Shiver and tremble at the sound of the viola!

Vivaldi thunderstorm
The storm closes in. © Charles Thibo

A month ago we experienced our first severe thunderstorm of the year. We saw it coming from afar. We saw the lightning illuminating distant clouds. It was dead silent. It was dark except for the occasional stroke of light at the horizon. Then came the growling, slow, persistent, menacing. Tension was mounting. Then came the wind. Gusts, triggered by the approaching rain. Time to duck for cover. I was outside until the first rain drops fell, to witness this natural phenomenon that fascinates since I was a child. I used to observe thunderstorms with my father from the terrace on. One of these father-son moments…

The tension I felt while the thunderstorm closed in – I had to think of it when I recently listened to the first movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’Amore in D minor, RV 393. It builds up tension in a similar way, it makes me feel on the edge, endorphin being set free, my whole body quivering and trembling – a delightful sensation. It has been recorded by Rachel Barton Pine and the ensemble Ars Antigua.

500 concertos

The concerto was written for viola d’amore, strings and bass continuo*; I was unable to find out when exactly it was written, but it seems to have been written after 1720 and to have been dedicatedvto his most gifted student Anna Maria.  It is structured in the three movements and “stands out […] for the part entrusted to the solo instrument. Its sonority rich in harmonics gives the whole page a very suggestive atmosphere: from the regal (very ‘Venetian’) start of the initial Allegro to the sweet and melancholic Largo, up to the third movement that uses very special combinations in passages of great invention”, explains the music editor Laura Pietrantoni.

If today Vivaldi is one of the best known composers of the history of music because of the ubiquitous “Four Seasons” concertos, he is fairly underrepresented on this blog and it has to do with the fact that I like his compositions so much that writing about them does not come easy. It needs a conscious effort not to just enjoy Vivaldi’s music, but to study it. I could listen to Vivaldi for hours, even days. And there is no lack of music from the Venetian. He wrote more than 500 concertos, some 350 concertos are for one solo instrument and strings, over 230 of them for violin. Other solo instruments are bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d’amore, recorder  and mandolin.

An illustrious career

Vivaldi’s father Giovanni Battista was appointed as a violinist to the cathedral San Marco in Venice and he was in some way or other involved in operatic management. Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678. From 1693 until 1703 he underwent training to become a priest and most likely was taught by his father to play the violin. According to Oxford Music Online he probably ceased to say Mass in 1706, “thereby sacrificing a useful income as a house priest.” Three years earlier Antonio Vivaldi had secured himself a first appointment, becoming an official violinist at Venetian conservatory Ospedale della Pieta. The governors renewed his post annually until 1709, when a majority voted on a second ballot against retaining him for reasons unknown.

Meanwhile, Vivaldi was seeking recognition as a composer for church, secular orchestral and stage music. In 1711 he returned to the Pieta, where he taught Anna Maria, and in 1716 he was appointed to a position of nominally greater responsibility as a concert master. From 1718 on Vivaldi would start to travel all over Italy to promote his compositions and himself. Oxford Music Online does not fail to point out that “Vivaldi was so unconventional a man and musician that he was bound to elicit much adverse comment in his lifetime. His vanity was notorious: he boasted of his fame and illustrious patrons, and of his fluency in composition.” Which does in no way diminish the value of his works.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Shiver and tremble at the sound of the viola!”

  1. I love Vivaldi’s Viola d’Amore music. I have a beautiful recording by I Solisti Veneti, conducted by Claudio Scimone.

    And I absolutely love thunderstorms. We don’t get many in Norwich, and even those are quite mild. I have exciting memories of Roman thunderstorms, with thunder cracking as though tearing through the sky.

    1. Oh, I remember getting completely soaked in a Roman thunderstorm a few years ago running from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the bus stop on Lungotevere Maresciallo Diaz. 500 metres under torrential rain – no luck.

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