Antonio Lucio Vivaldi Listen, born March 4, 1678 in Venice and died July 28, 1741 in Vienna, was an Italian violinist and composer of classical music. He was also a priest of the Catholic Church.
Vivaldi was one of the most famous and admired violin virtuosos of his time (he is also recognized as one of the most important composers of the Baroque period, as the principal originator of the solo concerto, a genre derived from the concerto grosso. His influence, in Italy as in all of Europe, was considerable, and can be measured by the fact that Bach adapted and transcribed more works by Vivaldi than by any other musician.
He was active in the fields of instrumental music, particularly the violin, but also dedicated to an exceptional variety of instruments, religious music and lyrical music; it gave rise to the creation of a considerable number of concertos, sonatas, operas, religious pieces: he prided himself on being able to compose a concerto faster than the copyist could transcribe it.
A Catholic priest, his red hair led to the nickname il Prete rosso, “The Red-Haired Priest,” a nickname perhaps better known in Venice than his real name, as reported by Goldoni in his Memoirs. As was the case with many eighteenth-century composers, his music, like his name, was soon forgotten after his death. It was not until the rediscovery of Johann Sebastian Bach in the nineteenth century that his music regained some scholarly interest; However, its true recognition took place during the first half of the 20th century, thanks to the work of scholars and musicologists such as Arnold Schering or Alberto Gentili, to the involvement of musicians such as Marc Pincherle, Olga Rudge, Angelo Ephrikian, Gian Francesco Malipiero or Alfredo Casella, and to the enthusiasm of enlightened amateurs such as Ezra Pound.
Today, some of his instrumental works, including the four concertos known as The Four Seasons, are among the most popular in the classical repertoire.
Vivaldi”s life is not well known, for no serious biographer, before the 20th century, has attempted to retrace it. We rely on rare direct testimonies, those of the president of Brosses, the playwright Carlo Goldoni, the German architect Johann Friedrich von Uffenbach, who met the musician, on the few writings of his hand and on documents of all kinds found in various archives in Italy and abroad. To give two concrete examples, it was only in 1938 that Rodolfo Gallo was able to determine the exact date of his death from a record found in Vienna, and in 1962, Eric Paul was able to determine the date of his birth from his baptismal record. The date of 1678, which was previously assumed, was only an estimate by Marc Pincherle, based on the known stages of his ecclesiastical career.
As a result, many gaps and inaccuracies still mar his biography, and research continues. Some periods of his life remain completely obscure, as do his many journeys undertaken or assumed in the Italian peninsula and abroad. This is also true for the knowledge of his work, and we still continue to find works of his that were thought lost or unknown, such as the opera Argippo, found in 2006 in Regensburg.
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on Friday, March 4, 1678, the same day an earthquake occurred in the region. The midwife and nurse, Margarita Veronese, immediately waved him off at birth, probably because of the earthquake, or because the birth had taken place in poor conditions that could have led to the fear of death of the newborn. The hypothesis that he was sickly and fragile from birth is plausible, because later he was always to complain of poor health, resulting from a “chest tightness” (strettezza di petto) that is thought to be a form of asthma. He was baptized two months later, on May 6, 1678, in the parish church of San Giovanni in Bragora, where his parents lived, in Ca” Salomon, Campo Grande in the sestiere del Castello, one of the six districts of Venice.
His father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi (ca. 1655-1736), son of a tailor from Brescia, was a barber, playing the violin to entertain customers, and later became a professional violinist; his mother, Camilla Calicchio, also the daughter of a tailor, came from Basilicata. They were married in 1676 in this same church and had eight more children, two of whom died in infancy, successively: Margherita Gabriella (1680-?), Cecilia Maria (1683-?), Bonaventura Tommaso (1685-? ), Zanetta Anna (1687-1762), Francesco Gaetano (1690-1752), Iseppo Santo (1692-1696), Gerolama Michaela (1694-1696), and finally Iseppo Gaetano (however, two of his nephews were music copyists. Red hair was hereditary in the Vivaldi family, and Giovanni Battista was named Rossi in the registers of the Ducal Chapel; Antonio was to inherit this physical trait, which earned him the nickname “Red Priest” for posterity.
The father probably had more taste for music than for his trade of barber, because one saw him engaged as of 1685 as violinist of the basilica Saint-Marc, high place of the religious music in Italy where several great names of the music had been illustrated, in particular Adrien Willaert, Claudio Merulo, Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli. His famous mastery was entrusted the same year to Giovanni Legrenzi. Like Legrenzi and his colleague Antonio Lotti, he was among the founders of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, a brotherhood of Venetian musicians. In addition to his work at the Ducal Chapel, from 1689 he was a violinist at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo and at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti.
Antonio learned to play the violin from his father, and he proved to be precocious and extremely gifted. Early on he was admitted to the Ducal Chapel and may have received lessons from Legrenzi himself, although no evidence has been found. It is certain, however, that Antonio Vivaldi benefited fully from the intense musical life that animated the Basilica of San Marco and its institutions, where from time to time he took his father”s place.
It was probably the search for a good career for his son that guided him and was the main reason for his choice of this orientation, rather than the vocation of the young boy for the priestly state, to which he would devote himself very little during his life thanks to dispensations from the Church, which would allow him to develop all his aptitudes for music and composition; however, he wore the cassock for the rest of his life and read his breviary every day.
From the age of ten he began to attend the necessary courses at the school of the parish of San Geminiano, and on September 18, 1693, having reached the minimum age of fifteen, he received the ecclesiastical tonsure from the hands of the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Badoaro. He did not give up his musical activities, however, and in 1696 was appointed supernumerary musician at the Ducal Chapel and received membership in the Arte dei Sonadori, a guild of musicians. He received minor orders in the parish of San Giovanni in Oleo, sub-diaconate on April 4, 1699, at the age of twenty-one, and then the diaconate on September 18, 1700. Finally, at the age of twenty-five, he was ordained a priest on March 23, 1703. He was able to continue to live with his family, with his parents, until their death, the father and his son continuing to work closely together.
Although not well known, the role Giovanni Battista Vivaldi played in the life and career of his son Antonio seems to be of primary and prolonged importance, since he died only five years before him. It seems that he opened many doors for him, especially in the opera world, and that he accompanied him on many trips.
Violin Master at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà
At the same time, the young man had been chosen as violin master by the authorities of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (a hospice, orphanage and high-level music conservatory) and hired for this purpose in August 1703, with an annual stipend of 60 ducats. In Italian, the word Pietà does not mean Piety but Pity.
Founded in 1346, this religious institution was the most prestigious of the four hospices financed by the Serenissima Republic and destined to take in young children who were abandoned, orphaned, natural born, or from indigent families – the other institutions were called: Ospedale dei Mendicanti, Ospedale degli Incurabili, Ospedale dei SS. Giovanni e Paolo. The boys stayed there until they were teenagers and then left for an apprenticeship, but the Pietà housed only girls. Cloistered almost like nuns, some of them received a thorough musical education, which made them valuable singers and musicians: some could sing the tenor and bass parts of the choirs and play all the instruments. A hierarchy distinguished the girls, according to their talent: at the base were the figlie di coro; more experienced were the privilegiate di coro who could pretend to be proposed in marriage and could perform outside; at the top were the maestre di coro who could instruct their companions. Public and paying concerts were organized and very popular with music lovers and lovers of gallant adventures. Each ospedale had a choirmaster, maestro di coro, responsible for the teaching of music (the term applies to vocal music, but also to instrumental music), an organist, an instrument teacher, maestro di strumenti, and other specialized teachers. In his letter of 29 August 1739 to M. de Blancey, Charles de Brosses wrote:
“The transcendent music here is that of the hospitals. There are four of them, all composed of bastard girls or orphans, and of those whose parents are not in a position to raise them. They are brought up at the expense of the State, and they are trained only to excel in music. They sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, the bassoon; in short, there is no big instrument that can scare them. They are cloistered like nuns. They are the only ones who perform, and each concert is composed of about forty girls. I swear there is nothing so pleasant as to see a young and pretty nun, in a white habit, with a bunch of pomegranates on her ear, conducting the orchestra and beating the beat with all the grace and precision imaginable. Their voices are adorable for the turn and the lightness; because one does not know here what it is that roundness and sounds spun in the French way. (…) The one of the four hospitals where I go most often and where I have the most fun is the Piété hospital; it is also the first for the perfection of the symphonies.
In his Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave another testimony of the quality of these orchestras of young girls that he could appreciate during his stay in Venice from 1743 to 1744 where he was secretary of the French ambassador in Venice.
To have these experienced musicians at one”s disposal, without worrying about the number, the time spent or the cost, was a considerable advantage for a composer, who could thus give free rein to his creativity and try out all sorts of musical combinations. By this time, the young violin master had certainly begun his career as a composer and started to be noticed for his works published in manuscript form, and his burgeoning fame may have justified his choice for this important position.
