A cornucopia of cello concertos
Passages for solo cello are almost as old as the concerto genre itself, but in the earliest concertos these brief solo flights are decorative rather than structurally significant, and the concerto properly “for” cello had to wait to emerge until Vivaldi wrote the first known examples at the start of the eighteenth century. Although the composer’s main instrument was the violin, for which he must have written his first solo concertos, the earliest datable concertos surviving from his pen are, strangely enough, ones for cello acquired in manuscript by a visiting German musician, Franz Homeck, in the winter of 1708-1709. Most likely, these were written for the female musicians of the Ospedale della Pietà, the Venetian institution for foundlings that Vivaldi served intermittently as violin teacher or director of instrumental music from 1703 almost up to his death in 1741. Vivaldi wrote further cello concertos for the Pietà during the period 1723-1729, when he kept it supplied by special agreement with two concertos per month, and again between 1735 and 1738, when he once again held the title of maestro dei concerti. We know the names of five cello-playing musicians active at the Pietà in the 1730s: Claudia, Santina, Teresa, Tonina and Veneranda.
Evidently, the Pietà shared in the Europe-wide enthusiasm for the instrument at this time, which is reflected in the publication of six cello sonatas by Vivaldi in Paris c.1740. It is important to realize, how ever, that throughout his career the composer sold works in manuscript to countless different customers and patrons. This activity ran parallel with his supply of works to the Pietà and continued even more strongly when his connection with the institution was temporarily broken. For Vivaldi’s solo concertos featuring common instruments such as the violin, cello or flute, there is often no way of establishing, from the evidence of the sources, what the original destination was. To this one should add the complicating factor that Vivaldi stored his compositions in a personal archive (the basis of today’s collection in Turin) and was therefore always in a position to “reissue” his music, with or without amendment, to new customers. Vivaldi’s concertos for solo cello total 28 (discounting the spurious RV415 but including two late concertos, RV787 and RV788, which are unperformable on account of their incomplete preservation). After the violin concertos, numbering well over 200, and the bassoon concertos, numbering 39, this is the largest group of solo concertos in his oeuvre.
For its period it is indeed remarkable, since although coeval cello concertos by Leo, Porpora, Tartini, Vandini, Chelleri and several others exist in small quantities, there is nothing in the eighteenth century to match them either in quantity or, until Haydn, in quality. Vivaldi, who mastered the viola d’amore and probably also the bass viol (viola all’inglese), probably had more than a passing knowledge of the cello. At any rate, he understood profoundly its “soul” — its genius for expressing songful melody (often melancholy in mood) and its equal capacity for dazzling passage-work. He exploited eagerly its ability to act, in rapid succession, as an instrument in the “tenor” register (equivalent to a violin sounding an octave lower), as an instrument playing the bass line in elaborated form, and as a robust, unadorned bass. He also took advantage of its ability, through moving across the strings or abruptly shifting the position of the hand, to execute wide leaps — and there is no one like Vivaldi to bring out the expressive power of wide intervals. For the keen student of his music there is the added interest that cello concertos are represented both at the beginning and at the end of his career, collectively forming a chronicle of his evolving style.
The A minor concerto RV 421 appears from its style to be a late or latish work, even though the source provides few clues. The “Allegro non troppo” tempo direction of its first movement marks it out as a mature work: “Allegro” in Vivaldi’s earlier concertos, such as those of Opp. 3 and 4, denotes a fairly uniform tempo in which the semiquaver is the shortest commonly used note, but by the 1720s, on account of the growing variety of rhythmic detail that his concertos contained, Vivaldi often found this simple term inadequate, adding qualifying terms such as “non troppo” or “molto” to guide the performer. Both outer movements of this concerto adopt the ritornello form that will be forever associated with Vivaldi’s concertos. But in subtle ways this “late” ritornello form is different from the type we find in the early concertos. It contains fewer sections, and those sections have more intemal variety in melody, rhythm and instrumentation. The slow movement uses only continuo accompaniment in the manner of a sonata; indeed, it would not look out of place in one of Vivaldi’s cello sonatas, and could conceivably have been borrowed from a lost sonata.
