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Is the reason the soloist is often silent during a Baroque-era concerto simply to provide a break from all the virtuosity often required within the outer movements? Or is it to allow a string soloist to quietly retune?

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    i’m having trouble thinking of a baroque concerto lacking the soloist in the slow movement. Which ones are you thinking of? May 10, 2023 at 23:01
  • You know, I have been noting a silent soloist in the slow movement about half the time in the Baroque-era concerti that I hear on our local classical music station and on Music Choice. May 10, 2023 at 23:18
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    Can you provide some examples? Can you provide any examples that aren't concertos for a valveless brass instrument?
    – phoog
    May 11, 2023 at 7:17
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    As I do my listening today and come across a Baroque-era concerto in which the solo instrument is silent during the slow movement, I will certainly post the info on that recording here. May 11, 2023 at 12:41
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    Found one! The Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537. A performance on YouTube with a Japanese ensemble. May 11, 2023 at 12:55

2 Answers 2

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As I do my listening today and come across a Baroque-era concerto in which the solo instrument is silent during the slow movement, I will certainly post the info on that recording here

I think what you'll find is that this happens only when the solo instrument is a natural horn or trumpet. While it is possible for these instruments to be used in keys other than the instrument's own key, this capability was rarely if ever used in the baroque period. Slow movements are often in a contrasting key, making it difficult or impossible for the solo instrument to play (under the norms of the time).

Furthermore these movements are usually not only slow but also quiet and peaceful. Horns are traditionally instruments of the hunt, and trumpets of military and stately occasions. They are loud, and their idiom is full of energetic leaps, scales, dotted rhythms, and triplets. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but a typical concerto is going to exploit the idiomatic style of the instrument, so most horn and trumpet concertos of the Baroque period will give the soloist a rest in the quiet movement.

Strings and winds, by contrast, have both energetic and languid idioms, and they don't have the difficulties of horns and trumpets playing in contrasting keys, and in fact you will find that they typically do play in the slow movements of their concertos.

Found one! The Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537. A performance on YouTube with a Japanese ensemble.

See what I mean?

Also note that this slow movement is 6 measures long, which could be motivated by the need to provide a bit of contrast without boring the soloists. (But slow movements like this are far from rare in baroque concertos and sonatas.)

This slow movement calls to mind another factor, affecting trumpets particularly, which is that the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale are rather far out of tune compared to the diatonic scale. Modern "natural" trumpets have ahistorical finger holes to compensate for this, but in the baroque period there was only the player's technique: lip tension, breath pressure, and embouchure. In a fast movement, the notes are short enough that slight inaccuracies of tuning will be less noticeable. In a slow movement, this is not going to be the case. In this Vivaldi concerto, for example, the first violin part of the slow movement entirely comprises notes that are available to the natural trumpet. But the F is likely to be out of tune and/or have a different tone because of the pitch bending. That will have a minimal impact on a note lasting a quarter of a second, but a major impact on one lasting four or five seconds.

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  • @TomKorbuszewski A few more points: 1) the "concerto," as we know it in the romantic mold, was still being codified. Some things, like the Brandenburg concerti, are more "concerto grosso," and show much more diversity in their form. And we see more diversity even among the concerti that follow the 3-movement, 1-solist structure: Of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," "Autumn" has no solo in its slow movement, but the other three seasons do. May 11, 2023 at 14:40
  • And 2) sometimes, when we encounter a slow movement with very little going on—barely more than a cadence—it might have been an opportunity for the soloist to improvise, like a sort of accompanied cadenza. May 11, 2023 at 14:40
  • @AndyBonner but in Autumn the solo violin part does have the second movement (in the first edition at least); it's just entirely in unison with the first violin section. So indeed it seems like it might be an opportunity to improvise.
    – phoog
    May 11, 2023 at 14:53
  • I'm too busy/lazy right now to investigate, but pretty sure there's scholarship and recordings that go that route May 11, 2023 at 15:06
  • @AndyBonner indeed. And the idea that it must be one way or another is surely spurious. I suspect Vivaldi would have improvised if he were playing the solo, but whether every student at the Ospedale would have done so is another matter. Reminding myself of the spelling of "ospedale" in Wikipedia, I found this quote from Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach: "Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy which absolutely astounded me." I'm curious what words he used in the original but also too busy to go beyond my initial fruitless search.
    – phoog
    May 12, 2023 at 8:16
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Most string and woodwind soloists do get parts in slow movements. Brass players, especially trumpet players, need to rest their lips a bit now and then. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2 is an example. (There are exceptions.)

Horns and trumpets were valveless so non-harmonic notes required differences in lip position and air pressure.

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  • Cesare Bendinelli's 1614 trumpet book includes one piece where the clarino (virtuosic, high-register part) player is instructed to hold a "large glass of wine" in the other hand and drink from it every time the solo part gets a break while the rest of the trumpet ensemble plays. It seems it had more to do with it being symbolic, for a piece at a wedding feast; it mentions something about "to imitate the text of the song"; but I wonder whether it also helped to "wet your whistle." May 11, 2023 at 15:12

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