The Use of Violin in the Baroque Concerto

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The concertos for violin have their origins in the Baroque period. Although the concerto grosso was actively performed in the early Baroque period, the 17th century brought significant changes to the traditional vision of the form of a concerto. In 1698, Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) performed the first solo concerto in contrast to the previously popular concerto grosso. Consequently, the 17th century became the era of domination of solo concerto because the tradition of Torelli was further developed by Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741). Thus, Vivaldi also became one of the pioneers in terms of music in the Baroque era because he was one of the first composers who focused on developing concertos mostly for violin and used a standard concerto form including three movements. From this point, the use of violin in the Baroque concerto can be discussed as a singular phenomenon because the focus on this instrument in the concerto determined the shift to the solo concerto form that was highly accentuated by such violinist-composers as Vivaldi among other prominent composers of the era.

Features of the Baroque Concerto

During the Baroque period, the concerto became the most used musical composition for solo instruments as well as for the orchestra. According to Roeder, the concerto typical for that period “represents the climax of instrumental music in the Baroque era”. Thus, by the end of the 17th century, the concerto acquires its typical form of a three-movement musical piece where the first and third movements are rather fast, and the central movement is slow. Moreover, a range of distinctive features typical for the Baroque concerto became determined by composers and violinists, including Torelli and Vivaldi. As a result, the focus on the soloist’s virtuosity became the key feature of this musical piece that was emphasized by composers, and the concerto became perceived as the competition between the soloist and the orchestra. In this context, the alternations in the old concerto grosso form become more obvious because composers are often oriented to choosing the form of the solo concerto.

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From this perspective, the Baroque era is important to determine the main types of the concerto, and it is relevant to focus on them in detail to discuss the use of violin in all these concertos in the period of Baroque music. It is important to state that composers of the Baroque era preferred to demonstrate their talent with the focus on concerto grosso as the actual musical opposition of the small group of soloists and the orchestra. The traditional concerto grosso developed, and concertino and tutti were actively used by composers as types of concerto grosso, where the main focus was on the little ensemble consisting of two violins and continuo. The ripieno concerto, which was popular among such composers as Torelli, can also be discussed as another type of the Baroque concerto that was characterized by the use of a full ensemble with strings and continuo and by the absence of distinct solo parts. However, the most important concerto was featured by Torelli in the late part of the 17th century, and this concerto became known as a solo concerto. Torelli developed a distinctive formula for this instrumental composition and focused on the use of a single soloist and the orchestra. The first solo concertos were often composed based on the ritornello form, according to which the opening tutti sections were usually recurring between solo sections of the instrumental piece. These concertos became extremely popular when the ritornello form was masterfully manipulated by Vivaldi to accentuate the variety of the violin’s voice.

Violin in the Baroque Concerto

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the violin was used actively in string ensembles, where it was supported with the voices of viola and cello. Although string ensembles became popular among the public, the role of the violin was not distinct in such ensembles as string quartets because of the equal attention to the four instruments. The solo parts were not significantly accentuated, and instruments often played the melody in unison. However, the situation changed when the composers began to use ritornellos and vivid solo sections to emphasize the sound of a particular instrument. As a result, solos of violin, viola, and cello become expressive and rather colorful in their nature. Therefore, during the discussed period, the violin became considered an effective musical device or tool to draw attention to the variety of the melody. With the focus on string ensembles, composers begin to perceive violins as interesting instruments that can be used in solo concertos.

In this context, it is important to refer to Giuseppe Torelli’s Concerti musicali, Op. 6, one more time because these concertos that were published in 1698 became the first remarkable solo concertos composed for violin and supported with the string orchestra. The next step for ensuring the focus on violin as the central instrument of the Baroque period was the appearance of many other violin solo concertos that demonstrated the composers’ recognition of the violin’s clarity of sound and color of the voice. Thus, the violin became actively used for solo concertos when the first violinists-composers selected this instrument as the thematic and musical center in their compositions. It is important to pay attention to the fact that solo concertos for instruments other than violin began to appear only in the eighteenth century, and the first solo concertos for cello and viola had the features typical for the concertos for violin because of the composers’ choice of forms.

