If Vivaldi’s career as a composer of violin concertos can be said to have come of age with the publication in 1711 of his Op 3, L’estro armonico, his set of twelve Sonate a violino e basso per il cembalo, Op 2, form a similar landmark in respect of the violin sonata. Their history is a little unusual. In late 1708 the Venetian music publisher Antonio Bortoli issued a catalogue in which he included, as a collection to be brought out in the near future, what were described as ‘Sonate a Violino e Violoncello del Sig. D. Antonio Vivaldi Opera Seconda’. The phrase ‘a Violino e Violoncello’ and the non-mention of ‘Cembalo’ or ‘Basso’ points to a collection of sonatas without continuo – genuine ‘duos’ for the two stringed instruments such as had been cultivated in northern Italy, particularly at Bologna, since the late seventeenth century, and of which Giuseppe Torelli’s Op 4 of 1688 offers representative specimens. Around the turn of the century, the cello was an instrument much in vogue; its covered strings, smaller format and modified tuning had turned the old bass violin into an instrument with enhanced expressive and technical capabilities comparable with those of the violin, which it could now partner on an equal basis.
Fortunately for Vivaldi, a suitable recipient for the dedication of his new publication arrived unexpectedly in Venice while the sonatas were in press. This was King Frederik IV of Denmark and Norway, who paid the city a surprise visit at the end of 1708, travelling incognito (that is, assuming a rank lower than his true one in order to spare himself and his hosts all the inconveniences of protocol). Venice learned of his impending arrival only on 20 December; the king reached the city on 29 December, and remained there, braving the rigours of an exceptionally cold winter, until 6 March 1709.
Bortoli’s title-page for Vivaldi’s collection, which is dated 1709, holds two surprises. The first is that the phrase ‘Opera Seconda’ appears nowhere, although it was included in the catalogue and was to be added for all subsequent reprints of the sonatas. This omission is probably accidental and without significance. The second is that the title ‘violoncello’ has been replaced by ‘basso per il cembalo’. In the usage of the time, ‘cembalo’ can mean either harpsichord tout court or, in a more generic interpretation, any instrument playing the continuo. Either way, the original ‘duo’ conception, which remains clearly reflected in the character of many of the movements, seems to have been jettisoned. The reason for the change is obscure. Perhaps Vivaldi felt that the concept of a violin-cello duo was too radical for the dedicatee or for anticipated purchasers. There is no evidence that anything in the music was altered between the advance notice of the set and its appearance, though one cannot discount the possibility that the cello part was in places toned down in order to make the sonatas ‘work’ throughout as conventional pieces for violin and continuo.
The title-page identifies the composer as ‘Maestro di violino, e Maestro de’ concerti del Pio Ospedale della Pietà di Venezia’. This describes his posts of violin teacher and director of instrumental music at this famous institution for foundlings, which he had occupied since September 1703. It is unclear, however, whether this is music written originally for the Pietà. True, the institution had a large music salon next to the governors’ board room, where private concerts were given for the governors and their guests, but Vivaldi may just as easily have composed the sonatas for performance at other venues – theatres, churches, academies etc. – in the city or even specifically for publication. However, there are hints from separately preserved manuscript sources of some of the sonatas that at least one or two of them existed prior to 1708.
The success of Op 2, which was unquestionably greater than that of the trio sonatas that Vivaldi had published as his Op 1 in 1705, is reflected in their subsequent history. The Amsterdam publisher Estienne Roger brought out a handsome engraved edition in 1712, possibly with the composer’s co-operation. This was followed closely by a pirated edition from John Walsh and John Hare in London. The fact that there was no double or multiple stopping for the violin in the collection (this provides more evidence of its ‘duo’ conception) made the sonatas ideal to arrange for wind instruments. The fourth movement of the fourth sonata was used as the last movement of an anonymous recorder sonata preserved in Parma, and someone in Germany adapted the first sonata, with some major alterations, to make a flute sonata (RV51). Most remarkably of all, a recorder sonata by Vivaldi’s colleague at the Pietà, Ignazio Siber (flute master from 1713 to 1716), has a first movement that very closely paraphrases that of the third sonata of Op 2, as Federico Maria Sardelli recently discovered. Whether one should describe this as an act of homage or as one of plagiarism is a matter of taste!
Broadly speaking, the Op 2 works are styled as ‘chamber’ sonatas on the model of the last six works in Corelli’s highly influential Op 5 set, published in Rome in 1700. Most movements are selected from the five favoured dance-types: Allemanda, Corrente (the Italian counterpart of the French Courante), Sarabanda, Gavotta and Giga. Each dance is capable of several stylizations, the sub-types differing among themselves in tempo (faster or slower), rhythm (‘straight’ or dotted), melody (conjunct or disjunct), texture (imitative or non-imitative) and many other features. Vivaldi is freer than Corelli in the order in which he presents the dances: a Giga can stand just as well at the head as at the end (its traditional place) of the group.
