The last concertos by Vivaldi to be published in his lifetime were the twelve which, divided into two volumes identified respectively as opp. 11 and 12, came out in 1729. We first learn of them from an advertisement placed by their publisher Michel-Charles Le Céne in the Gazette d’Amsterdam on 2 September of that year. Vivaldi’s relationship with his various publishers had been unsettled, to say the least. After op. 2 (1709) he abandoned Venetian printers in favour of the Amsterdam firm of Estienne Roger, which used the technique of engraving. This association seems to have foundered after op. 7 (1717), perhaps because Roger added to that collection some works not actually by Vivaldi himself. In 1724 the composer was trying unsuccessfully to promote a project to publish his concertos by subscription. However, with op. 8 (1725) he returned to the Amsterdam firm, now headed by Le Cène. This renewed association lasted only four years; in 1733 Vivaldi confided to an English visitor that he had decided to give up publishing his works since he found it more profitable to sell them in manuscript copies.
Opp. 11 and 12 exemplify Vivaldi’s late style in its initial stage of formations. Although it has been argued that Vivaldi’s musical language never ‘developed’ in a conventional sense, simple observation shows that the concertos bear many of the general hallmarks of the late 1720s, a time when Italian composers of instrumental music were busily assimilating the innovations of the galant style introduced via opera in the mid-1720s and championed by such compoers by Leo, Vinci and Poropra. Composers were now fashioning melodic lines more intricately, drawing on much more varied stock of melodic and rhythmic ideas. This refinement of detail caused the tempo of many Allegro movements to slow down, for where formerly a uniform ‘patter’ of semiquavers could form the dominant rhythmic background, now triplet semiquavers and even demisemiquavers became important elements.
We must remember that by 1729 Vivaldi was no longer a composer from whom others borrowed ideas and techniques in order to remain at the forefront of musical development. Indeed, he himself risked falling behind public taste unless he looked over his shoulder at what a generation of younger composers was doing. The figure of the violinist-composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) is discernible behind certain traits in op. 11 and was to loom even larger in the next decade.
Whenever Vivaldi assembled a set of concertos or sonatas for publication, his usual practice was to make an anthology of works that had already been tried out during the previous years. When one compares the published versions with earlier manuscript versions that have survived separately one usually discovers evidence of revision, but the changes are often only small. The first and fourth of the op. 11 concertos, in earlier versions, were part of the repertory of Anna Maria, the star violinist at the Ospedale della Pietà during the 1720s. Vivaldi was by then no longer an employee of this famous Venetian institution, but even so, he sold over 140 concertos to it between 1723 and 1729. Those written for Anna Maria survive today – without their accompaniment, alas – in a partbook that once belonged to her. The second and fifth concertos were included in a manuscript set of twelve concertos entitled La cetra that Vivaldi presented to Charles VI in 1728 – it is possible that the concerto ‘Il favorito’ acquired this nickname when the emperor took an especial liking to it. The sixth concerto is a variant, with solo oboe. No prior use of the third concerto is known, but the fact that an autograph manuscript of it, preserved in Turin, contains the inscription ‘primo’ suggests that at some stage it was the first work copied out to fulfil a commission for a patron.
One feature common to four of these concertos is that their central slow movements share the keynote of the outer fast movements (in two cases with a change in mode). Hans Keller coined the term ‘homotonality’ for this characteristic, which is later encountered in several works of the Classical period. While it obviously lessens tonal variety, it can help to give a stronger or more consistent ‘flavour’ to a composition in several movements. Vivaldi was a pioneer of homotonality in the sphere of the concerto; one notices that as his career progresses, the incidence of concertos with a single key centre increases.
Concerto N.º 1 – This is perhaps the most straightforward of the six. In its bustling opening movement the abundant use of open strings (a characteristic feature of baroque string music in D major) is very evident. The Largo is cast in one of Vivaldi’s favourite forms; an extended solo in two sections framed by a concise orchestral tutti. The use of pizzicato lends delicacy to this movement.
Concerto N.º 2 – The second concerto is the most powerful and structurally elaborate work of the set. Its opening movement is full of chromaticism, tonal digressions and subtle thematic cross-references between solo and tutti. In the slow movement Vivaldi weaves fantastic arabesques that anticipate Haydn’s ‘Gypsy’ style in such movements as the Adagio of his String Quartet, Op. 54 n.º 2. The way in which Vivaldi disguises the reprise is very unusual for the time. The finale begins like a minor-key version of the ‘Autumn’ concerto from The Four Seasons, but soon dispels any hint of huntsmen’s jollity.
Concerto N.º 3 – The opening movement of this concerto exhibits an almost disconcerting variety of moods and textures. The frequent shifts between major and minor are a gallant feature that Vivaldi employs very often in his late music. For the slow movement, which bears the unusual titled ‘Aria’, Vivaldi reverts to the single scoring of a violin sonata, accompanying the solo violin with plain continuo. This interchange between the repertory of the violin concerto and the violin sonata, mainly affecting slow movements, is a hallmark of Vivaldi’s style. The finale is a vigorous study in rushing scales.
Concerto N.º 4 – The first movement of the fourth concerto is dominated by the see-sawing rhythms of the violins. For the Largo cantabile Vivaldi reverts once again to the ‘sonata’ model. For all one knows, he might actually have used the movement already in an earlier sonata – it bears a remarkably close resemblance to the opening movement of one of Vivaldi’s ‘Manchester’ sonatas (G minor, RV 757). The finale features more shifts between major and minor; particularly appealing is a little appendix, in G minor, to the opening ritornello.
Concerto N.º 5 – This work opens with an Allegro non molto in which the tempo direction itself, repeated for the final, illustrates the slowing down of the basic pulse mentioned earlier. The central Largo is a perfect demonstration of Vivaldi’s lyricism.
Concerto N.º 6 – Another ‘vintage’ slow movement is found in this concerto. Vivaldi employs the old device of an ostinato bass, where constant repetitions of the same pattern (here a chromatically descending figure traditionally associated with the idea of a lament) form a background to the excursions of the solo instrument.