This commitment was not perpetual, but subject to the regular vote of the directors. Vivaldi”s independent spirit earned him several unfavorable votes and temporary absences. In 1704, he was entrusted with the teaching of the viola all” inglese with a salary increased to one hundred ducats, and in 1705 with the composition and performance of concertos, his salary being increased to one hundred and fifty ducats annually, a minimal sum to which was added the remuneration of daily masses said for the Pietà or for rich patrician families who also bought concertos.
The musical direction of the Pietà was assured since 1701 by Francesco Gasparini, “maestro di coro”. Gasparini, a talented and extremely prolific musician (he composed more than sixty operas), devoted most of his time to staging operas at the Sant”Angelo Theater. He therefore relieved Vivaldi of an increasing number of tasks, allowing him to become the main musical animator of the establishment.
Edition of the first works
Since Vivaldi had been commissioned to teach concerto composition to the girls of the Pietà in 1705, it must be assumed that he already had a solid reputation as a composer by that time. His works had already been circulating in the form of handwritten copies, a common practice at the time, when he decided in 1705 to have his Opus I (twelve Trio Sonatas, Op. 1, concluding with his best-known work La Follia) printed by Venice”s most famous music publisher, Giuseppe Sala.
This collection consisted of twelve sonatas da camera a tre dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara, a Venetian nobleman, who, like Corelli, came from Brescia in Lombardy. These trio sonatas were quite traditional in style, but still differed little from those of Arcangelo Corelli.
That same year, Vivaldi took part in a concert at the home of the Abbé de Pomponne, then French ambassador: he remained, in a way, the official musician of the French diplomatic representation in Venice. From then on he and his parents lived in an apartment on the campo dei SS. Filippo e Giacomo, located behind the Basilica of San Marco.
In 1706, the Vivaldi family, father and son, were named in a guidebook for foreigners (Guida dei forestieri en Venezia) as the best musicians in the city.
Renunciation to say mass
He then devoted himself exclusively to music, for in the autumn of 1706, he definitively stopped saying mass. François-Joseph Fétis, who devoted only half a page to Vivaldi in his monumental Biographie universelle des musiciens et biographie générale de la musique published in 1835, gave an explanation, denied by the writings of Vivaldi himself, which have since been rediscovered, but which was very popular:
“One day, while saying his daily mass, he was charmed by a musical idea; in the emotion it gave him, he immediately left the altar and went to the sacristy to write his theme, then returned to finish his mass. When he was brought before the Inquisition, he was fortunately considered as a man whose head was not sound, and the judgment pronounced against him was limited to forbidding him to celebrate mass.”
In a letter written in 1737, Vivaldi gave a different and plausible reason, namely that the difficulty in breathing, the chest tightness, which he had always experienced, would have forced him on several occasions to leave the altar without being able to finish his service (he had thus voluntarily renounced this essential act in the life of a Catholic priest. However, he did not renounce the ecclesiastical state, continuing throughout his life to wear the habit and to read his breviary; he was also extremely devout. In his two-volume Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler (17901792), the composer and musicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber even states that he was “extraordinarily bigoted” – which did not prevent him from devoting his entire career to secular activities far removed from the normal and usual concerns of a priest.
The beginning of a European reputation
Through his virtuosity and the increasing diffusion of his compositions, Vivaldi was able to introduce himself effectively into the most aristocratic circles. He frequented the Ottoboni Palace. In 1707, during a feast given by Prince Ercolani, ambassador of the Austrian Emperor, he participated in a musical joust that pitted him against another priest violinist, don Giovanni Rueta, a musician well forgotten today, but protected by the Emperor himself: such an honor could only be granted to a musician already enjoying the highest consideration.
In the same period, several foreign musicians came to stay in Venice. During the carnival of 1707, Alessandro Scarlatti had two of his Neapolitan operas, Mitridate Eupatore and Il trionfo della libertà, performed at the San Giovanni Grisostomo theater (the same one where Vivaldi”s father was a violinist). The following year, his son Domenico Scarlatti, the famous harpsichordist, came to study with Gasparini, whom his father had befriended. Finally, Georg Friedrich Handel, at the end of his Italian stay, also came to the city of the lagoons and triumphantly performed his opera Agrippina on December 26, 1709 in the same theater of San Giovanni Grisostomo. Even if there is no certain proof, everything – the places frequented as well as the people he met – suggests that Vivaldi could not fail to meet these colleagues, who perhaps gave him the desire to try his hand at opera. However, no stylistic influence can be detected in their respective productions.
Vivaldi had the opportunity to increase the circle of his high ranking relations with the visit to Venice, on a private trip from December 1708 to March 1709, of King Frederick IV of Denmark. He arrived in Venice with the intention of taking advantage of the famous Venetian carnival. He disembarked on December 29, and the next day attended a concert conducted by Vivaldi at the Pietà. During his stay, he was to hear several other concerts by the girls under the direction of their maestro di violino, who finally dedicated to His Majesty, before his departure on March 6, his opus 2 consisting of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which had just come off the presses of the Venetian printer Antonio Bortoli. The sovereign, a lover of Italian music and beautiful women, also took with him twelve portraits of beautiful Venetian women painted in miniature for him by Rosalba Carriera.
Vivaldi”s eagerness towards the King of Denmark was perhaps linked to the evolution of his relationship with the governors of the Pietà, whose vote in February had put an end to his functions. From this date to September 1711, a complete blur surrounds his activities. However, his father was hired in 1710 as a violinist at the Sant”Angelo theater, one of the many Venetian theaters producing operas. It is perhaps through him that Antonio deepened his relationship with Francesco Santurini, the dubious impresario of this theater who was also Gasparini”s associate.
In any case, we know that he was present in Brescia in February 1711, and the hypothesis of a trip to Amsterdam is evoked.
It is indeed in Amsterdam that Vivaldi had to entrust the edition of his works to the famous music publisher Etienne Roger and his successors, dissatisfied with his first Venetian printers.
His opus 3, a collection of twelve concertos for string instruments entitled L”estro armonico, was printed by Estienne Roger in 1711. It was dedicated to the heir of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Ferdinand de Medici, Prince of Florence (1663-1713), and marked a milestone in the history of European music: this work marked the transition from the concerto grosso to the modern solo concerto.
Contemporary and posthumous works, the collections of Giuseppe Torelli (opus 8 published in 1709) and Arcangelo Corelli (Vivaldi proposed in a new way in his collection of concertos grossos of traditional construction, generally in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) with concertino-ripieno opposition (numbers 1, 2, 4, 7, 10 and 11) and solo concertos whose three-movement structure (fast-fast-slow-fast) is that of the Italian overture. The virtuoso soloist is confronted alone with the orchestra (numbers 5 and 8, with two soloists, are to be classified in this second category).
Choosing the renowned Dutch publisher was a privileged way to achieve European fame: L”estro armonico reached the hands of Johann Gottfried Walther, a great lover of Italian music and a cousin and friend of Johann Sebastian Bach, in Thuringia, in the form of a manuscript copy. The latter, then in Weimar, was so enthusiastic about Vivaldi”s concertos that he transcribed several of them for the keyboard: an impressive stylistic exercise – so different are the musical characteristics of the violin and the harpsichord – but one that was appreciated in many ways. Roland de Candé remarked: “However skilful J.S. Bach”s magnificent work may be, these transcriptions add nothing to his glory. I will even confess, at the risk of blasphemy, that the Vivaldian concertos, which are essentially violinistic, seem to me to be completely distorted by performance on the harpsichord or the organ.
Vivaldi”s presence was again evident in September 1711, when he was once again appointed to the Pietà. The year 1712 saw the premiere in Brescia of one of his great masterpieces of religious music, the Stabat Mater for viola, a poignant and highly inspired composition.
It was only in 1713 – he was thirty-five years old – that Vivaldi tackled opera for the first time, the great business of any renowned composer in this early eighteenth-century Italy.
His status as a clergyman, already well compromised by his unusual behavior, may have made him reluctant to take this turn earlier. If the virtuoso and the composer were admired, his whimsical personality and the ambiguous character of his female entourage smacked of scandal. However, working in the underworld of opera was not the most moral of activities, in many ways; it was so popular that it must have interested the scoundrels or turned the heads of the most talented singers, whose whims, eccentricities and adventures were the talk of the town.
The methods of the impresarios were sometimes of a relative honesty. Thus, Gasparini and Santurini found themselves in court for having kidnapped and beaten up two singers who were unhappy about not having received the agreed salary – one of them had even fallen into a canal; the judges” benevolence had been obtained thanks to the intervention of influential relations.