Violinists-Composers’ Impact on the Use of Violin in the Baroque Concerto

The first violinists and composers of the Baroque era referred to such an instrument as the violin as the most significant solo instrument, and even today it perceives as typical for that musical period. One of the earliest experts in composing and performing pieces for violin was Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), whose works were associated with the rise of instrumental music during the period of Baroque. Being a virtuoso performer, Corelli contributed significantly to accentuating the role of the violin in the Baroque concerto. This violinist was one of the first composers who helped develop the instrumental forms to guarantee the focus on the clearest and most vivid sound in instruments. Corelli was also one of the first composers who began to write the concerto grosso, and researchers often considered the composer as the initiator of utilizing this form as the main one in the Baroque concerto. Thus, the typical elements of the concerto grosso that were later followed by such masters as Vivaldi should be discussed as Corelli’s contribution to the development of the concerto form during the period of Baroque. Using a violin, Corelli noted the remarkable effects of changing fast and slow tempos in movements of the concerto to achieve a greater impact on the listeners.

The figure of Antonio Vivaldi should be discussed as extremely important in developing the principles of the Baroque concertos and determining its typical features. Furthermore, the name of Vivaldi is closely associated with violin solo concertos as well as with the use of violin in other types of Baroque instrumental music. Focusing on the contribution of this violinist and composer to the history of the Baroque concerto, Roeder states that Vivaldi’s “massive concerto output represents the culmination of past developments and crystallizes the form and practice of the Baroque concerto.” Following the example of Corelli, Vivaldi developed his approach to concerto grosso and proposed his unique vision of using the violin in this type of concerto. In addition, following the example and approaches of Torelli to develop solo parts in concertos, Vivaldi focused on composing his first solo concerto for violin. As a result, the musical legacy of Vivaldi includes concertos for solo violins and for different combinations of string instruments in addition to violins.

While composing his first solo concertos for violin, Vivaldi was oriented to finding his unique sound and appropriate combination of forms in the concerto. Therefore, the composer focused on the advantages of the ritornello form to use it in his compositions and accentuate the voice of the violin in multiple solos. As a consequence, Vivaldi developed the effective and vivid model of the ritornello that was characterized by the specific developmental character. In this context, it is important to state that many virtuoso violinists working during the period of the late Baroque chose to follow the model proposed by Vivaldi in terms of using various forms and variants of ritornellos in their concertos. Pietro Locatelli, Giuseppe Tartini, and Jean-Marie Leclair should be noted among these violinists. Thus, it is possible to agree with the idea stated by Heller that during the first decade of the eighteenth century “it was primarily Vivaldi who succeeded in creating the concept of the concerto that became a complete and universal model.”

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Antonio Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico

In 1711, Antonio Vivaldi was known as the author of only two sets of sonatas that were published in Venice, but the real success came to the composer after the publication of a collection of twelve unique concertos for violins, Op. 3, that became known as L’Estro Armonico. Researchers often translate this phrase as “harmonic inspiration,” “harmonic fancy,” or even “harmonic fire.” Vivaldi’s concertos in the collection were for one, two, and four violins, while making this instrument become the center of the composition. The collection of concertos that was quickly declared as unique and impressive by musicians and critics was published by Estienne Roger, the influential publisher of French origin from Amsterdam who contributed to growing Vivaldi’s popularity in Europe. Initially, the collection of concertos was not organized chronologically to demonstrate the composer’s progress in the work, as it was published later, because the author aimed to represent the results of his years-long experiments with diversity in tones and styles. However, the further arrangement of concertos allowed focusing on Vivaldi’s approach to combining solo concertos for one, two, and four violins.