In addition, there are various ‘abstract’ movements without any overt dance-character. Each sonata leads off, following Corellian precedent, with a Preludio. Then there are a few abstract quick movements (some entitled Capriccio or Fantasia as a reflection of their virtuosic, étude-like character) and also some abstract internal slow movements. Nearly all the movements are in binary form, with two repeated sections. This simple formula allows, however, for considerable variation. Careful listening enables one to pick out ‘rounded’ movements, in which the opening theme returns in the same key in the course of the second section, and the more frequent movements in which either the beginning or the end of the first section is replicated (with appropriate change of key and the possibility of paraphrase) in the second section. What lends these sonatas special distinction and sets them apart from their counterparts in the music of other Venetian (Albinoni, Gentili) or non-Venetian (Bonporti, Valentini) composers writing in an immediately post-Corellian style is not, ultimately, their form but their manner of expression: long-breathed and passionate to the point of obsession.
Sonata I, in G minor, establishes right at the start the nature of the collaboration between the treble and bass parts. The first, second and fourth movements employ the contrapuntal device of imitation with an almost academic ostentation, while the third movement (Sarabanda) pursues a quite different path, bringing the cello into prominence by giving it a highly active accompanying line in regular quavers. These alternative ways of highlighting the cello – through thematic integration with the violin or through thematic independence coupled with virtuosity – are deployed throughout the set. Perhaps the most attractive movement in this sonata is the final Corrente, which apes the traditional Giga in its extravagant, almost grotesque melodic leaps.
Sonata II begins with a Preludio a capriccio clearly modelled on the movement that opens Corelli’s Op 5. It is a composite movement in which rapid broken-chord figurations over pedal notes alternate with snatches of Adagio. This is followed by a short Presto featuring busy semiquavers on the cello. A Corrente, an Adagio beginning in recitative style and a Giga bring up the rear.
In the present recording, this sonata is completed by an additional movement drawn from a different source: a Pastorale ad libitum by Nicolas Chédeville in which the bass part divides into two – an obbligato cello part and an ‘organo’ (continuo) part that over long stretches holds a bagpipe-like pedal note. There is, however, a genuine Vivaldian connection in that this Pastorale is the final movement of the fourth sonata of the collection entitled Il pastor fido, published in Paris under Vivaldi’s name around 1737. (Chédeville confessed publicly to his forgery in 1749, when the time came to renew the royal publishing privilege, originally taken out as a subterfuge in the name of his cousin, Jean-Noël Marchand.) This collection is, in fact, a skilful pastiche that unites elements taken from already published music by (or believed to be by) Vivaldi with music taken from other sources and original music by Chédeville himself. Most probably, the Pastorale is an original composition. It sounds deliciously French and is easily the most memorable movement in the whole of Il pastor fido. Should any listener anxious about authenticity question its inclusion, it can be argued that the technique of pasticcio is one of the most authentic and characteristic practices of the period. The great collection of the Dresden Hofkapelle, for instance, abounds in works that are ‘mix-and-match’ composites of concertos and sonatas by more than one master.
Sonata III has a Preludio whose opening motif, treated in imitation, will immediately recall the Domine Deus, rex caelestis movement of the Gloria, RV589. A vocal quality is likewise evident in the third movement (Adagio), which is introduced by the bass part alone, almost in the manner of a cantata aria. This is one of the most powerful sonatas in the set: dark-hued and dynamic.
Sonata IV contains many echoes of the sonata in the same key of F major (RV69) from Vivaldi’s Op 1, which in turn is beholden to the Gavotta of Corelli’s Op 5 No 10. This sonata contains fine examples of both ‘imitative’ and ‘figurational’ bass lines. It is a work in which Vivaldi shows especial subtlety in the phrasing of the violin part. He was a pioneer in the skilful manipulation of the bow for special effect. No aspect of the bowing for this sonata is remarkable in itself (that comes later in Vivaldi’s career!): what impresses, rather, is the variety of bowing directions for notes of the same value within the same movement, where other composers were still most often content to use a single, unvaried formula.
Sonata V continues the pattern of alternating minor and major keys. Its Corrente is interesting for employing, at different points, figurations in quavers and semiquavers. Such rhythmic diversity, which points forward to the polythematicism of late eighteenth-century music, is actually very progressive for its time.
Sonata VI opens with a Preludio that is the most spacious of any so far. Its striking initial motif begins with an ascending broken chord that continues by retracing its steps downwards, accelerating as it goes. Of such simple materials are Vivaldi’s best movements fashioned. Another telling yet simple effect to look out for is the syncopation in the phrase that ends both sections of the final Giga.
Already in the first six sonatas of Op 2 the composer has outlined the direction in which he plans to go. The Corellian inheritance is plain for all to see; but underneath the surface, and occasionally bursting forth, are a furious energy and a manic zest for experiment and effect. These sonatas are ‘immature’ in that they do not display the full repertory of what we today recognize as hallmarks of the Vivaldian style. But they are already fully ‘mature’ in the agenda that they set for his future development.
Michael Talbot © 2004