Venice was giddy with festivities as if to exorcise its irreversible political decline, the counterpoint of which was an unprecedented artistic flowering. The madness of the opera was part of it: Marc Pincherle has calculated the number of works performed in Venice between 1700 and 1743 at four hundred and thirty-two. How could a musician of genius and ambition remain outside this movement that could bring fame and the greatest success?
The libretto of Vivaldi”s first opera, Ottone in villa, was written by Domenico Lalli, in fact the pseudonym of Sebastiano Biancardi, a Neapolitan poet and swindler who, wanted by the police in Naples, had come to take refuge in Venice. The two men had become friends. The new opera was not premiered in Venice, but for an unknown reason, on May 17, 1713 in Vicenza where Vivaldi had gone, with his father, after having obtained a temporary leave of absence from the authorities of the Pietà. During his stay in Vicenza, he participated in the performance of his oratorio la Vittoria navale predetta dal santo pontefice Pio V Ghisilieri (whose music has been lost) on the occasion of the canonization of Pope Pius V.
After Ottone in villa, Vivaldi was to compose one or more operas almost every year until 1739: according to him, he wrote 94. However, the number of identified titles is less than 50 and less than 20 have been preserved, either completely or partially, as far as the music is concerned, which, unlike the libretti, was never printed.
Impresario of the Teatro Sant”Angelo
The strange Roux Priest was not to be satisfied with composing opera music and conducting, with his violin, the interpretation. From the end of 1713, he assumed, if not in title, at least in fact, the function of “impresario” of the Teatro Sant”Angelo – this term of impresario having to be understood as “entrepreneur” in succession to Santurini, dubious businessman already mentioned above. The impresario had all the responsibilities: administration, establishment of programs, hiring of musicians and singers, financing, etc. In spite of his physical discomforts – real or alleged – Vivaldi assumed all these tasks, including the composition of operas, without giving up his less remunerative but more noble functions at the Pietà or composing sonatas and concertos for the publishing house or on behalf of various sponsors (religious institutions, rich and noble amateurs): in 1714 he composed for the Pietà his first oratorio, Moyses Deux Pharaonis – whose music is lost – and had his opus 4 entitled La Stravaganza published in Amsterdam. This collection of 12 violin concertos dedicated to a young Venetian nobleman, Vettor Dolfin, was a near-final definition of the solo concerto form in three movements: Allegro – Adagio – Allegro.
The Sant”Angelo, well located on the Grand Canal near the Corner-Spinelli palazzo, did not enjoy a very clear legal situation. Founded by Santurini in 1676 on a piece of land belonging to the patrician families allied to the Marcellos and Capellos, it was not returned to them at the end of the concession, Santurini continuing to operate it without title as if nothing had happened and despite the steps taken by the owners. This state of affairs was to continue in favor of Vivaldi, who operated officially from autumn 1713 to Carnival 1715, but also, more often than not, through the intermediary of nominees (Modotto, Mauro, Santelli, Orsato), among whom we also find his father. As for Santurini, he died in 1719. The opacity of the management operations raised doubts about the honesty of the impresario and his associates and there were rumors of embezzlement, breach of trust… It is also possible that Vivaldi”s position at the Pietà allowed favorable arrangements for musical or other services. It was in this Sant”Angelo theater that Vivaldi produced his second opera, Orlando finto pazzo, in the fall of 1714. In the margin of the manuscript he wrote “Se questa non piace, non voglio più scrivere di musica” (“If this one doesn”t please, I don”t want to write music anymore”). In fact, although there is no record of the success of this second opera, he continued to write it, and for the next few years his various activities as composer, Maestro dei Concerti, violin virtuoso, and impresario continued at a steady pace.
In 1715 he composed and produced at the Sant”Angelo the pasticcio Nerone fatto Cesare; on a visit to Venice, the music-loving architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach from Frankfurt attended three of his performances. He ordered concertos from him: three days later Vivaldi brought him ten, which he claimed to have composed especially. He was also taught his violin technique and testified in a letter to Vivaldi”s extraordinary virtuosity:
” … Towards the end Vivaldi played an admirable solo accompaniment, which he followed with a cadenza that really appalled me, because one could never play something so impossible, his fingers came to a straw of the bridge, leaving hardly any room for the bow to run, and this on all four strings, with fugues and incredible speed, this astonished everyone; I must confess, however, that I cannot say that I was charmed, because it was not as pleasant to hear as it was artfully done. “
During the following seasons Vivaldi composed and presented at the Sant”Angelo successively in 1716, Arsilda, regina di Ponto and in 1717 the Incoronazione di Dario. Arsilda was the cause of the rupture with Domenico Lalli, author of the libretto. The libretto was initially censored and Lalli blamed Vivaldi for the changes the latter had requested. This definitive quarrel was to prohibit Vivaldi from performing at the San Samuele and San Giovanni Grisostomo theaters, where Lalli was to become the official impresario.
But his activity as a composer was able to develop at San Moisè, for which he composed in 1716 the Costanza trionfante, in 1717 Tieteberga and in 1718 Armida al campo d”Egitto.
The same period saw the publication, in Amsterdam by Jeanne Roger, of Opus 5 (six sonatas for one or two violins with basso continuo) and the creation for the Pietà, in November 1716, of the only oratorio that has survived, a masterpiece of religious music: Juditha triumphans which was also a piece of circumstance intended to commemorate the victory of Prince Eugene over the Turks at Petrovaradin: the allegory opposes Christianity, personified by Judith to the Turkish power represented by Holofernes.
In 1717, Johann Georg Pisendel, violinist at the Saxon ducal court chapel in Dresden, spent a year in Venice at the expense of his prince to train with the Venetian master; with the exception of the young girls of the Pietà, Pisendel thus became one of his only known disciples (the other two are the violinists Giovanni Battista Somis and Daniel Gottlieb Treu (de)). The two men became close friends. When Pisendel returned to Saxony, he took with him a large collection of Vivaldi”s instrumental works, among which Vivaldi personally dedicated to him six sonatas, a sinfonia and five concertos bearing the dedication “fatte p. Mr. Pisendel”. These pieces are now in the Landesbibliothek in Dresden.
Opus 6 (six violin concertos) and Opus 7 (twelve concertos for violin or oboe) were published in Amsterdam by Jeanne Roger between 1716 and 1721, apparently without the composer”s personal supervision and, in any case, without dedication.
Trips and stays outside Venice
Vivaldi”s operas soon spread beyond the borders of the Republic of Venice. Scanderbeg, based on a text by Antonio Salvi, was first performed at the Pergola Theater in Florence in June 1718.
For two years from the spring of 1718, Vivaldi stayed in Mantua as Kapellmeister to Landgrave Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt. The circumstances of this engagement are not clear, nor those of his return to Venice. However, it was at the Archduke”s theater in Mantua that the operas Teuzzone in 1718, Tito Manlio in 1719 and La Candace in 1720 were premiered. Thereafter, Vivaldi continued to use, not without pride, his title of Maestro di Cappella di Camera di SAS il sig. Principe Filippo Langravio d”Hassia Darmistadt.
Vivaldi did nothing to go unnoticed. Arguing that his physical handicap did not prevent him from leading a hectic life of activity, nor from undertaking long and arduous journeys, he moved around “only in a gondola or a carriage”, accompanied at that time by an astonishing female cohort. These ladies, he said, knew well his infirmities and were of great help to him. Their presence at his side also fed the rumors…
In 1720 a small satirical book entitled Il teatro alla moda appeared in Venice, the author of which remained anonymous. This work, presenting the failings of the opera world in the form of backhanded advice to its various actors, had Vivaldi as its main target under the pseudonym of Aldiviva, a transparent anagram of “A.Vivaldi”. More than anyone else at the time, Vivaldi personified this musical genre. The derision was exerted against all the characters and their practices; the criticism was all the more hurtful that it ridiculed real and visible defects: the librettist bending his text not to the necessities of the action, but, for example, to the desires of the stagehands, the composer writing his arias not according to the demands of the libretto, but according to those of the singers or according to stereotyped rules, the latter disregarding the indications of the musician, the singers giving free rein to their own whims, the impresario cutting back on the cost of the instrumentalists to the detriment of musical quality, etc.
On the cover there was an amusing caricature of three key characters of the Sant”Angelo and the San Moisè, sailing on a “péotte”, a boat used in the lagoon. At the front, a bear in a wig (at the oars, the impresario Modotto, former owner of a small boat who had served the previous one); at the back, a little angel (Vivaldi) with his violin, wearing a priest”s hat and marking the rhythm with his music to give the pace.
The author was in fact Benedetto Marcello, a musician and dilettante scholar, who was opposed to Vivaldi because of his conception of life, because he was a member of the family that owned the Sant”Angelo, which was in dispute with the Red Priest, and perhaps because of a certain jealousy towards this rival of genius, who came from the plebs.