When Vivaldi started to compose his first concerto from the collection, the genre of the concerto was mainly related to instrumental compositions. Therefore, in his work, Vivaldi primarily concentrated on the form of the instrumental concerto with the accentuated use of violin. In this context, it was important to stress the instrumental domination of the violin while supporting the idea of homophony in the compositions. Each following concerto that was later added to the collection was characterized by the emphasized homophony and presence of intervening solo sections. Thus, according to Roeder, Vivaldi expanded the “violin technique by exploiting a greater variety of aggregated figures, producing some striking sonorities; by calling for extended positions up through the eight and possibly beyond according to some contemporary accounts; and by introducing a wider set of bowing requirements.” While discussing Vivaldi’s concertos concerning the aspects noted above, Randel claims that “the virtuosity of the solo sections increases markedly, especially in the later works, and concurrently the texture becomes more homophonic.” From this point, the moment of publishing Op. 3 concertos became the turning point in Vivaldi’s career because here he developed the basic principles of his musical style. Adams states that “It was with L’Estro Armonico that the Red Priest [Vivaldi] found the sound that he was looking for – a sound that was to become his distinctive voice.”

Vivaldi’s concertos known as L’Estro Armonico are unique in terms of the variety of forms and features reflected in them because they were written during more than ten years. While focusing on the specific features of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico, it is important to note that each following concerto demonstrates the progress in using different ritornello forms. Still, Heller provides the most vivid discussion of the concertos’ features while stating that they were marked with “the overwhelming tuttis,” with “interweaving solo parts,” with “the sensitive solo cantilenas,” and with “the tonal magic of the central largo movement in the Concerto in B minor, in which each of the four solo violins breaks up the harmony with different figuration.” An example of such an approach to harmony and figuration is the second movement of Concerto No. 10 in B minor for four violins, cello, and strings (Example 1). Analyzing the changes in the concertos combined with L’Estro Armonico, it is possible to observe “the evolution of the form” and note how Vivaldi changed the approach to accentuating the role of a violin in the concertos.

 Vivaldi, L'Estro Armonico
Example 1. Vivaldi, L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3, No. 10 (RV 580), second movement.

To begin with, the first pieces from the collection followed the form of the concerto grosso according to the trends of the Baroque era. The use of two or four violins that can be accompanied with a cello typical for concerto grosso was also selected by Vivaldi for these first concertos represented in the collection. However, Vivaldi did not focus only on using violins for solo groups, and he also followed Torelli’s concertos and referred to violins as solo instruments in the musical compositions. As a result of various approaches to instrumentation in concertos, the sets of them were later organized in three groups, where the solo violin concerto was followed by the concerto for two violins, and then, with the concerto for four violins. Referring to the above-mentioned points, it is possible to state that Vivaldi paid special attention to the role of instruments in concertos while focusing on the instruments and parts that could be used to accentuate the musical pattern of the violin solo.

While paying attention to the melodic sequences that were typically used by Vivaldi in such his works and concertos as L’Estro Armonico, it is relevant to refer to the developmental character of ritornellos that are typically supported with ascending and descending melodic sequences. In her work, Adams states that “it was here that he [Vivaldi] was to make use of the ritornello principle … to express the conversation – the conflict, even – between the solo and orchestral parts.” To make the pattern even more varied, Vivaldi focused on the expressive use of tutti ritornello and solo passages in the first parts of concertos. In the opening parts, Vivaldi used both brief and long ritornello forms. For instance, the repeated first phrase in Concerto No. 5 in A major for two violins and strings, is rather brief (it is marked as A), and it is followed by a group of brief motifs (it is marked as B) to complete the ritornello form (Example 2).

Vivaldi, L'Estro Armonico,
Example 2. Vivaldi, L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3, No. 5 (RV 519), first movement.

The tendency to use long ritornello forms can be observed in Concerto No. 6 in A minor for a violin and strings and Concerto No. 8 in A minor for two violins and strings. The extensive ritornello form is presented in Concerto No. 8, where the opening tutti has four groups of motifs that differ in terms of dynamism and power (Example 3).

