Baroque Music VII: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Antonio Vivaldi is the first composer on this list whose name and music are likely familiar to everyone. 

That was not always the case.  Despite his profound influence on Bach and many others, Vivaldi’s compositions fell out of a favor (his virtuosity as a violinist was his primary calling card, not his compositions) and were pretty much lost to history—so much so that their rediscovery in the 1920s was a major event in music history.  And what a treasure trove they discovered:  More than 500 concertos, nearly 100 sonatas, 46 operas, tons of assorted choral and other chamber music, and much more.  New works continue to be discovered seemingly every year.  Prolific does not even begin to describe the man.

Vivaldi was born into poverty and given over to the clergy where he was to be ordained as a priest.  My recollection is that he squirmed out of actually being ordained, but whether or not he formally took his vows is irrelevant—he is known to history as the Red Priest.  He is also most closely associated with the city of Venice, then in decline from its heights as a maritime power.  Today, you cannot go 100 yards anywhere in Venice without seeing some flyer for a Vivaldi concert.  If Canaletto is our vision of Venice, Vivaldi is its soundtrack.

Bonus movie pick: If you have not watched the film The Red Violin, you should do so.  If only to see Samuel L. Jackson play a violin appraiser.  There is a bit of science fiction about the film, which I will not get into here, but will say that it takes the concept of the Conversation to new heights.  One of  the characters in the story is a child prodigy violinist, whose story is, quite clearly, based primarily on Vivaldi. That was not lost on John Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score.  Highly recommended:  One of my Top 10 films ever.

After Lully and Corelli, Vivaldi is the third major violinist-composer and, more than the others, his works are firmly associated with that instrument.  Vivaldi’s singular contribution to music is the solo concerto, which he invented and perfected, and which has remained more or less standard in construction until the 20th century.  Solo instrument set against an orchestra over three movements: fast; slow; fast.  This is the way.  

As with most virtuosi, Vivaldi wowed his audiences with shredding—you cannot play Vivaldi too fast.  Vivaldi’s innovations also included heightening of harmonic contrasts, as well as an undeniable gift for composing melodic tunes. For me, and this is perhaps because I played so many of his works growing up, his music exists almost out of time and place.  While I generally prefer historically informed performances, Vivaldi’s works benefit from speed, ferocity, and modern interpretation like none other of the period. 

Vivaldi’s most important composition, the 12 violin concertos collectively entitled L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was deemed so vulgar and profane that he was fired from his job.  Needless to say, these concerti proved to be his ticket to fame—Bach translated no fewer than half of them.  

We’ve seen pop stars before in this history.  Vivaldi was music’s first rock star.  Just hook up an electric guitar and play his stuff:  

Fitting, then, that he died tragically, poor and in ill-health, his music all but forgotten.

L’Estro Armonico upends Purcell by disposing of the melody altogether, relying solely on harmonic progressions to push the music along.  Push being the key word.  The harmonic progressions in L’Estro Armonico were the musical equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica—our understanding of the physics of music would never be the same.  The entire series is worth a listen.  Several have been grouped together by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which is available on most streaming services.  Here is one of my favorites:

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 2 in G Minor

Baroque Music III: Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

History remembers Arcangelo Corelli as the first virtuoso of the violin, a 17th century Paganini: “I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in an agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.”  His prodigious skills notwithstanding, strong evidence suggests that Corelli refused to compose for—or even play—the full range of the violin.  That would have to wait for another virtuoso, Antonio Vivaldi.

Corelli was insanely popular in his lifetime, appearing before the crowned heads of Europe in courts stretching from Rome to Sweden.  On some of his tours, he was joined by a young George Frideric Handel and his influence on the young composer was profound.  But Corelli’s greatest impact, in my view, was the product of his own compositions.  Corelli is credited today with developing modern violin technique and, perhaps due to his love of the instrument, is responsible for moving the concept of a large-scale orchestral body forward through the invention of the concerto grosso

Corelli was not a prolific composer.  What remains of his output are a handful of sonatas, trios, and concerti grossi.  All are important in the development of music.  His “La Folia” Variations for violin set the standard for virtuosity at the time, developing one of the more famous basso ostinato lines in history (  Unquestionably, he had composed it for himself.  In looking for a recording, I thought I might present a contrast between technique and taste.  First up, Nathan Milstein—one of the midcentury giants of the violin, a Top 10 on any serious violinist’s list.  I was fortunate to see him a few times at the end of his career—he was the last of the great Russian giants of the age and it was a real privilege to hear him play.  His technique was unrivaled, perhaps in the history of the violin, but I can’t say I love his interpretation here, which is far too Romantic for my taste.  The second selection is from Andrew Manze, a contemporary early music specialist.  I heard him live in London and left midway—unlistenable, to quote the Professor.  All style without any regard for intonation or other things that really should be table stakes.  But on recording?  He’s brilliant, no more so here (I couldn’t find Follia alone, so use the links in the YouTube description to skip to roughly the 1hr, 59min. mark).  Who gets your vote, Milstein or Manze?

