Famous Composers: Antonio Vivaldi

Famous Composers Antonio Vivaldi  Sonatica Blog

During the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth Italy was not only the land of opera but also the land of the violin, an instrument whose potentialities were developed to a hitherto undreamt-of degree by such exponents as Corelli (whose name was closely associated with the School of Rome), Torelli (Bologna), Vivaldi (Venice), Somis (Turin) and Tardni (Padua). As well as playing the violin they composed plenty of music for it: Vivaldi’s lay neglected for a century or so after his death, but began to attract attention when in 1829, during the revival of interest in J. S. Bach largely stimulated by Mendelssohn, it was found that the great man had based an organ piece upon one of Vivaldi’s concertos. Presently many other ‘lost’ works were rediscovered, and over the years they have been played with increasing frequency.

ANTONIO VIVALDI (circa 1675-1741) was probably born in Venice and certainly spent his youth there, being taught music by his father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, himself a violinist, and Giovanni Legrenzi, organist and choirmaster at St Mark’s. At the age of twenty-eight he was ordained as a priest, but he suffered from asthma and very soon decided - or was persuaded - that he was incapable of conducting Mass in a satisfactory manner.1 In the Venice of those days there were four big girls’ schools - approximating to convents - which had been established by charitable religious organizations for the education - and in particular the musical education - of orphans and the children of poverty- stricken or unmarried parents. (It is good to learn that the authorities were sufficiently enlightened not to refuse admission to illegitimate.) One of these institutions was the Conservatorio dell’ Ospedale Pieta on the Riva degli Schiavoni (the site is now occupied by the Instituto Provinciale degli Espositi), and Vivaldi joined the staff there in 1704.

Five years later he was appointed head violin-teacher, and in 1716 maestro de’ concerti with the responsibility of composing two new concertos each month.2 He also customarily deputized for the choirmaster Francesco Gasparini, and when the latter neglected his duties (as he often did) Vivaldi had to provide motets and other choral items as well. He was bound by contract to fulfil these obligations even when not in residence and may sometimes have found the task irksome, for although he never severed his connexion with the Ospedale he evidently indulged in extra-mural activities to a considerable extent. It is known, for instance, that from 1718 until 1722 he acted as choirmaster to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt at Mantua, some eighty miles away; it seems probable that in 1729 he toured Germany with Iris father and quite possible that he later went on his own to France or Austria or both. There is conclusive evidence that he was back at his post in Venice by about 1735, but in 1738 he was off to Holland where he directed the centenary celebrations of the Amsterdam Theatre, for which he arranged a stage pasticcio comprising music provided by himself and half a dozen other contemporary composers. Three years later he visited - or revisited - Vienna, where he died, apparently in poverty.


Despite his travels abroad, Vivaldi had passed nearly the whole of his life in his native land, and for all his preoccupation with his own instrument had also endeavoured to distinguish himself (as did all self-respecting Italian composers of his generation) in the field of opera. He completed about forty operas, the first in 1713 and the last in 1740; some were produced in Venice, others in Rome, Florence, Mantua, Verona or Ancona. Not one of them is known today - although L’Olimpiade (1734) was revived at Siena in 1939 - nor are his two oratorios, Moyses Deus Pharaonis (1714) and Juditha Triumphans Devicta Holofernes Barbarie (1716).3 The bulk of his output is carefully preserved in manuscript at the Bibliotecha Nazionale in Turin, but his posthumous reputation has for practical purposes always depended upon his published compositions for the violin: about sixty concertos with orchestra and forty sonatas with continuo accompaniments which have been transcribed for a modern piano. (Four of the best-known concertos are subtitled ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’.) Many of these works were obviously intended to be part of a sort of Gradus ad Parnassum for his girl pupils at the Ospedale and incor-porated passages of varying difficulty on the assumption of a progressive improvement in the student’s technical ability, but even in the ‘elementary’ pieces simplicity was combined with an artistry which matched that of Handel and at times even foreshadowed the manner of Mozart. Antonio Vivaldi’s violin music, therefore, is admirably suited for practice and performance by executants at all stages of proficiency.

1 He continued to be known as il prete rosso (he had red hair), although his allegedly unclerical conduct, particularly with members of the opposite sex, more than once incurred the censure of Church dignitaries.

2 Scholars have traced some four hundred and fifty concertos all told, of which about half are for solo violin and orchestra and half for various miscellaneous orchestral combinations; the majority remain in manuscript.
3 Since these words were written, there has been a performance of Juditha Triumphans at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. According to The Times, ‘the formal procession of recitative and aria seemed excessively mechanical’.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.