A Lutenist Is a Good Companion

Colour. © Charles Thibo

A pleasing tune to enchant you and me, a lively melody to keep us company on a fall day, a companion unburdened by the evils of the world, cheering us up in case we need it or simply giving us some comfort by being there – such is Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’Amore and Lute in D Minor (RV 540), performed by Rachel Barton Pine (viola), Hopkinson Smith (lute) and the ensemble Ars Antigua.

The lute – such a beautiful instrument. “Probably the most widely distributed type of stringed instrument in the world is the lute (the word is used here to designate the family and not solely the lute of Renaissance Europe)”, writes the encyclopaedia Britannica. “The characteristic structure consists of an enclosed sound chamber, or resonator, with strings passing over all or part of it, and a neck along which the strings are stretched. Players move their fingers up and down the neck, thus shortening the vibrating portion of the strings and producing various pitches.” It gave birth to many string instruments in use today: the banjo, the guitar and the mandolin for instance.

A Muslim import into Europe

The lute was a common instrument during the Renaissance and the Baroque era. It was introduced to European musicians in the 12th century in Spain by the Moors and in Sicily by Byzantine or later by Muslim musicians, two important points of cultural exchange between the Christian Europeans and Muslims. The instrument spread across Spain and Italy, which may explain why we associate is sound with these countries, and evolved with the taste of the audience and the skills and techniques of the musicians.

Medieval lutes would have four or five strings plucked by with a quill. In the last few decades of the 15th century with the ascendance of Renaissance polyphony on a single instrument, lutenists abandoned the quill and plucked the instrument with the fingertips. The number of strings grew to six and more. As a matter of fact Vivaldi wrote this concerto for lute with 13 or 14 strings tuned in G. One rather famous Renaissance lutenist of his time was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the famous astronomer, as we have seen in a previous post. During the Baroque era the lute was increasingly relegated to the continuo* accompaniment, and was eventually superseded in that role by keyboard instruments.

Anna Maria, muse and supervisor

Vivaldi wrote this concerto specifically for a concert at the Venetian conservatory Ospedale della Pieta on 21 March 1740. It was dedicated to the Crown Prince of Saxony-Poland and performed by the elite female musicians of the Pieta, supervised by Anna Maria, Vivaldi’s brightest student. Anna Maria checked everything up to the last detail in order to honour Vivaldi and during the concert she played the viola d’amore. Vivaldi included her initials in the title, styled ‘per viola d’AMore’. It may well have been one of last concerts Vivaldi gave in Venice; for personal, political and financial reasons he moved to Vienna where he would die impoverished in July 1742.

The concerto is written in three movements and it is meant to entertain, to please, to enchant the ear. When Vivaldi wrote it, his music was still held in high esteem, but his style was the one of an era almost gone by. Vivaldi music shared to some degree the fate of the lute, both were relegated to a secondary rank by the middle of the 18th century. And it is very fortunate that such exceptional players like Rachel Barton Pine, Hopkinson Smith and Ars Antigua are helping to make both a little popular again. Vivaldi is so much more than the “Four Seasons” you can hear in every shopping mall.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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