The story of the reception of the compositions of Antonio Vivaldi is extremely curious. After his death and during the whole of the 19th century, Vivaldi was indeed known to scholars, but his real rediscovery and appearance in concerts dates from the 20th century: the publication of the composer’s instrumental scores undertaken by the newly founded Antonio Vivaldi Italian Institute was begun only in 1947. No sooner was he rediscovered than Vivaldi made up for lost time: today, little more than 40 years after the first republication and resumed performance of his concertos, Vivaldi is certainly among the best known, most heard composers of all time; and the themes of the Four Seasons are among those (like the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the finale of his Ninth) that thousands of the public recognise. But the story of the interpretation of Vivaldi is also curious. Let us start with the pre-history: in 1924 Bernardino Molinari was among the first to re-offer the Four Seasons in the concert halls of half of Europe, but in transcriptions for large orchestra; in 1949 the Accademia Musicale Chigiano of Siena offered a whole week of Vivaldi; but people were still convinced that the Vivaldi material that had come down to us was full of gaps and therefore in need of completion. Publication of the instrumental pages put a curb on the mania for size of orchestrations: from 1947 onwards, performances became more restrained, and the mania became that of alleged fidelity to the text. An important stage was reached in 1976 when Nikolaus Harnoncourt issued a disc of the Opus 8 concertos (and I underline “disc”: it is through discographic support, in great part, that the story of acceptance can be written): “Harnoncourt’s Seasons” became the most advanced point of a research based on the study of different performance practices in order to rediscover, on philological bases, the pleasure of live interpretation instead of one of museum archaeology. One can speak of pre and post Harnoncourt; and precisely in this course (with all respect, naturally, to the artists in the case) we can register the experience of the Giardino Armonico, whose point of departure is to be found in Harnoncourt and was then developed and, through the experience of fifteen crowded years, taken to the furthest consequences.
Let us consider, among the interpretative conquests of this story of acceptance, the realisation of the basso continuo, which decades of practice have brought from a stunted and unconvincing situation to the quantitative and qualitative imagination of instruments employed “in concert”, as was already indicated at the dawn of this practice, in 1607, by the Italian theorist Agostino Agazzari: among the instruments we meet “organ, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, harp, which form the foundation; lirone, cittern, spinet, chitarrina, violin, pandora, which are for ornament and which, sporting and adding counterpoints, render the harmony more agreeable and sonorous”. Or, as in the informative letter of Agazzari’s published by Adriano Banchieri in 1609: “In concert the lute should be played with pleasing invention and diversity, now with strokes and sweet reiterations, now with long flourishes, and in stretti with some graceful upper notes repeating points of imitation in various places; and producing charm with gruppi, trills and accenti [appoggiaturas] […] The chitarrone, or theorbo as we like to call it, should in concert play with full and sweet consonances, re-striking its drone strings with light flourishes, a particular excellence of such an instrument, at pauses using trills and varied accenti produced by the lower hand. In concert the violone (as the bass part) should proceed as a foundation, sustaining the harmony of the other parts and playing in sweet consonance with the basses and contrabasses. The viols should draw their bows to their full length, clearly and sonorously, and in particular the lirone or viola bastarda should play its part with much judgment and on a basis of good counterpoint and experience. The violin calls for clear and long passages, with lively sections, echoes and little replies repeated on different strings, affecting accenti, nuances of bowing, with gruppi and varied trills.” Even if this evidence refers to the early Baroque period, we can consider it more than legitimate as a clue to the period which is of closer interest to us, that of Vivaldi.
