Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Oboe, Bassoon, Strings and Continuo

While of course there is an enormous amount of instrumental music from before the eighteenth century, many of the works composed before the Baroque era were improvised "folk music" and of that, little survives in a notated form. In the Renaissance there began to appear music intended for instruments, but in most cases it was not comp[osed with a specific instrument in mind. Indeed, Renaissance instrumental works would work just as well for voices. Similarly, the choice of instruments in the Renaissance depended on the context in which the music was played: if it were to be performed outdoors, it would be played by loud instruments such as the double reed instruments; when it was to be performed indoors, it was played on quiet instruments like the recorder or viol. In contrast to the medieval period which pried heterogenous combinations, the Renaissance prized homogenous groups and consequently instruments, like voices, were generally understood to be members of families: each instrument came in soprano, alto, tenor and bass sizes, and often as well contrabass sizes. Compositions for instrumental ensemble were often played by instruments of the same family. (Samples of various recorders)

As can be seen in Monteverdi's orchestra for Orfeo, the Baroque era innaugurated a new approach to instrumental writing and an interest in the use of instruments in serious music. Consequently, composers began writing for these instruments in an idiomatic way.

Some of the earliest distinct instrumental music of the Baroque were small instrumental sonatas to be played in church. Eventually, this genre developed into the concerto. By 1720 the concerto had developed into the genre as it is understood today: a multimovement work for one or more soloists and a larger ensemble. Generally, Baroque concertos are in three movements, ordered fast-slow-fast. In the Classical and Romantic periods there was often an added fourth movement, in deference to the standard form of a Classical era symphony.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Vivaldi's concerto is a relatively straightforward Baroque concerto. Like all Baroque concertos, its compositional choices are guided by the conventions of tonality and Concerto Grosso procedure. Tonality is the language of the piece, the set of procedures that control the movement and directionality of the work: a background harmonic progression and surface strategies. With rare exceptions, tonal works begin in a home key, known as a tonic key, proceed through a series of other keys and return at the end to reaffirm the tonic key.

Concerto Grosso procedure centers around the contrast of a soloist or solo group and a larger ensemble. Each of the two groups present individual materials. The ordering and structure of these materials is guided by ritornello form.

Vivaldi probably wrote this work for the likely all-girl orchestra of Venice's Ospedale della Pieta, a home for orphaned, illegitamate or abandoned children, where Vivaldi was associated in various capacities from 1703-1740. At the Ospedale, Vivaldi was both a violin teacher and director of the orchestra, and wrote many concertos to showcase the players of the orchestra. As was normal in Italian convents, the performers were placed behind a screen during performances, leaving the audience guessing as to the solo instruments in the work were. For more information on the Ospedale, click here. The accepted wisdom about the Ospedale has been called into question recently, see here.

Things to Note
Vivaldi's concerto is scored for solo Oboe, solo Bassoon, and small baroque orchestra and is a typical example of an Italian concerto grosso. The Baroque orchestra in this case consists of strings (who play the ritornello) and continuo, (typically a harpsichord, a sustaining bass instrument, and perhaps plucked chordal instruments) who usually accompanies both the soloists and the tutti. In this concerto the solo episodes are not accompanied by the continuo, likely this owes to the fact that the solo instrument, the bassoon, was typically a continuo instrument.
Notice how the ritornello is continually eroded throughout the movement, becoming shorter with each entrance, while the solo episodes become longer.
Pay close attention to the opening ritornello, which could be thought of as consisting of three parts: a (0:00 - 0:11), b (0:11 - 0:27) and c (0:25 - 0:36). With each return of the ritornello we hear only parts of the whole, or modified versions of the whole. The ritornello only returns to its original form at the end of the movement.

It is typical for the second movement of the concerto to pare down to severely reduced forces and ignore ritornello form. Instead the movement becomes like an operatic aria: tuneful melodies are played contrapuntally by the oboe and bassoon over a simple continuo accompaniment.

The third movement of the concerto returns to the gaiety of the first movement and with it the comforting alternations of ritornello form. Typical of the Baroque concerto, the meter of the third movement is compound and the melodies feature a steady stream of triplet motion. (The beat has been divided into three) This division of the beat provides a pastoral quality, reminiscent of lambs gamboling in the pasture.

Listening Chart

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Oboe, Bassoon, Strings and Continuo, mvt. 1 (c. 1720)

0:00 Ritornello I: Opening ritornello in Strings. Ritornello is in a major key and duple time. Bouncy, jaunty tune.
0:36 Episode I: Bassoon and Oboe play unaccompanied.
1:01 Ritornello II: Slightly modified version of the initial ritornello.
1:18 Episode II: Bassoon and Oboe move the harmony of the work to a minor key.
1:47 Ritornello III: Strings play in a Minor Key b portion of ritornello
1:56 Episode III: Oboe and Bassoon continue show of virtuosity moving harmony of the work to remote keys.
2:28 Ritornello IV: b and c portion of ritornello.
2:42 Episode IV
3:12 Ritornello V: Return of original full ritornello in original key.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.