Tomaso Albinoni, eldest son of a wealthy paper merchant, was born in Venice in 1671. At an early age he became proficient as a singer and, more notably, as a violinist, soon turning his hand to composition. Until his father’s death in 1709, he was able to cultivate music more for pleasure than for profit, referring to himself as “dilettante” – a term which in 18th century Italy was totally devoid of unfavorable connotations. Under the terms of his father’s will he was relieved of the duty (which he would normally have assumed as eldest son) to take charge of the family business, and this task devolved on to his younger brothers. Henceforth he was to be a full-time musician, who according to one report, at one time ran a successful academy of singing. He resided in Venice all his life, though visits to Florence (1703) and Munich (1722) are recorded. After a long period of inactivity he died in 1751 (the oft-quoted date of 1750 is incorrect).
In his youth Albinoni flirted unsuccessfully with the composition of church music. He first came to public notice as a composer when, in 1694, his first opera, “Zenobia, regina de Palmireni“, was produced in Venice and his first collection of instrumental music (“Sonata a tre, op.1″) appeared. Thereafter he divided his attention almost equally between vocal composition (operas, serenatas and cantatas) and instrumental composition (sonatas and concertos). His vocal music circulated only in manuscript, apart from twelve cantatas published in 1702 as his op.4 and one cantata that appeared elsewhere, and was comparatively little known outside Italy. His instrumental music (108 works published as op. 1-3 and 5-10, plus 17 works published in “unauthorized” collections and about 50 authenticated works remaining in manuscript) enjoyed a vogue in northern Europe, particularly through the activity of publishing houses in Amsterdam and London. Albinoni’s oboe concertos, and in particular the collection known op.7 issued by Estienne Roger of Amsterdam in 1715, are significant in terms of the wider development of music.
Prior to op.7, Albinoni had not published any compositions with parts for wind instruments. The concerto, in particular, had been regarded as the province of stringed instruments. The six concertos in Albinoni’s op.2 (1700) and his twelve concertos op.5 (1707) feature – only in certain works and movements, it is true – a principal (i.e. solo) violin. These early concertos were progressive in establishing a cycle of three movements (fast-slow-fast) as the norm and in moving cautiously in the direction of the ritornello form brought to fruition by Vivaldi, although Albinoni’s “ritornellos” usually consist merely of a simple head-motive continued freely with passage-work. It is likely that the first concertos featuring a solo oboe appeared from German composers such as Telemann or Handel, since the Germans were ideally placed to marry a French instrument to an Italian form. Nevertheless, the four concertos with one oboe (Nos. 3, 6, 9 and 12) and the four with two oboes (Nos. 2, 5, 8 and 11) in Albinoni’s op.7 were the first of their kind to be published, and proved so successful that the composer repeated the formula in op.9 (1722).
When one compares Albinoni’s oboe concertos with the many examples by Vivaldi composed around the same time (some perhaps earlier), one is struck by an important difference in the manner of writing for the solo instrument. To a large extent Vivaldi transfers the idiom of the violin to the oboe, making only scant concession to the player’s need to draw breath frequently. Albinoni, however, models his style of writing for the oboe on the vocal idiom, of which he was an established master. One observes that the oboe normally moves by small intervals, often by step, eschewing the “violin leaps” (as Mattheson termed them) found in Vivaldi.