RV 409, in E minor, has no descriptive title, but its experimental, slightly enigmatic, character would fully justify one. The notation of the 3/4 time signature with a single large “3”, a habit practised by Vivaldi only from the early 1720s, points to a relatively late date. Its first two movements could be described, respectively, as (1) a fast movement with a slow introduction (where the solo instrument is partnered by its alter ego, the bassoon) and with subsequent recurrences of the “slow” idea based on the introduction, and (2) a slow movement with a fast introduction and later recurrences of the same idea — an exact reversal of the first-movement relationship, in fact. Such multi-tempo movements were very current in the seventeenth century but had lost favour by the time of Vivaldi’s maturity. They are not so very rare in his concertos (think of the first movement of the “Summer” concerto, RV 315), but whenever they appear, they always have the character of ajeu d’esprit. After these rather idiosyncratic movements, one is almost surprised to encounter an entirely conventional, albeit no less appealing, finale.
The G major concerto RV414 is thought to date from around 1730. Vivaldi later returned to the material of the concerto, paraphrasing it to form the flute concerto RV438. The brooding orchestral ritornello framing the second movement reminds us that this particular phase of his career was one in which his interest in counterpoint was rekindled: the upward-thrusting violins form the perfect complement to the inexorable descent of the bass. As for the outer movements, they are classic specimens not only of Vivaldian exuberance but also of the composer’s uncanny ability to know exactly when to continue an idea, and when to replace it with another.
RV 398, in C major — the concerto that heads the list of cello concertos in the Ryom catalogue — bears witness on the first page of the autograph manuscript to a particular compositional habit of Vivaldi linked to the years of his “mass production” of concertos coinciding with his contract with the Pietà: that of writing down opening ritornellos (perhaps in order not to lose a momentary inspiration) before making a decision on the choice of solo instrument or instruments. As originally conceived, this ritornello was for a treble solo instrument such as violin, but after deciding on the cello Vivaldi amended the layout of the remainder of the score. The outer movements of this concerto demonstrate Vivaldi’s ability to make the music “dance” by the deft application of syncopation. The sombre slow movement once again adopts sonata-style scoring and form.
RV419, in A minor, another very mature work, conceals in its first movement a refer ence to the thematic content of Vivaldi’s aria “Agitatu infido flatu”. from Juditha triumphans (1716); in the oratorio the slow chromatic descents in the violins and the chromatic lurches of the chords illustrate the howling winds that buffet a swallow trying in vain to steer a straight course to its destination. Its slow movement reverts to the familiar sonata scoring, but a surprise is in store in the finale. It was Vivaldi himself who pioneered the use of variation form in the finales of concertos (one early example is the last movement of the flute concerto RV 437), and here we find a particularly sophisticated specimen modelled on the French passacaille en rondeau. The idea behind this mixture of variation and rondo form is that the same short theme serves, when repeated literally, as a refrain, and, when elaborated, as the basis for a series of variations. In Vivaldi’s movement the refrain is followed by a group of three variations before returning; there follow three further variations, the last of which is extended with a petite reprise to signal closure of the solo portion, and the refrain duly rounds off the movement.
The F major concerto RV 410 is datable firmly to the mid-1720s. Its most striking movement is the second, which despite being scored for cello and continuo alone, has a solo line of exceptional suppleness and pathos. Vivaldi writes “a piacimento” at the head of the movement — an invitation to the soloist to interpret the tempo with flexibility and to augment the already quite copious ornamentation. The outer movements are dominated by syncopated rhythmic patterns and evidence Vivaldi’s admirable disinclination to settle into regular patterns of phrase structure.
The D minor concerto RV 414 belongs to a group of five cello concertos known to date from around 1730, the time of Vivaldi’s visit to central Europe. One assumes that this group was written not for the Pietà but for some unidentified virtuoso. The copyist of the concerto, whose work Vivaldi supervised, seems to have been unpractised: the possibility has been mooted that he was one of the composer’s nephews — either Pietro Mauro (born in 1715) or his brother Daniele (born in 1717). Each of the three movements contains something noteworthy. In the first movement, it is the extensive participation of the orchestra in the solo episodes. In the slow movement, the unison ritornello introducing the solo (but, strangely enough, not returning to close it) reminds one, in its stern eloquence, of J. S. Bach. The finale is another rondo-variation movement. It is headed “Minuet”, and the theme-cum-refrain is a fine specimen of this ever-popular dance in binary form. Two varied statements featuring the solo instrument follow before the returning refrain interrupts the soloist. One further solo variation is heard, and the refrain then makes its last appearance. Fortunately, the musical substance is strong enough to bear the manifold repetition to which this little theme is subjected!