At the end of 1720 Vivaldi produced two new operas at Sant”Angelo: La verità in cimento and the pasticcio Filippo, Re di Macedonia. But the success of Marcello”s pamphlet may have made him want to “get some fresh air” and to travel from time to time away from his native city. In the autumn of 1722 he left Venice for Rome, with a letter of recommendation to the Borghese princess written by Alessandro Marcello, Benedetto”s own brother.
Vivaldi was received “like a prince” by Roman high society, giving concerts and premiering his opera Ercole sul Termodonte at the Teatro Capranica in January 1723. The excellent reception and the success obtained during this Roman stay encouraged him to return to Rome during the carnival of the following year; there he created, still at the Capranica, Il Giustino and the pasticcio La Virtù trionfante dell”amore e dell”odio of which he had composed only act II.
It was during this second stay that he was kindly received by the new Pope Benedict XIII, eager to hear his music and apparently unconcerned about the dubious reputation that this unconventional priest was dragging after him.
It is also from one of his stays in Rome that the only portrait considered authentic dates, as it was drawn on the spot by the painter and caricaturist Pier Leone Ghezzi.
A few years later, in a letter to the Marquis Bentivoglio, one of his patrons, Vivaldi was to mention three stays in Rome during the Carnival period; however, there are no other documents to support the reality of this third stay and it is thought, from other elements, that the musician”s testimony was not always the most reliable.
During the years 1723 to 1725, his presence at the Pietà was episodic, as evidenced by the payments made in his favor. His contract provided for the supply of two concertos per month and for his presence – three or four times per concerto – to conduct the rehearsals by the young musicians. After 1725, and for several years, he disappeared from the institution”s records.
It was during this period, in 1724 or 1725, that Opus 8, entitled Il Cimento dell”armonia et dell”invenzione (“The Confrontation of Harmony and Invention”), was published in Amsterdam by Michel-Charles Le Cène, Estienne Roger”s son-in-law and successor, and consists of twelve violin concertos, the first four of which are the famous Four Seasons. In his dedication to a Venetian nobleman, the Count of Morzin, Vivaldi tells us that these four masterpieces were already composed well before they were printed and had been widely circulated in manuscript copies (they were to be very successful abroad, notably in London and Paris, where they were performed at the beginning of 1728 at the Concert Spirituel).
There is no evidence of a hypothetical stay of Vivaldi in Amsterdam on the occasion of this publication. However, his portrait engraved by François Morellon de La Cave, a Huguenot established in the Netherlands following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, would argue in favor of this possibility. An anonymous artist has also painted a portrait of a violinist who is thought to be the Roux Priest. Without being certain, because the model is not named, the identification with Vivaldi is commonly accepted: this portrait, preserved in the Liceo Musicale of Bologna, is taken up on the cover of several works cited in reference (books by Marcel Marnat, Roland de Candé, Claude and Jean-François Labie, Sophie Roughol, Michael Talbot …)
Similarly, the possibility of a stay in Paris in 1724-1725 seems unlikely, even though the cantata Gloria e Himeneo was composed to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska on September 5, 1725 (an earlier work, the serenade La Sena festeggiante, may have been composed for the coronation of the French king in 1723). But Vivaldi”s exact relationship with the French monarchy remains unknown.
In 1726, Vivaldi staged his opera Dorilla in Tempe at the Sant”Angelo theater. The role of Eudamia was played by Anna Girò, one of his sixteen year old students at the Pietà.
This Anna Giró or Giraud, of French descent, had made her debut two years earlier at the San Samuele Theater in Albinoni”s opera Laodice. She was soon to be given the nickname of Annina del Prete Rosso and would play a rather ambiguous role in the composer”s life, as his favourite singer, his secretary and, together with his half-sister Paolina, twenty years older, his travelling companion, more or less his housekeeper. Of course, the particular relationship between the fifty-year-old priest, so unconventional, and this young person could not help but arouse gossip and commentary laden with innuendo, even though she never lived with him (she lived with her half-sister and her mother very close to the Sant”Angelo theater, in a house adjoining the Corner-Spinelli palace on the Grand Canal).
Carlo Goldoni met Anna Giró at Vivaldi”s house: his testimony allows us to know that she was, if not pretty, at least cute and pleasant.
Her voice was not exceptional and she did not like the cantabile aria, the languorous or pathetic song (and Goldoni adds: “as much to say that she did not know how to sing them”). On the other hand, she had a good stage acting and sang well the arias of expression, of agitation, with action, of movement. This appreciation is confirmed by the abbé Conti who wrote in a letter to Madame de Caylus, about the opera Farnace by Vivaldi: ” her pupil does wonders there although her voice is not the most beautiful… “.
Until 1739, she sang in at least sixteen of Vivaldi”s twenty-three operas, often in the leading roles.
The light then the shadow
During these years Vivaldi displayed a prodigious activity, producing no less than four new operas in 1726 (Cunegonda and then La Fede tradita e vendicata in Venice, La Tirannia castigata in Prague, and Dorilla in Tempe, already mentioned) and in 1727 (Ipermestra in Florence, Farnace in Venice, Siroè Re di Persia in Reggio Emilia, and Orlando furioso in Venice). In 1727 Opus 9, a new collection of twelve violin concertos entitled La Cetra, was published in Amsterdam. These various creations implied numerous trips, for he did not delegate to anyone the task of staging his operas, which he financed with his own money. On September 19, 1727, an important concert of his works (the serenade L”Unione della Pace et di Marte and a Te Deum, whose scores are lost) was organized at the home of the French ambassador in Venice, the Count of Gergy, on the occasion of the birth of the twin daughters of the king of France Louis XV, Élisabeth and Henriette.
Only two operas marked the year 1728 (Rosilena ed Oronta in Venice and L”Atenaide in Florence). But this year was punctuated by other important events: publication in Amsterdam of opus 10 consisting of six concertos for flute, the first ever dedicated to this instrument; death of his mother on May 6; in September, the musician was presented to Emperor Charles VI of the Holy Roman Empire, a fervent music lover, perhaps following the dedication of opus 9 to this sovereign.
The emperor”s aim was to make the free port of Trieste, an Austrian possession at the bottom of the Adriatic, the gateway to the Mediterranean for Austrian territories and Central Europe, and thus to compete directly with Venice, which had played this role for centuries. He had come to establish the basis of this project, and met the composer on this occasion – it is not known where exactly. Vivaldi”s stay with the sovereign could have lasted two weeks, according to a letter from the Abbé Conti to Madame de Caylus, who reports: “the emperor talked to Vivaldi about music for a long time; it is said that he spoke to him more in a fortnight than he speaks to his ministers in two years. The emperor was certainly delighted with this meeting: he gave Vivaldi “a lot of money”, as well as a chain and a gold medal, and he made him a knight. It is not known, however, whether this meeting was followed by a possible stay in Vienna or even Prague, by an official engagement or by a promise of a position in the imperial capital.
These years of intense activity were followed by a new period in which Vivaldi”s whereabouts are virtually unknown, except for his move in May 1730 to a house near the Palazzo Bembo, whose windows overlooked the Grand Canal; during this period the composer probably traveled throughout Europe, not returning to Venice until 1733. Few works can be dated with certainty to the years 1729 and 1730, and the few operas composed up to 1732 were performed outside Venice (Alvilda, Regine dei Goti in Prague and Semiramide in Mantua in 1731, La fida ninfa in Verona and Doriclea in Prague in 1732).
Last years in Venice
In January 1733 Vivaldi made a remarkable return – at least in terms of his music – to Venice on the occasion of the transfer of the relics of the doge St. Pietro Orseolo to the Basilica of St. Mark: a solemn Laudate Dominum of his own composition was performed, although it is not known if he conducted the performance. In February of the same year an adaptation of Siroé of 1727 was performed in Ancona, then in November at the Sant”Angelo was staged Montezuma and three months later, L”Olimpiade, one of his most beautiful operas taken up almost immediately in Genoa. That same year he met the English traveler Edward Holdsworth, to whom he explained that he no longer wished to publish his works, finding a better profit in selling them individually to amateurs. The same Holdsworth was to acquire twelve sonatas by Vivaldi in 1742 for his friend Charles Jennens, Handel”s librettist.
1735 was again a “record” year for operas with two works staged at the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona during Carnival: L”Adelaide and Il Tamerlano and two others produced for the first time at the San Samuele theater in Venice: La Griselda and Aristide. These were the only two works by Vivaldi composed for this theater, owned by the wealthy Grimani family who also owned the prestigious San Giovanni Grisostomo theater and a sumptuous palace on the Grand Canal. They brought Vivaldi into contact with one of the great Italian writers of his time, the twenty-eight year old Carlo Goldoni.
