Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4, 1678, and died in Vienna on July 28, 1741. The "RV" numbers attached to Vivaldi's compositions stand for Ryom-Verzeichnis, Danish scholar Peter Ryom’s catalogue of the composer's works (a catalogue first published in 1974). We know nothing about the early performance history of this concerto. Lloyd Gowen was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performance of the work, at a special concert, with Josef Krips conducting, in April 1967; Catherine Payne was soloist in the most recent performance, with Alexander Barantschik leading the orchestra, in February 2006. In addition to the solo “flautino,” here portrayed by piccolo, this concerto uses an orchestra of strings supported by a continuo harpsichord. Performance time: about twelve minutes.
When you are next in Venice, you will want to turn left out of the Piazza San Marco from the corner nearest the Palace of the Doges and stroll along the embankment of the Grand Canal, past the Bridge of Sighs, along the Riva degli Schiavoni, until you reach the Istituto provinciale per l'infanzia, the Hotel Metropole, and the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà. You will have entered Vivaldi country. The church of the Pietà that you see today was built between 1745 and 1760, which means it is the successor to the building in which Vivaldi often worked. It is fitting that a children's agency should occupy the site, since children have been cared for here from as early as 1346, when the Pio Ospedale della Pietà was established. In Vivaldi's time the Pio Ospedale della Pietà was one of four state-supported Venetian foundling hospitals that tended to the welfare of orphaned, illegitimate, indigent, abandoned, or otherwise unfortunate young people. The Pietà specialized in providing musical training to girls and young women. It would be the center of Vivaldi's work as a composer of instrumental music.
In 1703 Vivaldi was ordained as a priest and became attached to the Pio Ospedale della Pietà. There he taught violin (later adding other instruments to his workload) and looked after the acquisition and maintenance of the ospedale's string instruments. His relationship with the institution was apparently tumultuous. He was fired in 1709, rehired in 1711, refired and rehired in 1716, separated sometime thereafter, was rehired in 1735, and refired in 1738. But Vivaldi had other prospects. By about 1710 he had become active as an opera composer, and within a couple of years his reputation as a composer and violinist launched him on a career that led him far from home. He spent extended periods of residence in other Italian cities (including a stint in Rome), probably in Prague, and certainly in Vienna (where he died). But by the time of that final journey his popularity had waned and his prodigality had completely exhausted the wealth he had once enjoyed. He was given a pauper's burial. Out of respect for his achievements, six choirboys from Saint Stephen's Cathedral performed his Requiem Mass at his final obsequies. One of them was the young Franz Joseph Haydn.
Vivaldi's musical output was enormous. Twenty-one of his fifty-six operas survive, as do dozens of cantatas and motets. Nonetheless, it is as composer of instrumental music that Vivaldi made his most enduring mark. He penned more than five hundred concertos. It was for the young ladies of the Pietà that he wrote many of these works. "They play the violin, the recorder, the organ, the oboe, the cello, the bassoon," wrote the French traveler Charles de Brosses in 1740; "in short, there is no instrument large enough to frighten them." Over the years, the Pietà had become the most musical of Venice's ospedali and the finest music conservatory in northern Italy.
Apart from several works that lived on through transcriptions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi's music fell into oblivion for the two centuries following his death. In the 1920s the latter-day Vivaldi Renaissance was launched by two events: the preparation of the first thematic catalogue of his works (long since superseded), and the National Library of Turin's purchase of an enormous cache of Vivaldi's music. The concerto we hear at this concert appears among the 140 instrumental works in the Turin collection. It is labeled "Con[cer]to per Flautino," though no solo instrument is noted above the staff in the score.
Vivaldi's flautino was a recorder, probably the high-pitched sopranino recorder. The piccolo, which is the equivalent member of the family of transverse flutes, only came into existence around 1730. Nonetheless, the music fits perfectly on the modern piccolo and has been widely appropriated to that instrument's repertory. The concerto opens in triple time with an orchestral passage, the piccolo doubling the melody. This passage will return to punctuate the piccolo's solo sections, in which the instrument is put through paces of extreme virtuosity (notably rapid rolled chords and wide jumps of intervals) while the orchestra recedes to the role of accompanist.
Vivaldi's second movements often display his most memorable work. This concerto stands as a case in point. Where the outer movements dazzle through virtuosity, this central largo, lyrical and rather mournful, achieves genuine poignancy. Technical demands return in the finale, as the piccolo's solo interludes again focus on quick figuration, including a couple of pages of almost unbelievably rapid triplets.
—James M. Keller
This note appeared originally in somewhat different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic
More About the Music
Recordings: Played on piccolo by William Bennett with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Decca) | Played on sopranino recorder by Dan Laurin, with Masaaki Suzuki directing the Bach Collegium Japan (BIS) or with the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble (Classic Collection); or by Peter Holtslag with Peter Holman directing the Parley of Instruments (Helios)
Reading: Vivaldi, by Michael Talbot (Schirmer Master Musician Series) | Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque, by H.C. Robbins Landon (University of Chicago Press) | Antonio Vivaldi: His Life and Work, by Walter Kolneder (Faber and Faber)