Antonio Vivaldi
(1678-1741)

An Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi also spent portions of his life as a virtuoso violinist, teacher, and cleric. Born in Venice, Italy, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest Baroque composers. He is most widely known for his instrumentals concertos (mostly for violin), as well as sacred works and operas.

A majority of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble at the Ospedale della Pieta, a home for abandoned children where Vivaldi was employed between 1703-1715 and 1723-1740.

Vivaldi had five siblings, and was taught the violin at an early age by his father who was a professional violinist himself. Once Antonio was a skilled musician, his father traveled Venice with him and the two would perform together. Although it is not confirmed, it is widely believed that Vivaldi’s father may have also been a composer as well.

Antonio’s health was problematic his entire life. He would frequently complain of “tightness of the chest”, which has been interpreted as some form of asthma. This did not prevent him from playing the violin or taking part in musical activities, although it did stop him from playing wind instruments.

In 1693 at the age of 15, Vivaldi began studying to become a priest. He was ordained at the age of 25 in 1703 and was soon given the nickname “The Red Priest” (referring to the color of his hair, which was a family trait). He would remain a priest only for a year, and was given dispensation in 1704 after only saying mass a few times due to his poor health.

Vivaldi took the role of maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Ospedale della Pieta when he was only 25. While working there over the next 30 years, he composed many of his major works. The purpose of these institutions was to provide shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. The institutions in Venice were funded by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached the age of 15, and the girls received a musical education and those who were the most talented stayed and became members of the renowned orchestra and choir. Vivaldi had a somewhat difficult relationship with the board of directors at the school, who had to take a vote every year on whether or not to keep him on staff as a teacher. In 1709, the vote went 7-6 against him, although he was rehired with a unanimous vote in 1711. After the board realized the importance of his presence within the school, he was promoted to music director in 1716 and became responsible for all musical activity within the institution.

One of his first real breakthroughs as a composer came when his first collection of 12 concerti for one, two, and four violins with strings, L’estro armonico, Op. 3 was published in 1711 and dedicated to the Grand Prince of Tuscany. The piece was a resounding success all over Europe and Vivaldi gained considerable notoriety. Although he began to travel more and conduct other groups, the Pieta paid him to write two concerti a month for the orchestra while he was in Venice. Records at the institution indicate that he was paid for 140 concerti between 1723 and 1733.

In early 18th-century Venice, opera was by far the most popular style of musical entertainment. This would prove to be tremendously profitable for Vivaldi, as several theaters were competing for the public’s attention. He began writing opera in 1713, and while the public didn’t find his first few works favorable, Vivaldi’s operas steadily improved and by 1735 he had several operas being performed throughout Italy. His progressive style of writing opera began to cause conflict with more conservative musicians, such as Benedetto Marcello, who went so far as to write a pamphlet denouncing Vivaldi and his operas. While Vivaldi composed at least 50 operas in his lifetime, he never reached the prominence and popularity of contemporaries like Galuppi or Scarlatti. This is evidenced by Vivaldi’s inability to have a production run at a major opera house for any extended period of time.

Between 1717 and 1725, Vivaldi continued to travel, staying in a city for a few years to write and conduct, before he returned to Venice. These cities included Mantua, Milan, and Rome. Once he was back in Venice, he wrote The Four Seasons, four violin concerti depicting scenes appropriate for each season. In terms of musical conception, these pieces were a revolution. They represented flowing creeks, the buzzing and singing of animals, storms, silent nights, hunting parties, frozen landscapes, and much more. The contemporary aspects of his writing began to gain more and more attention, and at the height of his career, Vivaldi was receiving commissions from several members of European nobility and royalty.

During his time in Mantua, Vivaldi became acquainted with Anna Tessieri Giro, a young singer who became his student, protégé, and favorite prima donna. Anna and her sister became part of the entourage that would regularly accompany Vivaldi on his trips. Though there was a great deal of speculation regarding the nature of their relationship, no evidence existed that would indicate it was anything beyond friendly and professional.

Similar to other composers of the time, the final years of Vivaldi’s life were full of significant financial difficulties. His writings were no longer held in the high regard that they were in Venice, as musical tastes were rapidly changing and these works were considered outdated. Vivaldi chose to sell off many of his manuscripts in effort to finance his travels to Vienna. While the exact reason for his desire to move to Vienna is uncertain, it is widely speculated that he went in hopes of being appointed as composer in the imperial court of Emperor Charles VI. It is also likely that he went to Vienna to stage more operas. Shortly after he arrived, the Emperor died, leaving Vivaldi without a steady source of income, and he became impoverished. He passed away at the age of 63 of “internal infection”. The funeral took place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where Joseph Haydn was employed, but the young composer had nothing to do with the burial, since no music was performed during the ceremony.

Collectively, Vivaldi’s music can best be described as innovative. With the majority of his compositions being playfully and egregiously exuberant, he heightened both the formal and rhythmic structure of the concerto. Harmonic contrasts were expanded, and unique melodies and themes were created. While he became relatively famous during his lifetime, Vivaldi’s popularity drastically decreased following his death. After the Baroque period ended, his works were essentially unknown during the Classical and Romantic periods. A significant amount of his music was lost, but has been found over the last century, most recently in 2005.

Compositions by Vivaldi are commonly identified by their “RV Number”, which stands for “Ryom-Verzeichnis” or “Repertoire des oeuvres d’Anotonio Vivaldi”, a catalog created in the 20th century by musicologist Peter Ryom.

In total, Vivaldi composed over 500 concertos, 350 of which are for solo instrument and strings. Within those 350, approximately 230 are for violin. In addition to sacred choral music, sinfonias, sonatas, and chamber music, Vivaldi wrote 46 operas.

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