Beat the (Vivaldi) Summer Heat!

“You’re crazy!” These were the words that I received when I — a 14-year-old violinist accomplishing her dream of playing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons — announced to my mom/accompanist that Il Giardino Armonico’s speed on the third movement of Vivaldi’s Summer was 152 beats per minute. I soon received a similar reaction from my violin teacher: “Remember, Kristina, they’re professionals, and you’re only a student.”

Still, I stood firm to my mom and teacher: I was going to verbatum imitate Il Giardino Armonico’s earth-shattering Four Seasons rendition. I had idolized it since fourth grade, when it had initially opened my eyes to the power of musical expression, and I loathed all those suruppy, vibrato laden, dragging-tempo modern instrument versions generally available in music CD stores. Hence, IGA’s version was the interpretation that I intended to emulate. After all, my teacher had been highly impressed when I had loaned him the CD, and he had given me full permission to go through with my emulation desires. So emulate to the tee I would, no matter how much both individuals above thought it impossible.

In the end, after a few weeks of diligent drilling with the metranome (very rigorous and often flustering) Pieter_Claesz._-_Vanitas_with_Violin_and_Glass_Ball_-_WGA04974according to my teacher’s directions, I accomplished my goal of playing the final of Summer at 152 BPM. Both my teacher and mom were highly impressed, and when I performed it at a recital three months later, the audience reacted wildly to it. In particular, my fellow students kept enthusiastically praising me with comments about how it was a “real thunderstorm” and how fun it was to watch a 14-year-old playing that fast and that loud. A month or so later, my IGA tribute rendition of the piece would win me my violinist’s nickname “The Aggressive Female”, and still today, this piece not only continues to be my favorite violin piece to play, but also sort of my “signature” piece because or how I play it.

Although I have since learned in the HIPP world that verbatum copying of others is unacceptable, I have learned that the manner in which Il Giardino Armonico performs the piece is fully in line with historically informed performance. Yes, I’ll admit that the majority of people I have met — both musicians and non-musicians — have grown accustomed to the more suave, tame, romanticized (and anachronistic) renditions by such giants as Perlman, and hence think IGA’s version is over-the-top, but the truth of the matter is that the “standard” manner in the modern instrument world is stylistically incorrect.

As I have learned in my readings, the concept of Baroque tempo has been grossly misunderstood. One has to remember that the metranome was not yet invented at the time, but still, the Baroque masters made attempts to calculate tempo with a reference point such as a clock or pendulum. Quantz himself used the human pulse as a system of measurement, which is still cited by modern musicians who seem to believe that the tempo in Baroque music should be measured upon the human pulse. However, Robert Donnington dubs Quantz’s calculations “not wholly realistic” (Baroque Music: Style and Performance, page 18). Citing the research of Neal Zaslaw on the subject, he continues:

“….Quantz has bouree, canarie, gigue, gavotte, and passacaille faster, but loure and passepied slower, than the rates he had reconstructed from comparable French sources. The tempos given by Quantz to ordinary time-words seem if anything yet more questionable.”

In the end, Quantz’s statements cannot be taken literally, and the supposition that the tempo in Baroque music is dependent on the human heartbeat is a literal interpretation (actually, misinterpretation) of his words taking neither historical context nor common sense into consideration. As a result, Baroque music is often taken too slowly, resulting in such annoying dry and dull renditions of such popular Baroque favorites as Vivaldi’s Summer. And yes, as I used to point out to people when playing it, it’s marked “Presto” — fast!

To be continued …..

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