and plausibility as against the imaginative extremes of the seventeenth century. This survival, which is a fundamental part of Vivaldi’s complex artistic personality, is manifested by the very titles of his most famous printed instrumental collections: L’estro armonico (The Inspiration of Harmony), op. 3 (1711); La stravaganza (Extravagance), op. 4 (1714); and II cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention), op. 8 (1725). “Harmony” here means the strictness and rationality of the rules of composition, whereas “inspiration”, “extravagance” and “invention” are various terms denoting the free use of fantasy and inspiration. In op. 8, published in Amsterdam by Le Cène, the two aesthetic ideas are explicitly given a “test” in a continuing relationship of opposition and integration. This suggests that, as was already the case in L’estro armonico, the more fantastic and Baroque component of Vivaldi’s creativity is modified and disciplined by qualities that were all demanded in the rational approach of eighteenth-century aesthetics — objectivity in the rules of composition, clarity and symmetry of formal structure, and lucidity of design and eloquence.
In cimento the Baroque and imaginative aspect still predominates, if only because this collection is, of all Vivaldi’s printed works, the richest among his compositions that have a representational or descriptive character. Seven of the twelve concertos have non-musical titles: following the very famous Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons), which form a group at the beginning (nos 1-4), are La tempesta di mare (The Storm at Sea) RV 253 (no. 5), II piacere (Pleasure) RV 180 (no. 6), and La caccia (The Hunt) RV 362 (no. 10). In terms of an anthology, the published collection contains more or less recent compositions: Le quattro stagioni and La caccia date from around 1720, while La tempesta di mare and Concerto RV 242 (no. 7), which was already dedicated to the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel in the incomplete Dresden autograph version, date from 1716-17.
In essence, op. 8 comprises a group of some twenty of Vivaldi’s concertos that have a marked representational character. As a whole, these programmatic or descriptive works, exceptional in the whole repertoire of Italian music in this period, reflect a historical and artistic context that is ambiguous and very expressive. It is a context in which general aesthetic elements (the classical rule of “imitation of nature” and homage to French taste) are interwoven with particular aspects of Vivaldi’s artistry: the tendency towards an imaginative, narrative, and virtually theatrical dimension in the music; and finally there are commercial considerations (by means of an imaginative, non-musical title, the individual concerto was singled out and so remained more highly valued by publishers and purchasers). The representational content is adapted in a straightforward way to the tripartite structure of the concerto: the programme conveyed by the title is realized in the fast movements, while the slow tempo of the middle movement refers to a complementary image or emotion.
La tempesta di mare is a striking picture drawn from nature; in the middle Largo the storm themes recede from the foreground to the orchestral background, and the doleful arioso of the soloist tends towards vocal expression. Il piacere, like Il sospetto (Suspicion) RV 199, L’inquietudine (Restlessness) RV 234, Il riposo (Rest) RV 270, and L’amoroso (The Lover) RV 271, forms part of the series of works depicting emotions; the basic pleasantness is contrasted with the lament of the Largo e cantabile (descending chromatic line of the ritornello): the experience of pleasure is conditioned by that of pain. La caccia, which makes use of fundamental material based on the imitation of wind instruments, evokes the atmosphere of the hunt in the fast movements by adopting the characteristic sounds of horns, leaving the short Adagio to serve as an intermezzo. Il cimento is a collection of violin concertos, but of the five works without non-musical titles there are two, RV 236 (no. 9) and RV 178 (no. 12), that allow for the optional use of an oboe as an alternative to the principal violin. In any case, both concertos originated as works for oboe, identified as RV 454 and RV 449 respectively; this is documented in the autograph manuscript of the splendid and stirring Concerto RV 454 and is shown in each work by the virtually neutral writing for the solo part, which lacks the agility that is beyond the scope of the oboe. MI the other concertos of op. 8 show a high degree of virtuosity, and figuring that is undoubtedly intended for the violin. The fast tempi of the sumptuous Concerto RV 210 (no. 11) are distinctive for the fugal structure of the main section of the ritornello and for the substantial integration of the thematic material with the solo passages.
Translation: Malcolm Gerratt