Friday, October 26, 2018

Did Stravinsky say the Vivaldi wrote “the same concerto, 500 times”? And if so, is it true?

Among classical music fans, there’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t actually compose 500 concertos, he just wrote the same concerto 500 times. The quip is established enough that a 1986 book—Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys by David W. Barber—riffed on it: “People who find [Vivaldi’s] music too repetitious are inclined to say that he wrote the same concerto 450 times. This is hardly fair: he wrote two concertos, 225 each.”

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi: A one-hit wonder, five hundred times?
“People say” is good enough for a book of classical music humor, but for this blog, I wanted to trace the joke to its origin and discuss why it caught on—and why it persists.

A Google search for the phrase shows attributions mainly to two different twentieth-century composers: Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola. Overall, people seem more willing to cite Stravinsky as the source, probably because his name is more recognizable. Even someone as informed as pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen attributed the quote to him when asked which composer he found most overrated:
“I'm tired of [Vivaldi]. Stravinsky once said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times. I disagree. Instead, I think he began 500 concertos and never achieved anything in them. So he kept trying over and over again without ever quite succeeding.” 
—Charles Rosen to The New York Times, 1987
Yet Stravinsky’s fame also provides the means to discount him as the source of the quote. Stravinsky was a self-mythologizer, intent on shaping his own legend through press releases and publications, which makes it easy to find why so many people think he said this.

In Conversations with Igor Stravinsky (1959), Robert Craft asked Stravinsky his opinion on a recent revival of 18th-century Italian composers and transcribed his response:
“Vivaldi is greatly overrated—a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over.”
(Recently, I heard a classical radio announcer leave out the first half of the quote to try to spin this as Stravinsky complimenting Vivaldi, praising him for finding so much to say from just one genre! In context, however, that optimistic interpretation just doesn’t hold.)

It seems likely that this quote is the basis for the now-ubiquitous joke. I can see how someone could have added enough specificity (500 concertos) and a punchline to make it a memorable quip, though I still haven’t found who that might be. In the mid-twentieth century, several musicians had careers performing classical music comedy: Victor Borge, Anna Russell, and Peter Schickele, just to name a few. It’s possible the line comes from someone’s routine that was never authoritatively documented—and this is purely conjecture!

Yet the joke’s endurance comes from more than just clever wording, as Rosen’s comment indicates. I think that many listeners feel some truth to the observation. Vivaldi’s style is easily recognizable. His hallmarks of repeated notes, circle-of-fifth chord progressions, and recognizable melodies are in all his compositions, not just his 512 concertos.

Furthermore, repetition was built into the genres in which he composed. For example, the da capo aria form (all the rage in opera, in which he also participated) ends with an embellished form of the opening melody. The ritornello form he used in his concertos was another musical structure popular at the time, featuring a melody that recurs between contrasting passages called “episodes.” (I’ll explain more about this form in a bit). Even when one listens to a Vivaldi concerto for the first time, it becomes familiar by the time it finishes.

Beyond countless performances of Vivaldi’s four most famous concertos, The Four Seasons, audiences have come to know Vivaldi’s concertos as staples of “classical music for relaxation” collections. They don’t seem to put much demand on the listener: Don’t worry, that melody you recognize will come back. Loop it indefinitely, and it can put callers at ease as they wait on hold. To a certain extent, I think Vivaldi’s apparent ubiquity leads people tend to treat his compositions as musical wallpaper—present, but not obtrusive. Pleasantly inoffensive.

But are his concertos really that formulaic, such that if you’ve heard one (or two), you’ve essentially heard them all? The concertos of Vivaldi do fulfill certain expectations of their genre, era, and style. Yet according to music theorists Simon McVeigh and Jehoash Hirshberg, they are not as uniform as one might expect. They examined an oft-cited chart of “Vivaldian ritornello form” constructed by Walter Kolneder:
Kolneder's charts tracing Vivaldian ritornello form in major in minor, specifying key areas
Hey, it looks like Barber’s “two concerto”
theory holds up! …Or does it?
Yet immediately after reproducing this chart in their text, McVeigh and Hirshberg state, “To our great surprise, we have not discovered a single first movement that reproduces precisely this succession of events in either the major or minor mode” (emphasis added). They go on to specify that Kolneder’s own chosen example doesn’t even correspond to his model!

Though they admit that some idea of “ritornello form” guided the concertos’ composition, performance, and the listeners’ expectations, they state, “[W]e challenge the very principle of narrowing down the enormous diversity of options in order to reach a single synthetic and easily memorable model.” Boiling Vivaldi’s concertos down to their most basic pattern is taking their sameness as an assumption and ignoring the aspects that make the individual works unique. It’s a formula designed to support the pre-determined conclusion that Vivaldi is formulaic.

I could stop right here and declare a solid double-debunking: “Stravinsky never said that! And it’s not even true!” But there’s a loose end: Why do some people attribute the saying to Luigi Dallapiccola? And why would these composers be so down on Vivaldi?