Vivaldi, L'Estro Armonico,
Example 3. Vivaldi, L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3, No. 8 (RV 522), first movement.

From this perspective, in Op. 3, Vivaldi uses the variety of forms and ritornellos, and the middle area of the concertos’ sections can be discussed as quickly changing, “often simply alternating brief tutti and solo statements; ritornellos are irregular in length, placement, and choice of material.” To conclude about the specific character of the ritornello form in the composer’s works, it is possible to use the words of Randel who stated that “Ritornello form in Vivaldi, often described as procrustean, is rather flexible.” In this context, to combine all the elements of solos for one, two, or four violins in the effective picture, Vivaldi actively used ritornellos to oppose contrasted instruments, to make the pattern varied, and to accentuate the thematic sections in the work.

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While composing his concertos, Vivaldi also paid much attention to the role of a single player in performance. It is possible to state that soloists played a key role in creating the unique melodic patterns because of their focus on modulations, and Vivaldi used different approaches to emphasize their roles. As a result, the parts of soloists were doubled by the other string performers or the composer chose the opposite variant and soloists played in contrast to the other instrumental parts to support the contrast between the ritornello and other parts of the concerto. Having the intention to stress the variety of solos and to accentuate the virtuosic play of the violinist, Vivaldi paid much attention to making movements more diverse and irregular in their character. Referring to the concertos from L’Estro Armonico, Buelow states that “the tonalities alternate between major and minor keys, except for the final three, where to end the last concerto in major the order becomes minor, minor, major,” and “there is an extraordinary variety of movements in these concertos.” Thus, the virtuosic performance of solo parts for violins in all the concertos included in L’Estro Armonico requires soloists to be highly proficient because of changes in tonalities and tempo as well as the expected texture of the melody and sound.

Different melodic sequences used by the composer to add to the color of the concertos’ sound make performers of solos for violins more attentive to non-predictable changes in movements that are expected to contribute to the overall melodic pattern of the composition. According to Buelow, “movements that at times begin with string thematic identity frequently evolve as movements emphasizing violin concerto virtuosity.” In this context, concertos in L’Estro Armonico are characterized by that virtuosity that is typical for all following works composed by Vivaldi. Heller notes that Vivaldi’s development of “the concerto structure represents only one side of his unique contribution to the genre. In addition, there is an overall new tone – a new joy in life that pulsates in his music.” Referring to this idea and the role of Vivaldi in the development of Baroque music, it is possible to state that the period of Baroque was influential for the further development of classical concertos as unique musical compositions, and it is difficult to overestimate the contribution of virtuoso violinists and composers such Arcangelo Corelli, Giuseppe Torelli, and Antonio Vivaldi in this process.

Conclusion

The genre and form of concerto developed during the Baroque period as a response to the musical trends of the era and active use of instrumental forms. It is possible to state that the Baroque concerto had a great impact on the later types of a concerto and on composing instrumental music in general. During the era of the Baroque, solo concertos for violin were created by different composers, and in this context, it is relevant to refer to the unique contribution of Antonio Vivaldi in composing concertos in which the role of the violin was emphasized. Vivaldi’s contribution in developing the form of the concerto is also in the fact that this virtuoso was the first one who proposed the use of three-movement concerto as a standard. To illustrate discussion the role of Vivaldi in the development of Baroque music and the genre of concertos for violins, it is important to refer to the questions asked by Karl Heller on the talent of the composer. Thus, the researcher asks, “Who, before Vivaldi in his ritornellos, had written music with such irresistible verve that it practically leaped out at the listener?,” and continues, “Where else could one find the expansive, self-assured development of both the virtuosic and the songful solo that emerges from the tutti, or the sense of discovery and delight in the most varied and nuanced combinations of instrumental sound?” These questions are important to support Heller’s conclusion, “If any music seems to capture the color, fullness, and excitement of Venetian life, it is Vivaldi’s concertos.”

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