The meeting with Goldoni is important because he recounted it in two of his writings, precious testimonies on the personality and behavior of the aging musician, and, as we have seen, on the person of Anna Giró.
Goldoni, who had recently returned to Venice, had just experienced the unexpected success of his first play, Belisario, and had been commissioned by the Grimani to adapt Apostolo Zeno”s libretto for La Griselda, to be set to music by Vivaldi. In doing so, he took the place of Domenico Lalli, the former friend with a grudge who had blocked Vivaldi”s entry into the Grimani theaters. The composer”s reception of the young writer who had been sent to him was at first unwelcoming and marked by both condescension and a certain impatience. The scene described by Goldoni gives the impression of a feverish agitation on the part of the composer, and of the rapidity with which suspicion and mistrust could be transformed into enthusiasm. Vivaldi rebuked him for having slightly criticized Anna Giró, but he made up for it by writing eight verses on the spot, in accordance with the type of expressive singing that Vivaldi wanted to introduce into the libretto and have his young pupil sing. This was all it took to change Vivaldi”s opinion of him; he left his breviary, which he had not let go of since the beginning of the meeting, holding the breviary in one hand and the text written by Goldoni in the other, and called out to Giró:
“- Ah,” he said to her, “here is a rare man, here is an excellent poet; read this air; it is Monsieur who did it here, without moving, in less than fifteen minutes.”
then addressing Goldoni:
“- Ah, sir, I beg your pardon.”
and he embraced him, protesting that he would never have another poet than him. After Griselda, Goldoni wrote for Vivaldi the libretto of Aristide, which was also performed at the San Samuele in the fall of 1735, but their collaboration did not continue beyond that.
In 1736 a single opera, Ginevra, principesse di Scozia, was premiered at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence. In the meantime, Vivaldi resumed his duties at the Pietà, as maestro dei concerti, with a salary of one hundred ducats per year and the wish that he would no longer leave Venice, “as in previous years”, which indicates his repeated absences and confirms the high regard in which he was held professionally. 1736 was also the year in which Vivaldi lost the man who had guided and accompanied his entire career: his father died on May 14, at the age of eighty.
Vivaldi staged Catone in Utica in Verona in the spring of 1737, Metastasio”s libretto having been judged politically subversive by the careful Venetian censorship; he was preparing to organize an opera season in Ferrara. His local protector was the Marquis Guido Bentivoglio, to whom the composer wrote several letters that have fortunately been preserved. These letters are a precious testimony of the difficult conditions in which the musician struggled continuously, the patrons of the theater of Ferrara not being able – among other things – to agree with him on the program. However, the matter was beginning to take shape when an unexpected and insurmountable difficulty arose. A few days before leaving for Ferrara in November, Vivaldi was summoned by the apostolic nuncio who informed him that he had been forbidden to go there by Archbishop Tommaso Ruffo, the cardinal archbishop of the city. This catastrophic decision, given the progress of the project and the financial commitments already made, was motivated by the fact that he did not say mass and had the friendship of the Giró. In the letter, Vivaldi explained the reason why he no longer said mass and protested that he had a perfectly honest relationship with the ladies who had accompanied him on his travels for years and who made “their devotions every week, as could be ascertained by sworn and authenticated acts”… It seems that nothing could be done and that he had to give up his project. The following December 30, he created at Sant” Angelo L”oracolo in Messenia.
Despite the setbacks of 1737, Vivaldi had a double satisfaction the following year: it was one of his concertos (RV 562a) that served as an overture to the great spectacle organized on January 7, 1738 on the occasion of the centenary of the Schouwburg theater in Amsterdam; according to M.T. According to M.T. Bouquet Boyer, Vivaldi went to Amsterdam and conducted the performance; he then conducted the performance of his cantata Il Mopso (whose music is lost) before Ferdinand of Bavaria, brother of the Elector Charles Albert. He produced the pasticcio Rosmira fedele.
Leaving Dijon in June 1739, President de Brosses was in Venice the following August; he wrote on August 29 to his friend M. de Blancey, a letter which remains one of the direct testimonies about the Red Priest:
“Vivaldi made friends with me to sell me expensive concertos. He has succeeded in part, and I have succeeded in what I wanted, which was to hear him and to have good musical recreations often: he is a vecchio, who has a prodigious fury of composition. I heard him make a point of composing a concerto, with all its parts, more quickly than a copyist could copy it. I found to my great astonishment that he is not as highly regarded as he deserves in this country, where everything is fashionable, where his works have been heard for too long, and where the music of the previous year is no longer in print. The famous Saxon is today the celebrated man.
For years now, Neapolitan opera had been tending to supplant in Venice the local operatic tradition personified by Vivaldi. The latter, in spite of certain concessions to the new taste in his recent works, symbolized the past for a public always eager for novelties. He was aware that his time had passed, and this realization weighed heavily in his decision to leave Venice, which Anna Giró herself had left some time earlier to join a theatrical troupe in the Habsburg empire. For the time being, he composed his last opera, Feraspe, which was presented at Sant”Angelo in November. The year 1740 was the last one during which Vivaldi was present in Venice. In March, a grand concert was given at the Pietà, during a sumptuous feast, in honor of the Elector of Saxony Frederick Christian, including a serenade by the maestro di coro Gennaro d”Alessandro and several of Vivaldi”s compositions, including the admirable concerto for lute and viola d”amore RV540.
Departure from Venice and death in Vienna
This was to be the last prestigious concert in which he participated. A few weeks later, in May, after having sold a batch of concertos to the Pietà, Vivaldi left Venice, to which he was never to return. If he was not aware of this, he at least anticipated a fairly long absence, for he took care to settle certain matters.
It is not known what his intended destination was when he left Venice, and several hypotheses have been put forward: Graz, where he could have found Anna Giró; Dresden, where he enjoyed a great reputation, where his friend Pisendel worked and where he could have found the protection of the Elector he had recently met in Venice; Prague, where several of his operas had been performed; and of course, Vienna, where perhaps Emperor Charles VI was waiting for him. Whatever his final destination, it seems that Vivaldi intended to participate in an opera season at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, and it was near this establishment that he stayed.
But on October 20, the emperor died: his mourning forbade any performance and Vivaldi had no more protector nor assured resources. Mystery surrounds the precarious conditions in which he lived his last months. The last of his writings to be found is a receipt for twelve florins, dated June 28, 1741, for the sale of concertos to a certain Count Vinciguerra di Collalto. Vivaldi died of an “internal inflammation”, poor and lonely, on July 27 or 28 in the “Sattler house” belonging to a certain widow Wahler. This house, not far from the Theater am Kärntnertor and the Burgerspital, was destroyed in 1858. On July 28, the funeral service was held in St. Stephen”s Church in the manner reserved for the indigent. For a long time it was assumed that among the choirboys present at the service was a young boy named Joseph Haydn. The cemetery of the Burgerspital where his remains were received has now also disappeared. A simple plaque commemorates his memory.
The death of the musician was known in Venice the following September in general indifference. “He had earned more than 50,000 ducats, but his disordered prodigality caused him to die poor in Vienna”: this is the anonymous epitaph found in the Venetian archives, the Commemoriali Gradenigo.
One of Vivaldi”s particular characteristics was his red hair, to which he owed his nickname, il Prete rosso. We also know, from Ghezzi”s sketch, that he had a long aquiline nose, lively eyes and a head set into his shoulders. Although he stopped saying mass early on, he continued to wear the ecclesiastical habit throughout his life, reading his breviary assiduously and showing great devotion. Goldoni”s description leaves the impression of feverish agitation and great nervousness.
The physical handicap of which he complained was a kind of asthma perhaps linked to his nervousness, to a chronic anguish. Without going so far as to speak of an imaginary illness, biographers are astonished that this infirmity prevented him from saying mass, but in no way did it prevent him from being overly active throughout his career and from undertaking numerous trips, which were very tiring at the time, to Italy and all of Central Europe: Virtuoso violinist, teacher, conductor, musician animated by a fury of composition as noted by President de Brosses, impresario of operas, the pace seems never to slow down and would remind one of Handel who, for his part, enjoyed an unfailing health.
The exact nature of his relationship with the women in his company remains a mystery, even though he always protested that they were perfectly honest: he would have felt only a friendship or even a kind of paternal affection for Anna Giró and his older sister Paulina. Historians accept his explanations, for lack of tangible proof to the contrary, but contemporaries were not above imagining many things, which caused him some problems with the ecclesiastical authorities (cancellation of a season of operas in Ferrara in particular).
