From Gloria to The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s music is vivacious and beautiful, full of astonishing brilliance and color. In the following article, our guest author Caroline Bennett tells of Vivaldi’s life and work.
“…In the torrid heat of the blazing sun, man and beast alike languish, and even the pine trees scorch: the cuckoo raises his voice, and soon after the turtle dove and finch join in song…”—attributed to Antonio Vivaldi, from a sonnet accompanying the second movement of The Four Seasons
An air of mystery surrounds Antonio Vivaldi, the famous Baroque composer from Italy. Not only do historians not know the exact year in which he was born, but they also debate the reason why he chose to leave his duties as a Roman Catholic priest to teach at a girls’ school. Moreover, despite his popularity during his lifetime, Vivaldi was inexplicably forgotten after his death, and the general public only began taking notice of his works in the mid-1900s, more than 200 years after he died. This is an enigma, because while many forgotten composers are neglected for good reason, Vivaldi and his music have never deserved slighting, and one must only listen to a few of his joyful pieces to realize how gifted Vivaldi was.
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice, Italy, in either 1677 or 1678. His father was a prominent violinist at St. Mark’s Chapel, and thus Vivaldi was able to receive an excellent musical education from an early age. Unlike many composers, however, Vivaldi did not initially intend to become a professional musician; he studied to become a priest and even took orders in 1703. He was excused from active service the following year at the age of 26, probably due to his poor health. Nevertheless, he was a priest for the rest of his life, and because of his fiery red hair he was nicknamed “il prete rosso,” or “the red priest.”
Vivaldi turned to music for his livelihood. For almost his entire life Vivaldi served as the violin teacher, composer, and conductor at the Conservatory of the Ospedale della Pietá, a school for orphaned and illegitimate girls. Music became the heart and soul of the girls’ lives at the Pietá, and they performed Vivaldi’s compositions every Sunday and on holidays. Vivaldi wrote more than four hundred demanding concertos for these young girls to perform.
Whenever Vivaldi was not at the Pietá, he was on tour in Europe, conducting and performing on his violin. He became famous for his set of twelve concerti grossi, compositions that involve a few soloists on different instruments accompanied by a full orchestra. Indeed, Vivaldi became quite renowned for all of his different kinds of concertos, and through his influence the concerto developed into the standard cycle of three movements.
One of Vivaldi’s most famous and influential works is his set of four violin concertos: The Four Seasons. The collection consists of twelve movements, three for each season, and Vivaldi accompanied his music with sonnets written for each season, though it is debated whether he wrote the poems himself. Vivaldi’s pieces are always full of life, and even the slow, peaceful “Largo” from Spring has the violas imitating the barking of dogs in the background. The violin is prominent throughout The Four Seasons—it is, after all, a violin concerto—and is accompanied by a string orchestra and harpsichord. The four concertos never become boring or repetitious, however, because Vivaldi didn’t just use the sound of bowed strings, but incorporated plucked strings as well. This element sometimes makes the music sound very modern, especially in the famous “Largo” from Winter. But Vivaldi was definitely a Baroque composer; he layered and repeated different melodies (like in “Allegro” from Spring), contrasted the movements of each concerto, and made the work very structured—all Baroque characteristics.
Antonio Vivaldi died in 1741. Almost instantly, he was forgotten by the world. Fortunately, Johann Sebastian Bach had transcribed a few of his pieces, and when Felix Mendelssohn revived interest in Bach in the 1800s, a few of Vivaldi’s works were rediscovered and appreciated as well. A century later, his complete collection of manuscripts was discovered, sparking audience’s interest and creating a Vivaldi revival. Today, he is one of the most renowned classical composers of all time. His works have a distinctive sound, not just due to the way he reused musical ideas, but because his pieces are full of an energy and fervor often lacking in other Baroque compositions. The Red Priest did not simply leave behind a legacy of joyful music: he was a prolific composer, and his hundreds of works display how much he appreciated the life God had given him, the beauty around him, and the joy these blessings impart.
♪ Kennedy, Nigel. Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons. EMI Records, 1989.
♪ Note by Arrietty: If you would like to see a lovely performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria, watch this video, which was done in an attempt to recreate how Vivaldi’s work would have originally been played on baroque instruments in the Pietá by an all-female orchestra and chorus.