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Milstein):

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Manze):

Or, for that matter, how about Emilie Autumn? A brilliant contemporary artist, Autumn’s work has been described as everything from “Fairy Pop” to “Fantasy Rock” and “Victoriandustrial”, incorporating elements of classical music, cabaret, electronica, and glam rock into her music. Classically trained on violin, studying for a time at Indiana University (home to our Progressive Conscience), she released a version of La Folia a few years ago, demonstrating the enduring influence of Corelli’s music.

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonata, Op. 5, No. 12 in D Minor, “Follia” (Autumn):

Corelli died a very wealthy man and was buried in the Pantheon at Rome, a fitting resting place for music’s first iconic superstar.  His fame among violinists is undying—it is common for serious students to trace their “lineage” back through their teachers to the great masters of old.  Many still trace their roots, from student to teacher, all the way back to Corelli.  For violinists, he is Genesis.

Baroque Music II: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Enter the French. With the English School well-established since Dunstable and the German School developing in the wake of Martin Luther, the French School began to reassert its influence in the 17th and 18th centuries. First up, Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Born to humble origins, Lully would climb to the very heights of French society, only to see his music eclipsed, permanently, shortly after his death. This operatic narrative is fitting for the man who (along with Moliere) invented French opera. French opera is distinguished from its Italian and German counterparts by the prominence of dance. Thanks to Lully, French opera would typically include a ballet scene for more than 200 years (now often cut to appease the attention span of modern audiences and to save on labor costs). This is not surprising: Louis XIV’s passion in life was the ballet, which he often performed in (likely as a sun god, I’m sure). There is always a strong hint of the dance in Lully’s music–whether that was to please his patron or the reason why he proved such a success at court, we will never know. For me, Lully’s music is inseparable from the persona of Louis XIV: This is where Baroque ornamentalism first took flight.

Lully was a violinist (one of the first composers to have the violin as his primary instrument) and his music highlights the violin, prefiguring its dominant role in the years to come. The violin had been invented some 130 years previously in or around 1520, but was originally conceived of as a low peasant instrument. Italian craftsmen in Northern Italy began transforming the violin into its modern form in or around 1555, when Lorenzo di Medici ordered one from Andrea Amati of Cremona. For such a commission, Amati made the shape of the violin more elegant, with significant work going into the scroll work on the end. Medici was very pleased with the instrument (which has not survived to the present, apparently), something he undoubtedly wrote to his daughter Catherine, who by then regent of France.

By any measure, Catherine de Medici was an extraordinary woman and if anyone can recommend a good biography of her, please do.  Not only did she more or less rule France successfully during the first major schism between Catholics and Protestants, Catherine invented or popularized a range of things that remain popular today, from high heeled shoes to ice cream and ballet.  She is also responsible for popularizing the violin in France, ordering a staggering 38 or so from Amati, a good number of which survive today.  Under Catherine’s instructions, ballets were performed to what can only be described as a proto-violin section of a modern orchestra.  Incidentally, a certain Antonio Stradivari worked for Amati’s grandson Nicolo as an apprentice.  Along with one of Amati’s other apprentices, Andrea Guarneri (his grandson Giuseppe “del Gesu” is the famous one), the three Cremonese created the modern violin.  They have remained the gold standard for stringed instruments to this day.

Lully followed in Catherine’s footsteps. He arranged for similar groupings of other stringed instruments (viol de gamba and other more modern instruments such as the cello). As these instruments were added in sections, the modern orchestra was born (the selection below from Le bourgeois gentilhomme brings this point home). Incidentally, the Overture also gets its start here, with French ballet and opera. Symphonie was the Italian for this prefatory instrumental piece. Originally a minute or two long, this is where the grand symphonies of the classical and romantic period began to evolve. Lully gave the symphony life, but it would be left to others to take up the baton and drive instrumental music to new heights.

For me, Lully’s music is where beat begins to assert itself as a primary driver of the musical line. Always conscious of his employer’s love of dance, Lully made sure that the royal foot would be able to tap, if not dance, along to his tunes. Here are a few brief examples:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Overture

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Marche pour la Ceremonie Turque:

Jean-Baptiste Lully, Psyche, Chantons Les Plaisirs Charmants:

Recording note: You may have notice that last of these selections come from Les Arts Florissant’s album “Les Divertissements de Versailles”. I discovered the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully through Les Arts Florissant—William Christie more or less single handedly brough Lully back to prominence over the last 30 years, which is one of the reasons he’s in the French Legion of Honor. In this album, Christie reimagines a Baroque pastiche—rather than present a single opera or ballet, a pastiche presents a “greatest hits” performance. Sometimes, a pastiche was used to create a soundtrack for pleasure garden parties; often, a pastiche would be used to create a new narrative work altogether, complete with new lyrics set to familiar tunes. While the idea of a greatest hits concert seems obvious to modern sensibilities, at the time the concept was revolutionary. The Met Opera created a pastiche of their own, The Enchanted Island, some years back. It is as good a greatest hits of the Baroque soundtrack as one could hope for.