His relationship with money is better known and is reflected in his writings: Vivaldi was very attached to the defense of his financial interests, without however putting it above his love of music. His wages at the Pietà were very modest, but in return he had a quality laboratory and a cover of honor. It is probable that he earned large sums of money at times, but without ever having a stable position that allowed him to make his financial income regular and at the cost of taking a certain amount of personal risk in the production of his operas. He carried with him a reputation for prodigality, which is understandable when he claimed, with a certain affectation, to travel only by car or gondola, and to need to have at his disposal people who knew about his health problems.
He was animated by a certain vanity, even boasting, carefully maintaining the legend of his speed of composition (he noted on the manuscript of the opera Tito Manlio: music made by Vivaldi in five days) as well as his familiarity with the Great Ones: in a letter to the Marquis Bentivoglio, he indicated, not without pride, that he corresponded with nine highnesses?
If there is one composer whose life influenced the nature of his musical creativity, it is Antonio Vivaldi. Because he was born in Venice in 1678, he grew up in a society where a republic ruled, it had no court, but its status as a privileged tourist destination allowed its artists to rub shoulders with the crowned heads and nobility of all Europe. Vivaldi was the eldest child of a poor family and suffered from chronic health problems (he chose the priesthood because he had a special dispensation from the pope allowing Venetians to be admitted to the orders “by their work”, and the typical Venetian tolerance for priest-musicians allowed him to perform in public, even in the opera. His father, a barber turned violinist, passed on his musical knowledge and professional skills.
All of these factors came together in September 1703, when shortly after his ordination, Vivaldi was hired at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage for foundlings in Venice, as a violin teacher and composer of instrumental music. The Pietà maintained a large orchestra and choir of international renown whose members were recruited exclusively from among its female residents, and Vivaldi was responsible for providing them with regular new compositions.
Since the orchestra had an abundance of female musicians and instruments of all types (including such rarities as the viola da gamba, viola d”amore, mandolin, chalumeau, and clarinet), this encouraged him to write parts for multiple soloists, to explore unusual combinations of instruments, and more generally, to employ inventive instrumentation that exploited elements of novelty and surprise.
Vivaldi”s relationship with the Pietà varied over the years-sometimes he was not directly employed there and provided new compositions by special arrangement-but it was a common thread almost to the end of his career.
The horizon of Vivaldi
From the beginning, Vivaldi”s horizons extended far beyond the limits of his native city. He was anxious to maintain his freedom of movement (a period in the service of the Mantuan court proved disappointing), and somewhat like Georg Friedrich Handel in England, he preferred to serve a large number of patrons and clients intermittently rather than be employed by a single patron continuously.
In order to make himself better known and to establish new contacts, he had his music published – first in Venice and later in Amsterdam. In some cases a patron financed the collection, but other works were commissioned directly by the publisher – a testament to Vivaldi”s great popularity with the public.
At least three of these collections marked the history of music: L”estro armonico, Op. 3, Vivaldi”s first published collection of concertos, established the structural normative principles and style of the concerto as a genre that endure to this day; Il cimento dell”armonia e dell”inventione, Op. 8, introduced the innovative concept of “program” concertos, the most prominent example of which is Le quattro stagioni, which opens the collection; Opus 10 was the very first collection of solo concertos for the transverse flute, which in the mid-18th century came to compete with the violin as the only instrument worthy of a gentleman.
Vivaldi also had several sonatas printed, a type of chamber music that, in the wake of his illustrious Roman predecessor Arcangelo Corelli, was extraordinarily popular throughout Europe. In this case he was content to follow pre-established models, but his musical language remains characteristic.
Only music for strings or for particularly popular wind instruments, such as the flute and oboe, was in sufficient demand by the public to be published. Performers of less common instruments, such as the sopranino recorder or the bassoon, had to use the manuscript pages in circulation. Some of Vivaldi”s concertos for these other instruments were created at the Pietà, but many others were commissioned by instrumentalists or their patrons. The number of concertos for bassoon is staggering: no one yet knows for sure for whom most of the thirty-nine concertos produced by Vivaldi were intended.
Like Handel, Vivaldi was a universal composer: rather than being content to write for his instrument alone in the manner of Arcangelo Corelli or Giuseppe Tartini, he composed chamber music from the first decade of the 18th century and sacred vocal music from at least 1712, the date of his Stabat Mater. He composed chamber music from the first decade of the 18th century and sacred vocal music at least from 1712, the date of his Stabat Mater. He began to produce a great deal of sacred music because for six years (1713-1719) the Pietà was temporarily without a choirmaster and had to ask him to fill in. During this period, his compositions won him public acclaim, and he continued to write similar works independently thereafter.
He began composing operas in 1713, and gradually his various activities as a composer and impresario became the focus of his career. He began to write chamber cantatas during his brief stay in Mantua and continued to compose sporadically thereafter. The decade of the 1720s was the one in which Vivaldi best succeeded in alternating the composition of instrumental and vocal music: before that, concertos and sonatas dominate; after that, vocal music.
Vivaldi was such a prolific composer – the catalog of his compositions in 2011 reaches the number of 817 works – that even the abundant musical selection leaves many areas unexplored, such as the chamber concerto. Nevertheless, it is varied enough to convince anyone that the simple and generally unfavorable categorizations that Vivaldi may have suffered in the past – he was accused of composing the same concerto over and over again, of avoiding contrapuntal complexity, of writing hollow and demonstrative music, etc. – are completely unfounded. – are completely unfounded.
Vivaldi has become fashionable again in recent decades, so much so that his surviving operas, long considered unworthy of being rescued from oblivion, have now all been performed and recorded. This work of rediscovery and rehabilitation, led by artists of great stature, is now almost complete.
Vivaldi”s influence can be analyzed along three axes:
Bach not only transcribed works he particularly admired, but also adopted Vivaldi”s “Allegro-Andante-Allegro” tripartite structure and writing style. This influence can be seen, for example, in the violin concertos BWV 1041 to 1043 as well as in the “Italian Concerto” for solo harpsichord BWV 971 and the concertos for one or more harpsichords and orchestra BWV 1052 to 1065.
On the other hand, a strange fact is to be noted: the care Handel seems to take to avoid the structure of the Vivaldian concerto, whether in his concertos for oboe or in those for organ, much later.
By a surprising coincidence, Bach was to die on July 28, just like Vivaldi.
Forgotten and rediscovered
From the moment of his death, Vivaldi”s name and music fell into complete oblivion in his homeland, although some of his instrumental pieces continued to be appreciated in various European countries for several decades (notably in France, Saxony and England, where editions of his works were particularly numerous…) His works were dispersed in printed form or in manuscript copies in numerous European collections and libraries (in Genoa, Dresden, Berlin, Manchester, Paris, Naples, Vienna, etc. ) where they were to remain buried and forgotten for nearly two centuries or more.
Johann Nikolaus Forkel, relying on the direct testimonies of Bach”s sons-who were critical of Vivaldi (the Bach mentioned by Charles Burney is Carl-Philipp Emanuel)-knew what an important part the Venetian had played in the maturation of his style.
In the 19th century, only a few scholars and historians, mostly Germans, notably Aloys Fuchs (de) and Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski (de), remembered the Red Priest. The rediscovery of Bach shed some light on this composer, whose works he had taken the trouble to study and transcribe. It was difficult for these pioneers to understand how the master could be interested in this obscure and second-rate musician: they got out of the dilemma by decreeing that Bach”s transcriptions were far superior to Vivaldi”s original works or by minimizing his influence.
In 1871 Vivaldi”s letters to the Marquis Guido Bentivoglio were discovered and published, a rare collection of autographs testifying to his life as a musician and entrepreneur, and throwing some light on his personality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Arnold Schering, having become aware of pieces preserved in Dresden – where they had probably been brought by Pisendel – became aware of Vivaldi”s decisive importance in the birth and development of the solo concerto. In 1905, the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler passed off a pastiche of his own composition as a work by Vivaldi. In 1913, Marc Pincherle decided to devote his doctoral thesis to this musician, who was then completely unknown to the general public. The work was interrupted by the First World War.
However, the fortuitous discovery of the Turin manuscripts (see below) in the 1920s and 1930s brought an enormous number of instrumental, religious and operatic scores out of oblivion. Soon scholars and musicians began to take a real interest in this monumental work: catalogs were drawn up, critical editions were published by Ricordi, and the works were performed, first for instruments, then for religious music. In 1939 a Vivaldi Settimana (Vivaldi Week) was organized at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, under the artistic direction of Alfredo Casella and with the collaboration of Olga Rudge and Ezra Pound, in which the opera L”Olimpiade was performed: the first revival of a Vivaldi dramma per musica in two centuries. Other works began their modern careers at this time, including the Stabat Mater and the Gloria RV 589. However, with the outbreak of World War II, this initiative was not immediately followed up.
