Ascoltare Newsletter #9
Vivaldi and the Case Against Perfection
Music requires perspective and the understanding that there’s an emotional context encapsulating rules and forms. Those who can express themselves creatively within the limitations of a medium are often remembered. Grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and dive in!
(TL;DR - Scroll to the end to find the Spotify playlist!)
If you want to think about music, listen to Bach. If you want to feel music, listen to Beethoven. If you want to enjoy music, listen to Vivaldi.
Vivaldi is vivace, dynamic, fast, and fluid. Compared to the conservative status quo of the Baroque era, one could argue that he broke the mold.
Yet, in my opinion, he’s the quintessential Baroque composer, using all of the common tropes of the time. He stands out because we’ve been hyperfocusing on his compositions, ignoring his cultural influence and harmonious context he established for his progeny.
We tend to revise our perception of history using modern day paradigms. The idea that Vivaldi’s music is “metal” and composers were “rockstars” has become trite at this point.
While it’s true that the temperament of artists hasn’t changed, music had a universal standard each composer would obey. There were localized nuances and different schools of thought and most certainly, radical shifts in modes were occurring, but to dominate the scene, you had to be part of a consistent line of musical development.
Why am I saying all of this?
Vivaldi is a good composer. His music was lost for nearly 200 years. He gained prominence in the 20th century once again. When we did rediscover him, his music was fresh. It was inside a freezer, preserved. It felt native to us.
And at the same time, he was never compared to the rest of his colleagues until recently. We listen to Vivaldi in a vacuum.
He’s good. He’s not great, he’s not Mozart or Schubert. However many of his compositions ARE on par. See the distinction?
He was a few inches below the peak. His influence is more important than his music (looking at his body of work as a whole).
Which is something you can say about many composers, including Telemann, Ravel, Rameau.
Bach transcribed and copied him and was inspired by him, evident by the Italian concertos and some cantatas. The concerto form in general was heavily influenced by him. Instead of accompaniment and solo instrument, we saw an interaction between the two musical entities.
“Vivaldi didn't really write five hundred concertos, he wrote the same concerto five hundred times.”
There’s some truth to that statement. He was prolific, using very similar patterns and harmonic sequence. Which wasn’t uncommon for that era.
Using catchy, popular tunes and repurposing them for different styles.
Of course, his magnum opus is The Four Seasons:
Foreseeing programme music, he was able to distill the essence and the passing of seasons.
Birds humming, the wind howling, the sea roaring.
Ah, the Italians. Dancing even when the world was sitting tight listening to gigantic, German operas.
Reminds me of Royer’s concept in Le Vertigo.
Notice the similar patterns with this concerto:
Of course, we can’t end this section without mentioning the lute concertos:
Vivaldi was a catholic priest, positioned in the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage.
His music often revolved around the orphans in that school, so we see a lot of variety, between religious and non-religious music.
Opera on stage:
It’s evident that the sheer volume of music the Italian has written make it impossible to include everything!
The Inevitable Fate
It seems like a curse when reading about it. Composers of phenomenal talent and success, in their later years, end up in poverty and sickness.
It’s such a distinct pattern. The competition back then was fierce, music wasn’t rewarded by the common folk but by the king’s coin. And most musicians had to supplement their income with lessons.
Vivaldi had a similar fate. After arriving in Vienna, hoping to become part of the royal court and continue his work as an impresario, King Charles the 6th died and alongside him, the composer’s luck.
He died a year later, in poverty.
In that sense, he was a rockstar.
Non-musicians who are into classical music assume that all music composed before 1900 is perfect.
While it’s true that the music we perform today is the haut de gamme, it doesn’t mean that everything the great composers wrote is pure gold.
They experimented, they matured, they developed their craft, they made mistakes, they blundered.
When someone like Vivaldi composes so much, it’s to be expected that a big chunk of his work will be sub-par or mediocre.
You have to understand the context of these compositions. In many cases, they might have been quick scores to be used for weekly rehearsals or closed-knitted concerts.
Having said that, the pieces I’ve linked are exceptional!
You can check out my Spotify playlist for this newsletter here (I’ve included more of my favorites from Vivaldi):
Share this with every musician, uninitiated pop listener, classical music connoisseur, snob aristocrat, the bourgeoisie or proletariat:
Exceptional posts - I end up forwarding all of them on to my friends. There's so much to learn here that I would never have picked up otherwise, it's a much more casual way of learning about the history of some of the greatest composers, like a conversation over coffee with musical interludes, rather than a lecture.
The Ascoltare Spotify is a wonderful innovation as well, and couldn't have come at a better time - I've been in somewhat of a 'funk' when it comes to my music listening lately.
Not listening to a lot of funk (which might've helped), just feeling dreadfully uninspired.
Somehow a quick trip into the classics leaves me feeling fresh. I'm not one of the aforementioned non-musical classical fetishists, more of a Sunday day tripper into the past, but there is something pure about (most) of the music that I throughly enjoy.
Thank you for continuing to write these, and giving me plenty of soundtracks to my days.