Composer of the week (26th September 2011) Antonio Vivaldi BBC Radio 3

I sat in the lounge, open mouthed, on hearing the account of the famous musical historian H C Robbins Landon, who wrote of his astonishment on hearing some music in a New York shop. He stood there, unwilling to move until the piece, which he had never heard before, finished.
It was one of only two recordings available in the 1950s of a forgotten work – The Four Seasons.
How on earth did such a virtuoso musician and composer come to be forgotten? It seems quite incredible that in the decade before I was born, Vivaldi was not a household name.
Now of course, everyone recognises some part of ‘The Four Seasons’. The musical logo for Classic FM was the cadence of the end of one of the three concertos that make up ‘Summer’.
Since I fell in love with the music of the group ‘Red Priest’ led by the amazing recorder player, Piers Adams, I have been listening to their arrangement of ‘The Four Seasons’ most days for a year now. I don’t get tired of it.

I used to teach a class of thirteen year olds in Singapore. I had no real resources, just what was in my head and a good musical encyclopaedia, so I decided to teach them about Vivaldi and ‘The Four Seasons’, a piece, which through its sheer popularity had been ignored on my degree course.
Oh yeah- fine for all those eighteen year olds from musically literate households and who had been to schools that actually taught music (am I bitter? Of course!).
So, I discovered that the crafty priest had written the very first programme music. The concerti would be accompanied by poetry that reflected the music and it is indeed a work of genius.
He wrote of walking gingerly on slippery pavements, how he hated the cold and damp, what a summer thunderstorm sounded like and the punters adored his music.

He was very ambitious and was fired more than once, but his work with the Pieta, the orphanages for the girls of courtesans and lower prostitutes, was ground-breaking. Here he was, at the beginning of the 18th century, training girls to play and sing to the same level of accomplishment as the boys who sang in San Marco.
Imagine – girls, being professional musicians? Thank you Signor Vivaldi.
Mind you, his songs are astonishingly difficult. You can hear them sung with great technical skill by Cecilia Bartoli in her ‘Vivaldi Album’.
It isn’t easy to find the songs in printed score form. I’d love to try to conquer one or two of the cantatas. If I manage to find the songs and then work really hard, I’ll be posting about this. Somehow, I don’t think it’s likely. You never know though….

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