Musicologists, historians, archivists and interpreters resumed their work at the end of the conflict. In 1947, on the initiative of Angelo Ephrikian and Antonio Fanna, the Istituto Italiano Vivaldi was founded, with the aim of ensuring the complete edition of the works (the artistic director was Gian Francesco Malipiero) in collaboration with the publisher Ricordi. This undertaking was completed in 1973 for the sonatas, concertos and sinfonias. In 1948 Marc Pincherle completed and published his study. In 1974, the first version of Peter Ryom”s exhaustive catalog appeared, since then completed by new discoveries.
Vivaldi”s music (instrumental and, to a lesser extent, religious) benefited from the 1950s from numerous concerts and the distribution of recordings, LPs and CDs: the Four Seasons are the most recorded works in the classical music repertoire. In 1965, only one of Vivaldi”s operas, La fida ninfa, had already been recorded: it was finally in the 1970s that the “Vivaldi Renaissance” around his operas was completed. After Handel, he is the composer of operas before Mozart who now has the most extensive discography.
The Turin Manuscripts
The National Library of Turin has the most important collection of Vivaldi”s autograph scores. The story of its acquisition is so extraordinary that it could be taken from a novel.
In 1926, the rector of the Salesian school San Carlo in Borgo San Martino, a village not far from Casale Monferrato, wanted to undertake some repair work in his school. In order to raise the necessary funds, he had the idea of putting up for sale old music books (dozens of manuscripts and printed books) that the college library had. In order to find out how much he could ask antique dealers for them, he asked the musicologist and director of the National University Library of Turin, Luigi Torri (1863-1932), who entrusted the work to Alberto Gentili (1873-1954), professor of music history at the University.
It turned out that 14 of the volumes in the collection contained scores by Vivaldi, a musician who was little known to the general public at the time; there were also works by other composers, including Alessandro Stradella. Anxious not to see such an exceptional collection dispersed, or even to see it pre-empted by the Italian State – and therefore perhaps assigned to some other institution – the experts wanted to find a solution to have it acquired by the Library of Turin, which did not have the necessary budget. Alberto Gentili finally found a solution: he managed to persuade a wealthy stockbroker, Roberto Foà, to acquire the collection and donate it to the library in memory of his young son Mauro, who had died in infancy a few months earlier and whose name the collection would bear and perpetuate (Raccolta Mauro Foà).
However, after examining the Vivaldian manuscripts, Gentili discovered that they were obviously part of a larger collection, and he set out to find the missing part. The works donated by the Salesians had been bequeathed to them by a certain Marcello Durazzo (1842-1922): thanks to the help of genealogists, in 1930 the owner of the other volumes of the original collection – including 13 new works by Vivaldi – was identified, an heir of the brother of the other owner, Flavio Ignazio (1849-1925), who lived in Genoa. It took all the patience and skill of the Genoese marquis Faustino Curlo (1867-1935) to obtain from the owner that this second collection be given up in order to definitively reconstitute the initial set.
Since the Turin Library still did not have the budget for the purchase, Alberto Gentili found a new patron, the industrialist Filippo Giordano, who also agreed, in memory of his young son Renzo, who had died shortly before at the age of 4, to purchase the collection and donate it to the Turin Library in memory of his son (Raccolta Renzo Giordano)
The two collections thus gathered remained distinct under the respective names of Mauro Foà and Renzo Giordano, gathering 30 secular cantatas, 42 sacred pieces, 20 operas, 307 instrumental pieces and the oratorio Juditha triumphans, that is to say a total of 450 pieces, almost all of them opera music.
According to Michael Talbot, the manuscripts were originally owned by Vivaldi himself. Research shows that they later belonged to a Venetian collector, Count Jacopo Soranzo (1686-1761), who may have purchased them from Vivaldi”s brother after the latter”s death. They then belonged to Count Giacomo Durazzo, Austrian ambassador to Venice from 1764 to 1784 and relative of the last doge of Genoa, Girolamo-Luigi Durazzo, and have since been passed down in the family in that city.
Musicologists were unable to exploit this exceptional discovery quickly, because Alberto Gentili, to whom the rights of study and publication had been expressly reserved, was Jewish and, as such, forbidden from academic activity by the racial laws of Fascist Italy (enacted in September 1938). It was only after the Second World War that the study and publication of his work could be completed.
In his monograph on Vivaldi, Roland de Candé writes that his music was “lived more than thought”. The spontaneity, dynamism and freshness of this music have undoubtedly been at the root of its great popularity, as evidenced by the plethora of concert performances and recordings of his most famous pieces, notably The Four Seasons.
These indisputable qualities, coupled with the impressive volume of his output and its overuse as background music, have also been the cause of misunderstanding. Like other composers of genius, Vivaldi has a personal style and is immediately recognizable. The hundreds of concertos he composed in his lifetime are marked by this style, which can give the impression of repetition and monotony to the casual listener; the composer himself may have lent credence to arguments that he was a mass-produced composer with no real artistic merit, boasting that he composed faster than the copyist could copy the score. This may have been true, but it was above all a sign of exceptional talent and skill.
However, Vivaldi was considered by some of his contemporaries to be more of an exceptional violinist – with suspect virtuosity – than a good composer. Goldoni stated that he was “an excellent violinist and a mediocre composer” and that “true connoisseurs say that he was weak in counterpoint and that he conducted his basses badly”. In fact, Vivaldi privileged the melodic aspect of music over its contrapuntal aspect to the point of being considered as one of the gravediggers of counterpoint.
Vivaldi is credited with the genius of orchestration, that is to say, of orchestral color: he carefully chose the timbres and sought their balance, invented new combinations of instruments, and was one of the first to use crescendo effects: in this respect, he is a precursor.
Igor Stravinsky, who made the joking assertion that Vivaldi composed not five hundred concertos, but five hundred times the same concerto, has done the greatest harm to this remarkable work by covering with his authority an accusation that is unjust because it is based more on impression than on objective analysis. The fact that the Four Seasons or a particular mandolin concerto are among the few pieces of the classical repertoire that can be reliably identified by an uninformed public tends to diminish their value in the minds of “connoisseurs” or so-called connoisseurs.
Not that Vivaldi did not sometimes indulge in facile, gratuitous virtuosity and self-plagiarism (the latter practice was commonplace in his time, and can be reproached to the greatest of his contemporaries). The composer, often working in a hurry, for these commissioned works that were soon forgotten than composed and played, could well be tempted to reuse themes or to use ready-made procedures. The fact remains that in his most original and accomplished compositions, including those that are overused, Vivaldi achieves true greatness.
Examples of his musical genius are numerous and easily recognizable when one pays attention to them: The Four Seasons, of course, pieces that are so innovative when placed in their musical context of the 1720s, but also many concertos rightly renowned for their lyricism, their engaging melody, their irresistible rhythm, and their perfect adequacy to the instrument for which they are intended. If one does not agree with Stravinsky, one can follow the opinion of Bach, who took the trouble to transcribe many of the Vivaldian concertos. This genius, recognized for a long time in the most beautiful of his religious pieces, is no longer discussed in his operas, the last part of his production to benefit from a return to honor by musicians and the public.
It is to his instrumental music – and mainly to his concertos – that Vivaldi owes his eminent place in European music.
There are 98 sonatas by Vivaldi, 36 of which are printed under the opus numbers 1, 2, 5 and 14.
His first printed works (opus 1 and 2) are evidence of this musical form, which could be easily performed in the family and friendly environment by the young musician and his violinist father. The most used instrumental formulas are: a violin (about forty pieces), two violins (about twenty), a cello (nine pieces, including the six of opus 14 long considered of doubtful attribution), a flute.
In his sonatas, Vivaldi conforms to the traditional structure of the sonata da camera – masterfully illustrated by Corelli; they are in fact suites respecting without much rigor the structure “allemande – courante – sarabande – gigue”. His first sonatas are well-crafted, but lack originality (like Corelli, he ends his first collection with a suite of variations on La Folia). This originality emerges in the later pieces, notably the magnificent cello sonatas of opus 14, which belong to the great repertoire of the instrument.
The concerto is the musical form in which most of his instrumental work is set, which founded his European reputation and which places him among the greatest composers. Although he was not its sole creator, he is the one who made it one of the most important forms in Western classical music.
The set of concertos composed by Vivaldi is of an extraordinary variety.
This variety resides first of all in the variety of instrumental formulas used, consisting of all possible avatars of the concerto grosso and, more precisely, of the concertino. The latter can take the classical form (Corelli”s model, which he abandoned after Opus 3), be replaced by one or more soloists (the solo concerto), remain alone (concerto da camera without ripieno, similar to the sonata for several instruments), disappear completely (concerto ripieno, sometimes called sinfonia, a foreshadowing of the classical symphony), or be played on an equal footing with the ripieno (concerti for two bands). Vivaldi also left works for original and unpublished formations, such as the Concerto in G minor for 2 violins, 2 recorders, 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and basso continuo Per l”Orchestra di Dresda RV 577 and many other concertos per molti stromenti.