Of capital importance for the interpretation of Baroque music and of Vivaldi in particular has been the study of mid-18th century aesthetics, starting with the etymological enquiry into the term “Baroque”: even musicians have accepted that it is perhaps of Portuguese origin and could mean “a steep cliff” or “an irregularly shaped [gibbous] pearl”, images that make one shudder; or perhaps the etymology is Italian, and the root would be “baro”, “barare” (to cheat), i.e. the most subtle and histrionic form of deception that we can apply, bearing in mind pictorial or architectural forms of this epoch. One of the aims of the artist became that of surprise: that is what we fully understand only by reading poets like G. B. Marino or G. Chiabrera, who explain to us that the purpose of their poetry is that of “raising the reader’s eyebrows”. The skilful musician of the late 20th century again needs to astonish, but also to move, in short to convince; and the “Baroque” aesthetic itself has suggested a way of explanation — by the art of rhetoric. The analogy between a good orator and a good musician, present in Marcus Fabius Quintilian’s De institutione oratoria and then taken up in the most important musical treatises of the Renaissance and Baroque, has given our musicians food for reflection. Perhaps nothing has had a greater influence on modern interpreters than this analogy in the way to present, once again, musical pages that were not written for us and that we need to recover, seeking afresh to convince an addressee who is no longer contemporary with the sender and the instrumental means at his disposal. More than in the field of the Dispositio or of the Decoratio, the analogy stands comparison in the field of the Elocutio. In this regard, some explicit evidence on the art of persuasion as applied to musical performance is greatly to be relished. It is again Banchieri who, in 1614, quotes the modern musicians who “seek to imitate the perfect orator: the affects of the words, of sorrow, harshness, falsity, interrogation, emphasis, joy, laughter, song, are imitated with musical notes — in a single word, an imitation of natural oration.” But it is perhaps in the nonmusical treatises that we find the most interesting musical indications, like the following, hidden in the pages. of the Cannocchiale aristotelico by Emanuele Tesauro (1654), where transgression in art is exemplified as a means of elocution: “It is, then, an oratorical virtue to incur some vice, now and then negligently letting some cacophony appear so as to escape a vice of too great cleanliness, which reveals the artifice when it is unmasked. Hence we may see many harshnesses and hissings and roarings studiously scattered in orations and in Latin and Greek poems, with such grace that negligence itself is diligence and voluntary error becomes a figure. […I Thus an expert cittern player lets a false string sound in his harmonious performance; and this upset is rehearsed, either to laugh at those who will laugh at it, or to seem to be playing by instinct and not art, or to make an illustration of barbarism. Thus, finally, the oration seems enlivened rather than mannered.” It seems almost like reading a music critic of 1993 reviewing a disc of the Giardino Armonico…
Translation: Lionel Salter
Notes on performance technique
The revolution brought about by Italian musicians at the beginning of the 17th century, which gave rise to the birth of the melodrama, the concerto form and the sonata understood in the sense of a solo with the support of a basso continuo, did not fail to influence the organo-logical researches of the major luthiers of the time, who immediately adapted the instruments in use to the new expressive requirements.
In the vast plucked-string family, the archlute and the theorbo (or chitarrone), varied-sized derivatives of the lute, came into being, always equipped with single strings and not double courses, as during the whole of the Renaissance period. The single string allows a considerable strength of sonority to be obtained in the low register and a greater singing quality in the melodic line.The use of the nails of the right hand (which plucks the strings) was adopted in order to produce a more percussive and brilliant sound.
Already in 1623, in his Avvertimenti che insegnano la maniera e il modo di ben sonare (“Counsels that explain the manner and method of producing good sound”), the great Bolognese virtuoso Alessandro Piccinini declares that “… index, middle and ring fingers should certainly have the nails long enough to project beyond the flesh …”, and he adds “… I do not approve of the thumb having a very long nail …”. It is interesting to note that he rejects too great a growth of the thumbnail, thus demonstrating a probably general tendency to the reverse. We are tempted to deduce that this technique had already been employed for at least some decades, such a radical change obviously not being possible in the lapse of too brief a time. The question was not raised in discussion again during the whole of the Baroque period, and in 1759 again the lutenist and painter Filippo Della Casa testifies that “… while the harpsichord’s voices [strings] are tuned, on the arch-lute it is necessary to finger on the neck [fingerboard] and with the other hand to touch the many and various strings with the nails …”. Possibly this technical phenomenon (entirely Italian) remained restricted to the peninsula alone, though we may be permitted to doubt this on examination of facts which tell us of the arrival in Italy of French and German lutenists in order to acquire the “new instruments”: it may well be that they took home with them, along with the lutes, a new method of plucking too.
Translation: Lionel Salter