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18thc Music in Italy - 1

Updated: May 2, 2021

Antoni Vivaldi, born in 1678, was the most famous Italian composer in the 18thc. He spent most of his working life in Venice as director of the music program in an orphanage. In their teens, the boys left the orphanage to be apprenticed to a variety of trades, and the girls left to become domestic servants - except the girls with musical talent had the opportunity to stay at the orphanage as part of the orchestra or choir. Vivaldi composed hundreds of pieces for the orphaned teenage girls to perform, including 'Concerti con molti istromenti' for 2 violins, 2 lutes, 2 mandolins, 2 chalumeau (early clarinet), 2 recorders, cello, and strings. The paper stuffed in the violin bridges gives a special sound effect, as specified by Vivaldi. It is typical now for there to be approximately equal numbers of male and female players in period instrument ensembles; this ensemble is unusually male dominated! The girls performed from a screened balcony in the Santa Maria della Pietà church attached to the orphanage. This is a recreation of such a performance: Vivaldi's most famous pieces is a collection of 4 concertos - Le quattro stagioni, the Four Seasons. In this performance of a movement from 'Spring', the birdsong is improvised:

Santa Maria della Pietà, Venice. Most of the music played in Europe during the baroque period was informal - folk music based on well known songs, tunes and dances. The music was improvised rather than written down, and was performed in houses, taverns, barns etc. and out-of-doors for anyone who wanted to listen. The choice of instruments varied from place to place, and the improvisations varied according to technical skill and courage. More formal music was typically commissioned and paid for by rich aristocrats or members of a royal families, and performed for guests in grand houses and palaces by professional musicians (who were often also household servants).The composer wrote the parts in musical notation, and expected the players to play what was written rather than improvising any of the music. The church also commissioned music for performance as part of religious services. Italian opera in the 18thc. performed in specially built opera houses, became very popular throughout Europe. Opera was funded by a combination of wealthy sponsors, and the sale of tickets to the public. One of the best known cross-over pieces is the dance La Follia, popular in the whole of the baroque period throughout Europe - Spain claims to be the originator of the dance. It consists of a bassline with chords above that is repeated over and over again. The improvised versions resulted in each performance being unique while retaining the basic form of the piece. Vivaldi composed a version of La Follia with all the instrumental parts written out, therefore requiring no improvisation. In this performance, based on Vivaldi, the players add some improvisation; and the performance is unique in that it includes the Persian 'Kamancha', a bowed string instrument that would have been unknown in Europe during the baroque period.

More about 18thc. music in Italy in the next post.

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