The high grass combined with the thimbleweed that my wife planted in front of our kitchen window keeps fascinating me. The colours and shapes change with the seasons, add the changing light of a grey or a sunny day and you get plenty of variations. Two aspects however remain the same: the plants’ elegance and the contrast between two different forms, the line and the dot. Elegance and contrast are two common aspects of Baroque music too and a delightful example is Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for two Mandolins, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 532.
Writing for all-female ensembles
It is unknown when the mandolin concert was exactly composed, but it is likely that Vivaldi wrote this piece for the female students at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, a charitable foundation that gave abandoned girls a shelter and later became famous for its all-female music ensembles. The board’s commissions guaranteed Vivaldi a steady income for some 30 years, even though relations were at times strained. Given the range of notes used by him for the solo parts, the concerto was probably intended for the mandolino, a six-string, high-pitched instrument, popular in Venice during Vivaldi’s life.
A splendid discovery in Turin
The mandolin concerto had been lost for almost two centuries as I learned from a short introduction to the piece by Classic FM which I will quote here: “In 1926, a party from the local Salesian community – a mission of priests founded by St John Bosco […] – knocked on the door [of the library of Turin] to check on the value of their collection of manuscripts. […] they had inherited the collection from the family of one count Giacomo Durazzo, a famous arts patron. […] As a result of their questions, the library in Turin contacted Durazzo’s descendants in Genoa, too. Soon, hundreds of previously unknown Vivaldi manuscripts were uncovered, now known as the ‘Mauro Foa’ and ‘Renzo Giordano’ collections.”
Honouring the Italian style
About the concerto itself Harry Haskell, program annotator of Carnegie Hall in New York, writes that the first and last movement reflect Vivaldi’s allegiance to the ritornello principle, in which the recurring refrain is embedded in episodes of contrasting characters. “The two soloists play a spirited game of melodic tag in the opening Allegro. In the Andante, the continuo drops out, leaving the violins and violas to sprinkle a gentle shower of pizzicato eighth notes on the cascading triplets played by the mandolin[s]. The final Allegro pits the full and reduced ensembles against each other in the manner of a concerto grosso.”
The extroverted and brilliant style of instrumental music is typical for the music Vivaldi and his famous predecessor Arcangelo Corelli composed. A fireworks of colours – and I think we can all agree that such a splash of colour will benefit us all on a grey November day. The mandolin concerto has been recorded by the Solisti Veneti under Claudio Scimone.
© Charles Thibo