Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was an Italian violin virtuoso and composer of baroque music (c. 1600-1750). Best known for his violin concertos, notably The Four Seasons, Vivaldi made a significant contribution to the evolution of instrumental music, influencing Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) amongst many others, particularly in the concerto form.
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4 March 1678. His father was a professional violinist (but had been a baker before that) who was a member of the orchestra of St. Mark's in Venice. Antonio, the eldest of six children, was taught by his father to play the same instrument. The family home still stands today on the Fondamenta del Dose canal. Antonio also studied to become a priest from 1693 and was ordained in 1703. Vivaldi had red hair which led to his nickname il prete rosso (‘the Red Priest'). The decision to join the priesthood did no harm to his musical career as, from 1709, Vivaldi also worked as a violin teacher in a Venetian orphanage for girls, the Conservatorio Pio Ospedale della Pietà. The Conservatorio attracted talented solo musicians to its regular orchestra and choir for which Vivaldi composed pieces for performance in special services like Lent. Vivaldi gained more time for composing when he was exempted from joining Mass on medical grounds; he had what he called stretezza di petto ('a tightness of the chest'), an ailment that never went away. Vivaldi returned frequently to the Conservatorio throughout his career and was appointed its concert director in 1735.
Vivaldi had to look after the instruments besides his teaching duties at the Conservatorio in Venice, but he found time over the next six years to write a group of solo violin sonatas and 12 trio sonate di camera. It was the concerto format, though, that most attracted Vivaldi, and here he was influenced by the work of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), another composer who gave great prominence to violin soloists.
Vivaldi's first major work was his 12 concertos, published in Amsterdam in 1711 by Estienne Roger. These are collectively known as L'estro armonico (Harmonic Inspiration), and they were a huge success. Vivaldi dedicated the work to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1716, the composer came up with 12 more concertos, collectively titled La stravaganza (The Extravaganza), a title which is indicative of their variety and invention. Vivaldi's reputation was now firmly established as a composer to be listened to across Europe. From 1718 to 1720, he worked as the maestro di capella da camera (the chapel master) in the ducal court of Mantua. In 1729, he showed his versatility and composed 12 concertos for the flute.
Intermittently returning to his old Conservatorio (he had a contract for concertos which kicked in whenever he was in Venice), Vivaldi continued to write sacred music, too, such as his well-received Gloria. Vivaldi wrote around 60 concerti grossi which are "characterized by the interplay between a large and a small group of instruments" (Wade-Matthews, 44). The larger group is called the ripieno and the smaller group (or even soloist), the concertino. Vivaldi's concerti grossi employ strings and bass and are the forerunner of the later Classical concerto.
Vivaldi's own violin playing was as playful and innovative as his compositions, fully exploiting the possibilities of the instrument and the bow. He often astounded his audiences, as one eyewitness remembered:
Vivaldi performed a solo accompaniment admirably, and at the end he improvised a fantasy which quite confounded me, for such playing has not been heard before and can never be equalled, he played his fingers but a hair's breadth from the bridge, so that there was hardly room for the bow. He played thus on all four strings, with imitations and at an unbelievable speed.
Personal Life & Character
In 1725, Vivaldi began a romantic relationship with Anna Giraud (aka Girò), one of his vocal students. This was despite still being a member of the priesthood, and the liaison was the source of much gossip. Vivaldi often wrote parts in his operas (see below) with Anna specifically in mind. In 1737, Vivaldi was formally censured by the Church for his conduct.
"His arrogance and egotism had made many enemies" reports one historian (Wade-Matthews, 53). "Vain and conceited" reports another (Steen, 27). Certainly, Vivaldi was not lacking in confidence in his abilities, once noting that he could "compose a concerto in all its parts more quickly than a copyist could write them down" (Stegemann). This may have been no idle boast either for a handwritten note on one of Vivaldi's complete opera scores, an especially thick one, records: "Music by Vivaldi, done in 5 days" (ibid).
