Vivaldi's concerto titles draw ambivalent reactions from historians, who see them as commercial hooks, rarely reflecting musical substance. But titles condition a work's reception, connecting it to a cultural context by which to steer a listener's reactions, both intellectual and affective. Eighteenth-century writers on aesthetics recognized the role of textual “ideas” in the reception of music. Vivaldi's Il Proteo, ò Il mondo al rovverscio is regarded as a “trick piece” in which the solo violin and cello parts are “reversed,” each being written in the other's clef. The concerto, however, invokes a deeper conception of the mundus inversus metaphor, in that it constitutes a remarkably sophisticated exploration of upside-down compositional practices. While the opening movement challenges notions of “correct” musical syntax, evoking the Carnival celebrations of the “world upside down,” the last presents a well-ordered example of Vivaldian ritornello form. Vivaldi included Il Proteo as the first concerto in a large group sold to Pietro Ottoboni in the mid-1720s, twelve of which bear titles. Some are as concrete as “The Four Seasons,” but others are more abstract, deriving from affective or intellectual subjects such as“Il riposo.” Il Proteo, in this context, seems especially sophisticated, cleverly satirizing some of the composer's own trademark compositional techniques. Its self-conscious treatment of style appears to address contemporary debates regarding music's ability to carry “meaning,” an ability that members of Ottoboni's Arcadian Academy seemed to deny but that others, such as the philosopher Antonio Conti, endorsed. Might Vivaldi have fueled these debates with a provocative set of concertos headed by Il Proteo?
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