Photograph of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975)
Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975)
Though I haven’t been able to track down whether Dallapiccola literally said those words, a friend sent me a tip that, in a biography of Vivaldi, musicologist Michael Talbot suggests Dallapiccola may have influenced Stravinsky’s opinion of Vivaldi. Following that lead turned up a lot of possibilities, but nothing that I can confidently state as truth. Dallapiccola was editing Vivaldi sonatas in the mid-1950s (around the time Stravinsky made his remark), which may have led to some weariness with repetition— but the quip is specifically about concertos, not sonatas.

Both composers might have considered Vivaldi overexposed due to a revival that was well underway by the 1950s. A cursory search on Michael Gray’s A Classical Discography reveals that the number of Vivaldi recordings made in the late-1940s/50s had increased over those of the 1920s/30s by an order of magnitude. He was everywhere, and he was selling. Stravinsky and Dallapiccola may have felt a combination of exhaustion and envy of a commercially successful dead composer.

Again, I can’t back any of these conjectures with any certainty, as I can’t get inside their heads to understand what influenced their opinions of Vivaldi. However, in investigating the history of Vivaldi reception, I developed a wildly speculative theory that challenges the reputation of Vivaldi’s music as bland and inoffensive.

Both Stravinsky and Dallapiccola belong to the generation who witnessed the rise of fascism. Just as Nazis championed the composers of their Austro-German tradition—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner (with racial implications that America has unfortunately inherited)—Italy also fostered a rebirth of older Italian composers—primarily Claudio Monteverdi and Vivaldi—to stoke nationalistic pride. As art historian Emily Braun described a similar treatment of Italy’s legacy in visual arts, it was “a less than subtle realigning of the classical tradition with nationalistic and ideological imperatives.” Though it would be completely anachronistic and inappropriate to classify Vivaldi’s works as fascist, there was a time at which his music took on political connotations as pro-fascist, pro-Mussolini propaganda.

Dallapiccola, an Italian, was initially pro-Mussolini but became vocally anti-fascist in the 1930s, condemning the Italian regime and their association with the Nazis for their anti-Semitism, among other atrocities—the composer’s wife at the time was Jewish.

Stravinsky, however, was openly pro-Mussolini and pro-fascist going into the war, which some speculate was a reaction to the way he was treated in Bolshevik Russia. As I’ve said before, though, Stravinsky was a self-mythologizer who wanted to control his own legacy, and after the defeat of Axis powers in World War II, the composer made efforts to distance himself from his previous, pro-fascist views.

Could it be that the composers still associated Vivaldi with Italian nationalism and the Mussolini regime? Some material in Ben Earle’s Luigi Dallapiccola and Musical Modernity in Fascist Italy indicates that Dallapicolla was certainly aware of the political risks of sounding too influenced by Vivaldi. But I haven’t found much more substantiation beyond that, and I don’t believe it’s worth the effort to try.

The reason I even venture down this highly speculative path is to demonstrate that all music carries social and cultural meaning, which changes over time. There really is no thing as “non-political” music; the realities of its initial composition and subsequent production are bound by human contexts. Even the highly palatable, seemingly inoffensive Vivaldi concerto was, at one time, wielded as a political weapon.

Many, many thanks to Rebecca Long for digging up some intriguing references and Chris Brody for the debunking of Kolneder’s chart. Thanks also to Andrew Dell’Antonio, Emma Parker, and Derek Katz for their feedback on drafts of this post!

Like what you’ve read?

Sources:

Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys: Music History as It Ought to Be Taught by David W. Barber (1986)

"Judging Composers: High Notes, and Low" by Tim Page in The New York Times, March 22, 1987

Conversations with Igor Stravinsky by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (1959)

The Italian Solo Concerto, 1700–1760 by Simon McVeigh and Jehoash Hirshberg (2004)

Vivaldi by Michael Talbot (1978)

A Classical Discography by Michael Gray, https://classical-discography.org/

Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism: Art and Politics under Fascism by Emily Braun (2003)

Luigi Dallapiccola and Musical Modernity in Fascist Italy by Ben Earle (2013)

2 comments:

  1. Last year I performed in this concert, with 2+ hours of his vocal and choral music. Given Vivaldi’s reputation, I had some misgivings, but there was barely a dull moment, with all sorts of interesting arias, fiery soprano duets, and often interesting choral writing. There was even the occasional echo of Monteverdi. The audience, for its part, couldn’t get enough.

    I asked the conductor why he thought Vivaldi had his reputation. He thought it might be that in the mid-20th century only the concertos were really being published with any consistency. So maybe the five hundred concertos (or at least a lot of them) weren’t actually a “significant” part of his œuvre, in that he dashed them off for his pupils to play.


    But even with the concertos, The Four Seasons is really high-quality music, however much it has been played. And Bach wouldn’t transcribe multiple concertos by any old hack. So from my priveged 21st century viewpoint I find the reputation at bit puzzling.

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    1. Thanks for your insight! There's so much Vivaldi that people haven't heard (and nothing wrong with the material they have heard), I think they'd be astonished at his actual range.

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