Perhaps not many people know that in eighteenth-century Italy the history and use of wind instruments, as well as their construction, were strongly overshadowed by the spread and production of string instruments, thanks to the renowned lutherie of which Italy was so proud. For wind instruments, on the other hand, this quality was the preserve of France, England and Germany, nations which in their excellent builders and representatives, names such as Hotteterre, Stanseby and Denner, for the late-baroque period, and Delusse, Milhouse and Grenser for the classical period, contributed to creating hordes of skilled instrumentalists but more importantly led most transalpine composers to insert wind instruments ad abbundantiam in many of their scores to say nothing of writing specific compositions for bands of oboes and flutes.
This negligence may be understandable, but the fact that we still know little about the life of wind instruments in the “Age of Enlightenment” is quite unforgivable. We cannot indeed underestimate the ample collection of pieces of instrumental music written by Vivaldi in which wind instruments appear, nor the remarkable international reputation of oboists like Giuseppe Sammartini, Alessandro Besozzi and Matteo Bissoli.
The city, and in a more ample view the Republic of Venice can boast a leading role in the evolution of instrumental music for wind instruments, such that we may define it as “a pedagogic province” for the rest of Italy. The music publishing of the Venice region, contributed to the overall growth of cultural life. Indeed, it is possible to find an extraordinary likeness between the musical instruments built in Venice and those depicted in the great painting of Baschenis, Tiepolo, Bellini, Tintoretto, Guardi, Belloto and many others.
Trio sonatas and sonatas (let us remember that the term is derived from the Venetian sonada) composed by musicians coming from or trained in the Venetian area, who were however obliged to emigrate abroad or enter into contact with many instrumentalists, especially foreigners, who undoubtedly gave them the input for writing these scores. In particular our attention has focused on the oboe and its natural bass, the bassoon, two double-reed instruments that became popular in Italy in the early eighteenth century. The oboe, invented in France between 1660 and 1680, soon found its place in many European musical centres, gradually replacing many double-reed instruments like the bombard and the cialamello, thanks to a mouthpiece which allowed for better control of the reed, a softer more dynamic sound, as well as better agility of technique. In Venice especially, and as a result in much of the inland territory of the Venetian area, the oboe was introduced by French and German virtuosi, replacing the “piffaros”, instruments that had now become outdated.
It was in 1698 that the Ducal Capella of San Marco’s dismissed its last cornet player and at the same time appointed Onofrio Penati, probably the first oboist of the Venetian Republic, who was paid the highest salary of the entire orchestra. We should not forget that in 1716 Vivaldi dedicated his demanding oboe sonata RV 54 in C minor to the virtuoso from Dresden Johann Christian Richter, and that the first oboe teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in 1703 was Ignazio Rion, of French or perhaps Spanish origin. At the end of 1705 Rion left for Rome where he introduced the “new hautbois” and thus won the esteem of composers like Caldara, Alessandro Scarlatti and the young Handel.
Another German instrumentalist who stayed and worked in Venice was Ludwig Erdmann. The Venetian oboe school also became important through the contribution of some of the “putte”, orphan girls, at the Pietà, amongst whom we remember the “Pellegrina dell’oboe” [The Pilgrim of the oboe], and the school spread thanks to many Italian instrumentalist who worked in orchestras in various theatres, like the “Gioseppe venetiano” immortalized in a caricature of Ghezzi.
The bassoon, on the other hand, was the only wind instrument used uninterruptedly in the Venetian tradition from the early 1600s, if not before. Although it was then used and associated with the cornet à bouquin, it nonetheless acquired important reflections in the writing of many scores, a fact that leads us to suppose that its technical and expressive qualities had already become well known. Despite this the construction of the 18th-century bassoon was quite different from the previous version: it was made up of four separate pieces, with three or four keys for stopping the holes and called for quite a different fingering technique from its predecessor. We do not know clearly when the shift from one instrument to the other came about, and indeed the name fagotto (bassoon) remained unchained (it is only in modern parlance that we define the earlier instrument as a dulcian, to distinguish it from the real bassoon). And again it was Vivaldi who wrote thirty-nine concertos for this instrument.
The composers (like Platti, Brescianello, Steffani, Lotti or Montanari) had contact with the Venetian Republic, through birth, studies or visits, and were all attracted to the special beauty of the timbre and peculiarities of these wind instruments. As they migrated across Europe, many of them later came into contact with virtuosi or simple instrumentalists who probably encouraged them to write for instrumental ensembles that were unusual and rarely catered for by other Italian composers. The presence of two oboes and a concertante bassoon is indeed typical of the music culture in northern Europe, and of Dresden in particular (see Lotti), other examples of this type of work are rare in many Italian composers of the eighteenth century and rarer in the following centuries.