The Four Seasons
Le quattro stagione or The Four Seasons is undoubtedly Vivaldi's most popular composition. Published around 1725 in Amsterdam, The Four Seasons are actually only the first four concertos of the 12 that make up the Il cemento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention). The work was dedicated to Wenzel von Morzin, a Bohemian count. Vivaldi was keen to give descriptive titles to his work to aid the listener in identifying the mood and scenes he hoped to suggest with his music. Vivaldi's 'Spring' in E minor reminds of birdsong, his 'Summer' in G minor of gentle winds, his 'Autumn' in F major of hunting, and 'Winter' in F minor reminds of walking through snow and ice. Each section of each 'season' is given a further subtitle such as: Scorrono i fonti (The springs come forth), Tuoni (Thunder), Il capraro che dorme (The sleeping goatherd), and Mormorio di fronde e piante (Rustling of foliage and plants).
Vivaldi wrote around 45 operas (although he himself once put the figure at 94), but only 16 survive today. Opera was created as a genre of the music repertoire in the late 16th century by a group of musicians known as the Camerata. Based in Florence, members included Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) and Giulio Caccini (c. 1550-1618). Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) further developed this new format of musical drama, which came to be split into two distinct types: oratorio, which was based on biblical themes, and secular stories based on ancient historical events and figures from mythology.
Vivaldi's first opera, Ottone in Villa, was written in 1713 and first staged in Vicenza. He travelled about Italy putting on more operas in various ducal courts and opera houses in cities like Rome, Venice, and Mantua. Venice seemed to get most of his attention, and he spent time as the musical director of the Teatro S. Angelo there. Other cities outside Italy which staged Vivaldi operas in his lifetime include Prague, the Bohemian capital. Vivaldi's operas, so different from the German and Italian popular styles, are rarely performed today even though they "are generously provided with beguiling melodies and opportunities for vocal display" (Sadie, 145).
Vivaldi's Most Famous Works
Vivaldi composed music in a period where musical works are loosely categorised into what we today call baroque music, that is, many varieties of music but with a collective identity of "mysticism, exuberance, complexity, decoration, allegory, distortion, the exploitation of the supernatural or grandiose…movement, disturbance, doubt" (Schonberg, 30).
A prolific writer of music, Antonio Vivaldi's major works include:
- 3 piccolo concertos
- 12 concertos for flute
- 20 oboe concertos
- 27 cello concertos
- 29 bassoon concertos
- 250+ violin concertos
Notable individual works or groups with specific titles include:
- E minor concerto for four violins, Op. 3 No. 4
- L'estro armonico (1711)
- La Stravaganza (1716)
- Juditha triumphant cantata (1716)
- Il cemento dell'armonia e dell'inventione which includes Le quattro stagioni (1725)
- La Cetra (1727)
Death & Legacy
In 1739, Vivaldi was invited to compose music for the grand festival that year in Venice; he was at the height of his fame, but just two years later it all came to an end. Antonio Vivaldi died of unknown causes in Vienna on 28 July 1741. The composer had only been in the city for a month, and the purpose of his visit is unclear; he may have been accompanying his lover Anna while she performed in an opera there. Reportedly penniless, Vivaldi was buried in a simple grave in Vienna. It was a sad end for a man who had once been hailed as "the Maestrissimo [Grand Master] of Venice".
Vivaldi's influence went far beyond his own lifetime. He developed the format of the concerto towards its more familiar three movements (fast-slow-fast) of Classical music, giving soloists (even when there is more than one) a full exposure where the orchestra is used sparingly to provide introductions and harmonic support (Armold, 1938). In addition, Vivaldi provided a driving force based upon an introductory theme which returns again and again through the concerto (ritornello). Vivaldi's music was greatly admired by and influenced Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach transcribed ten of Vivaldi's violin concertos for keyboard, and Vivaldi's influence can be heard in his Brandenburg Concertos. Indeed, as the celebrated music historian D. Arnold notes regarding Vivaldi's powerful influence: "few instrumental composers of the early 18th century could avoid it" (ibid).