The variety then lies in the instruments used. Vivaldi composed most of his concertos for the violin, in order to perform them himself. But more than any other composer, he used almost all the instruments in use at the time: cello, viola d”amore, oboe, bassoon, recorder, transverse flute, piccolo flute, salmoè, horn, trumpet, lute, mandolin, organ, clarinet (he was the first composer to use this instrument, in the concertos RV 559 and 560). As a solo instrument, however, he ignores the harpsichord, to which he eventually entrusts only the realization of the basso continuo. The concertos for rarer instruments were written for young virtuoso instrumentalists at the Pietà or for wealthy amateurs (we can mention Count Wenzel von Morzin (bassoon), Count Johann von Wrtby (lute), Count Eberwein (cello), Marquis Bentivoglio d”Aragona (mandolin), etc.
The variety still lies in the inspiration of the themes: pure music with predominantly melodic – where Vivaldi shines in a particular way – or contrapuntal, imitative or even impressionistic music often inspired by nature (The Four Seasons of course, but also others with evocative names: La tempesta di mare, La Notte, Il Gardellino, Il Rosignuolo, etc.)
The thread that unites this immense work is the three-movement structure Allegro – Andante – Allegro, borrowed from the Italian overture and achieved in its perfect balance. Even if Vivaldi sometimes transgressed it, he imposed it by the vigor of his personal interpretation and by its wide distribution in print or in copies throughout Europe. The first and third movements are generally virtuoso pieces; the central movement, slow, is more lyrical and elegiac in character; in many cases, the soloist plays alone or with the basso continuo performing the harmonic march.
The basic element of the concerto movement is the ritornello, a short thematic cell that is shared by the soloist and the ripieno through modulations and ornamental variations (a process similar to that of the rondo). It participates in a preponderant way in the Vivaldian style and also diffuses in his operas and his religious works.
Vivaldi”s practice in his two main fields of activity, concerto and opera, determined a reciprocal “self-influence”: the role of the soloist in the concerto is quite comparable to that of the opera singer in his dramatic confrontation with the orchestra and in the display of his virtuosity.
Vivaldi would have produced 507 concertos (approximately), distributed as follows:
With the exception of Opus 10, which is dedicated to the flute, all of these pieces are dedicated to the violin or to ensembles composed mainly of violins.
An apocryphal Opus 13 was published in Paris in 1740, consisting of works attributed to Vivaldi and whose true author was Nicolas Chédeville. The latter had used thematic material by Vivaldi.
Finally, a collection of six sonatas for the cello, also published in Paris, whose manuscript source was a collection belonging to the French ambassador in Venice, the Count of Gergy, is now recognized as “Opus 14.
Vivaldi claimed to have composed 94 operas. In fact, less than 50 titles have been identified, and of these, only about twenty works have come down to us, some of them incomplete (the main source is the Foà-Giordano collection of the National University Library of Turin). Moreover, the practice of revivals under a different title and of pasticcio, hastily putting together pieces from previous operas or even from other composers, further confuses the accounts of musicologists (the practice of pasticcio was common and in no way a specialty of Vivaldi).
The frantic pace of opera production in Italy in the 18th century explains the loss of many scores: these were never printed, for reasons of cost, unlike the librettos which were sold to the public.
The habits of the time did not favor the verisimilitude of the libretti or the logic of the plot; besides, the public did not come to listen to a story, but to the vocal prowess of the prime dons and castrati, on whose demands the operas were established. These shortcomings had been stigmatized by Marcello in his pamphlet Il teatro alla moda, but Vivaldi was merely conforming to the custom, while trying to resist the fashion of Neapolitan opera – at least at the beginning of his career. The presence in many European libraries of copies of Vivaldi”s opera arias shows that they were appreciated, both abroad and in Italy, contrary to the assertions of some, notably Giuseppe Tartini. His operas are worthwhile essentially for the beauty of the music: for the last ten years or so, musicians and opera lovers have been discovering this field. The discography, which began timidly in the 1970s, is now growing every year.
An intimate piece of music compared to the opera, the cantata is intended for a solo singer (soprano, contralto): these works were performed by the residents of the Pietà. They depict, not an action, but a feeling, a psychological situation in two arias separated by a recitative (an initial recitative can serve as an introduction).
We found Vivaldi :
Comparable to the cantata in that it generally did not involve stage action, the serenade was a larger commissioned work, with an orchestral overture, solo arias, recitatives and sometimes choruses. Several were lost, and three have been preserved: the serenata a tre RV 690, Gloria e Himeneo (Glory and Hymenaeus) RV 687 composed for the wedding of Louis XV and especially La Sena festeggiante (The Seine in celebration) RV 693 composed for the birth of the Dauphin.
About fifty works of religious music of various types have been preserved: elements of the Tridentine Mass and their introduction on free text (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo), psalms, hymns, antiphons, motets, including his Nisi Dominus, RV 608, and Filiae maestae Jerusalem RV 638, probably composed around 1716.
The vocal formulas are also diverse: solo singing (the general case of motets, which are nothing other than sacred cantatas), choir, soloists and choir, double choir. They depended on the institution for which they were composed, either the church of the Pietà, where they were interpreted for a public paying its place as for a concert, or for the basilica of Saint Mark whose tribunes facing each other had given birth to the tradition of compositions in double choir, or finally for sponsors such as Cardinal Ottoboni.
It was for religious purposes that Vivaldi was able to give free rein to his exceptional genius for choral music, the use of which in opera was sparse. It is also in this field that he could use voices other than the female soprano and contralto. This distinguishes this music in his production: they are works of great quality in which the polyphonic tradition and the festive and playful character that is proper to him are combined. However, he is not as much of an innovator as in his concertos.
There are seven compositions for double choir (Kyrie, Domine ad adjuvandum me, Dixit Dominus, Beatus vir, Lauda Jerusalem, Magnificat and Salve regina): together with the Gloria RV 589 and the Stabat Mater, they constitute the core of this repertoire, which has been favored by musicians and audiences since the beginning of the “Vivaldi Renaissance” in the 1950s.
As for the oratorio Juditha Triumphans, its character and its destination bring it closer to the opera, despite an argument drawn from the holy books. It is the only oratorio preserved among the four that Vivaldi would have composed; the others were entitled: La Vittoria navale, Moyses Deus Pharaonis and L”Adorazione delli tre re Magi.
Inventory of his works
The Vivaldi legacy includes more than 811 works. Several 20th century musicologists have established catalogs of the compositions of the Roux priest, more or less independently of each other and on the basis of the works identified at the time of their work, classified according to different criteria. It follows that there is some difficulty in recognizing their correspondences, the oldest being also the least complete. The references that can be found are coded as follows:
Established in 1973 and completed since then on the occasion of the discovery of new works (for example the discovery of a collection of violin sonatas in Manchester or that of the opera Argippo in Regensburg), the latter is the most complete and tends to be used universally, notably by the record companies.
The character of Vivaldi appears in the film Rouge Venise directed by Etienne Périer in 1989, a film retracing an episode in the life of Carlo Goldoni.
The romantic life of the composer inspired another Antonio Vivaldi, a prince in Venice, a 2005 Franco-Italian co-production directed by Jean-Louis Guillermou, with the participation of Stefano Dionisi as Vivaldi and Michel Serrault as the patriarch of Venice.
Another film about his life is produced by Boris Damast (other actors include Malcolm McDowell, Jacqueline Bisset and Gérard Depardieu.
An excerpt from Nisi Dominus, RV 608 (Cum Dederit) moves the ears of listeners of Yann Arthus-Bertrand”s film Home, or Sam Mendes” James Bond 007 Spectre in 2015, and also gives rhythm to Lars von Trier”s film Dogville.
We must add the music of François Truffaut”s film, L”Enfant sauvage, with its concerto for mandolin.
In Robert Benton”s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), we hear a version adapted by Herb Harris of the Concerto in C major for mandolin.
Andrei Konchalovsky”s Runaway Train ends its hallucinatory run with an excerpt from Gloria.
In Céline Sciamma”s Portrait of a Girl on Fire, Vivaldi”s Four Seasons comes up several times.
Several odonyms are named in honor of Antonio Vivaldi, including the allée Vivaldi in Paris, and toponyms, such as the Vivaldi glacier on Alexander I Island in Antarctica.
In astronomy, are also named in his honor (4330) Vivaldi, an asteroid of the main asteroid belt, and Vivaldi, a crater of the planet Mercury.