THE SECRET LIFE OF ANTONIO VIVALDI
As Revealed by his Teaching Assistant
A Play in Two Acts by Helen Martin
Brenda, a suburban piano teacher, has managed to purchase the last, extant copy of Vivaldi's Method Book. She, therefore, has assembled an audience, most of whom have been or still are, her students so that she may, at last, announce the expansion of her studio to include teaching strings. But her opening comments are interrupted by the uninvited presence of Sister Sylvia dal Violone - Vivaldi's Teaching Assistant - intent on
repossessing the book.
In 1986 I began a search for the origins of contemporary violin teaching. I wanted to try to pinpoint the reasons for the exclusion of singing, specifically, singing at sight. I found that some eighteenth and nineteenth century, published methods used this exclusion as a selling point. In general, though, I found that both the singing and the non-singing approaches could be characterized as "playing by numbers." The successful student would have to have had a strong, innate sense of pitch in addition to being very good at recalling what the teacher had played at the lesson. But one author actually stated that singing was relevant. Scholars tend to agree that the first published Violin Method was that of Geminiani's. Geminiani's Method, appearing in 1751, is the exception mentioned above. (Vivaldi died in 1751.)
Why does any of this matter? It matters because singing at sight, - as opposed to rote singing - is a generative aspect of being musical. Singing at sight means that we are able to produce what we see on the page without punching keys or visually executing coordinates such as frets or strips of adhesive placed on a fingerboard. Singing at sight develops aural responses. Playing by fret, visual.
How then, did Vivaldi teach? Probably his goals were routine for his time. Seventeenth and eighteenth century performance demands were quite different from those of today. Scores for violin sonatas appeared in two bracketed clefs. The lower or bass line directed the keyboard player who delivered chords and their inversions as directed by Figured Bass such as the "6" in the example below. The upper of the two bracketed staves invited the violinist to invent while performing using an outline of the melody. On the spot, improvised embellishment was standard practice for singers as well as instrumentalists. Singing at sight was taken for granted.
Where physical technique was concerned, the problems had been solved long before Vivaldi's time. By then the violin was centuries old and its predecessors, especially the gambas, (bowed instruments held against the leg) were even older.
Why then, did Geminiani bother to write a method book? One probable reason was the emergence - among the gentry - of the amateur string player, especially in England, where Geminiani found his publisher. Questions remain, however, about Vivaldi. What if his assignment had been to the boys wing of the orphanage? Would the orchestra at the Pieta` still have attracted observers from all of Europe? Remember, boys who sang well were too often destined to remain altos or sopranos. Even the parents of Joseph Haydn were approached by the singing teachers, anxious to prove their skills by producing a famous castrato. Could this be the answer to the singing conundrum? Were parents simply looking for musical outlets for their sons, outlets that bypassed singing? And publishers looking for a ways to command this market?
Whatever the answers, the voiceless approach still dominates our string teaching. Yielding to the hope of restoring the creative, generative aspects of string study, some pedagogues, including this writer, look to the neglected avenues of improvisation and composition. But these worthy tools are only part of a picture that will always be incomplete - without a song.