Assessing Vivaldi’s musical style

We take a look at the Baroque composer’s musical style and the critical reception it received

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons remains one of the best known works in classical music.  We look at four critical responses made to his music throughout history.

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1. Contemporary thoughts

Writing in 1752, leading composer and organist Charles Avison bracketed Vivaldi with Carlo Tessarini, Leon Battista Alberti and Pietro Locatelli within ‘the lowest class of composer… whose compositions… are only fit amusement for children’.

2. Volatile brilliance

Vivaldi’s style, along with Tessarini’s and Alberti’s, ‘is such as I would not… recommend,’ wrote the scholar William Hayes a year later, ‘and yet I think Vivaldi has so much greater merit than the rest…’ His occasional lapses into levity, Hayes added, are due ‘to his having a great command of his instrument, and being of a volatile disposition.’

3. Seasonal inspiration

In 1776, Sir John Hawkins wrote in his General History of Music that Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is ‘a pretended paraphrase, in musical notes, of so many sonnets on the four seasons, where in the author endeavours, by the force of harmony, and particular modifications of air and measure, to excite ideas correspondent with the sentiments of the several poems’. Below, violinist Nigel Kennedy, the Palestine Strings and members of the Orchestra of Life intersperse improvisations with excerpts from the piece.

4. Virtuosic demands

‘In our younger day [c.1740],’ wrote music historian Charles Burney later in 1814, ‘the fifth concerto of Vivaldi [Op. 3 No. 5], composed of rattling passages in perpetual semiquavers, was the making of every player on the violin, who could mount into the clouds, and imitate not only the flight, but the whistling notes of birds’.

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