Improvising on Vivaldi’s Dresden Sonatas

It is known that improvisation and ornamentation was a common practice in the 18th century performances. Like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and other great jazz improvisers, each master of the 18th century developed his personal and characteristical style of improvisation. These performers/composers masters such as Vivaldi or Pisendel were unique and outstanding figures of their time and it is not surprising to discover that their way of improvising was outside the common practice of the period, different from the way that the methods for the general public taught to improvise. Thanks to the study and analysis of some sources it is possible to have an idea of the way their improvisation were made.

pisendel
Pisendel´s annotations on Vivaldi concerto RV 340, last movement.

Pisendel left a large collection of scores in Dresden. These scores were used for his own performances at the concerts in the Court. A careful study of the scores will reveal a lot of “performance annotations”. It is possible to find these annotations ranging in very different ways: small points in the score forming a thought-script for improvisation, the inclusion of whole passages that bounds different movements or even it is possible to find several possibilities of patterns and ornamentations for the same passage. It is striking to realize the bravery of Pisendel improvisations, adding virtuosic ornaments even in the fast movements, or adding arpeggios and big jumps in the ornamentation of the slow movements (a practice that will became usual in the rest of Europe decades later).

Vivaldi also left some clues of his improvisational language. In addition to the study and analysis of his written-out ornamentations found in some slow movements of his concertos other valuable source about his way of improvising is the “Anna Maria’s Partbook”.  Anna Maria dal Violino was principal violinist of the orchestra of the Ospedale della Pieta and a pupil of Antonio Vivaldi. Her Partbook is now preserved in the Conservatorio di Musica “Benedetto Marcello”, Venice and contains several Vivaldi’s concertos dedicated to her, cadenzas and ornamented movements as well.

Vivaldi’ style of improvisation reveals to be very original and far away from the standards of the period. A special like for the chromatism, the inclusion of wild harmonic anticipations (sometimes he plays with the violin the harmony that belongs to the next chord producing strong dissonances with the basso and increasing greatly the harmonic tension) or a special liking for some irregular patterns are just some points of Vivaldi’s personal language of performance.

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