Piazza San Marco in Venice by Vivaldi’s contemporary Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768)
Everyone knows Antonio Vivaldi, right? The man from Venice who wrote The Four Seasons, a set of violin concertos you just can’t get away from. They’re in every lift, restaurant and shopping mall, so prevalent that some people develop an allergic reaction to them. They say Vivaldi’s music is all alike, that he repeated himself endlessly, when it’s just they’ve heard the Allegro to Spring over 600 times.
In reality Vivaldi was one of the great musical explorers, and like Mozart’s his work seems to prefigure many later developments in European classical music. Vivaldi was one of the most influential musicians in that tradition. Again like Mozart, Vivaldi was known to most of his contemporaries as a phenomenally gifted instrumentalist: in Mozart’s case the piano, in Vivaldi’s case the violin. He was, in his day, a household name all over Europe. Remarkable then that he was totally forgotten at his death, and unknown except to specialists for 200 years, until recordings of his music began to flood the music shops from 1950 onwards. Now he is as popular again as he ever was in his lifetime.
To stretch a point (to breaking point some would say), if the Romantic movement and early modern style in music is a bit like Led Zeppelin, then Vivaldi is a bit like the Beatles. A breath of fresh air that has proven both ubiquitous and there for the long haul. There is no sleeping through a Vivaldi piece. Here’s his Gloria, with Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQx2TWgxX14
An anonymous painting of about 1723 thought to be of Vivaldi, and a 1725 engraving from one of Vivaldi’s scores, by François Morellon la Cave. Once the wig is removed outside the frame they both seem to be of the same man.
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 to a well known violinist in the orchestra of the church of St Marks. Venice in the 17th century was no longer the great maritime power it had been, and had lost its position as the primary link between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of Europe. It was to finally lose its independence to Napoleon in 1797. But the remnants of its once immense wealth and magnificence still remained. The paintings of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese still attracted art lovers from all over the world, and the fame of musicians such as the Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, influenced composers all over Europe.
In Vivaldi’s day Venice was the European centre of music, and especially of opera. It was also the European centre of entertainment, with enormous numbers of casinos and brothels. Tourists poured in, lost their money, and often left behind pregnant Venetian girls, a situation that was the foundation of Vivaldi’s career.
The Carnival in Venice. So much gaiety, So many intrigues. So many foundlings. So much teaching work for Antonio Vivaldi
The Church had maintained a number of hospitals (hospices) in Venice, some of them dating to medieval times. As the number of foundlings, abandoned babies, rose, the government of the city endowed these institutions. and they expanded to include other functions such as orphanages. The orphanages attempted to raise money to cover their expenses, and maintained orchestras and choirs which gave public performances (it was Venice, the city of music, after all). Some of these orchestras became world famous, and the hospitals found themselves running a full scale conservatory of music.
There was one of these hospitals near the Vivaldi residence, the Ospidale della Pietà. Vivaldi was employed by the Pietà first in 1703, when he was 25. It was the year also he was ordained a priest, and hence a suitable employee. He was to maintain a link with the Pietà most of his life, working as employee, contractor and freelance composer, as other commitments and his rising fame made it difficult to remain on the staff of the hospital.
The Pietà employed staff to look after all aspects of music. Instrument makers, teachers, composers and performers. These staff were mainly drawn from the Pietà’s orphans. Most of the orphans were apprenticed to a trade if boys, or endowed as a wife, if female. But any girl who showed talent was recruited as a member of the orchestra or its support staff. Some of these girls spent their entire life as musicians, and some were as famous as any musician could be. Visitors flocked to hear the Pietà’s orchestra. To avoid any hint of scandal (it was Venice, the city of brothels, after all), the girls performed behind a concealing grille, but this only left room to fantasise about them, and listeners like Jean-Jacques Rousseau have left glowing accounts of their fantasies. Of course the girls were not exquisite beauties. They were average girls, some pretty, some plain, some deformed if their parents had contacted syphilis, some young, some elderly. And they were great performers as vocalists or instrumentalists. We know this because Vivaldi’s compositions for them are so hard for modern interpreters to play. You have to be at the top of your game to do Vivaldi.
Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), Young Woman Playing a Violin
Il prete rosso (the red priest)
That was Vivaldi’s nickname. He like his father had red hair, concealed in the fashion of the times under a fair haired wig. But why would a talented violinist and composer, who could make a living at it, become a priest? Vivaldi entered the Church in 1693, when he was just 15 and was ordained 10 years later. He performed his priestly duties for only three years, 1703-1706 and was released from service, on the grounds of ill health.
In the 18th century at least, the Church was a career, not a calling. The religious were rarely saints, just ordinary members of society, though of some prestige. A contemporary of Vivaldi was the English novelist Laurence Sterne, 35 years younger. Sterne became a priest at age 25 because he had an uncle who could get him a living in the Church. Sterne himself was both poor and ill with tuberculosis and this seemed the ideal solution. When, late in life, he discovered his vocation as a writer and became famous across Europe, the Church was left far behind, and Sterne gathered every rosebud he could lay his hands on. Samuel Johnson’s famous misjudgement was “nothing odd will do long”.
In Vivaldi’s case the situation was slightly different. He had become famous as a master violinist (probably taught by his father in his early childhood, that is, before the age of 15). But he was also a very ill man. He had been baptised on the day of his birth, the midwife believing he would die later that day. He didn’t, surviving till the age of 63 (Sterne lasted for 55 years), but all his life he complained of a “tightness in the chest”. This has been interpreted as severe asthma, a chronic inflammation of the airways that prevents normal breathing. One suspected cause is microbes present in mould, and Venice would have had lots of mould. Complications set in when the sufferer panics at the thought of suffocation, which often brings on an attack. Had the baby Vivaldi not been breathing, that would have caused the midwife to call the priest. This illness, ever present in Vivaldi’s life, might have meant the end of his musical career at any moment. But in the Church he would be guaranteed a living no matter what. Joining the priesthood was a kind of insurance policy for Vivaldi. If things didn’t work out he would be looked after. If they did, he could always find an excuse.
Vivaldi put everything he had into his music, which is full of the love of life of a man who knew he could die at any moment. Those who reset or ‘adapt’ the Four Seasons because it has become too familiar need to remember how startling and original it was to its original audience. Here’s Trondheim Soloists with solo violinist Mari Silje Samuelsen playing Summer. Watch the left hand. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g65oWFMSoK0. The music should be played with some emotion, not reduced to mere technique, with a passing reference to the book of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season”). Here’s Samueldsen with Winter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu6Hr9kd-U0&list=PLB19BBF522B5340E2&index=4
Gala Concert in Old Procuratory for Czar’s Daughter 1780 by Francesco Guardi
Teacher and composer
Vivaldi was employed by the Pietà as a violin teacher, because of his reputation, age 25, as a virtuoso on that instrument. A certain amount of composition was also called for by the Pietà, and Vivaldi complied, finding his talent almost immediately, perhaps because of the greatly talented musicians he found himself working with.
What he did was revolutionary. He invented the instrumental concerto, a contrast between one leading instrument and the rest of the orchestra. The prevailing style of music was church music, largely choral. So Vivaldi was part of the movement to secularise music. And his inspiration for the concerto form was close by: the opera.
Venice was the operatic centre of Europe, and there were six full time opera houses kept busy for much of the year entertaining the Venetians and all the visitors who flocked to hear the latest works and the fashionable singers. Operas were mounted by entrepreneurs, or impresarios, who rented the house, paid the librettist and composer, hired the singers and the backstage crew, and handled publicity. They stood, with such a responsive audience, to make huge profits, but they took the risk of making huge losses as well. The audience never went halfway. They loved an opera or they hated it.
Vivaldi loved opera, and his instrumental work is imbued with its dramatic possibilities. The lead instrument speaks to the rest of the orchestra, and the orchestra replies, in what is essentially a dramatic contrast.
Vivaldi wrote for many instruments. Primarily violin, but also oboe, bassoon, cello, clarinet, flute, horn, mandolin, lute, recorder, trumpet, viola d’amore and organ, presumably because there were talented soloists on these instruments at the Pietà. He composed profound works of sacred music as well, some of his greatest works being settings for the Mass.
A scene from Zanaida 1763 music by Johann Christian Bach
But Vivaldi wanted more. Born poor, his work for the Pietà earned him European wide fame but not a lot of money. As Mozart was to find out later, to gain prosperous clients, you had to look prosperous yourself. A luxurious lifestyle was one way to attract highly paid work from an aristocratic audience. But if the work didn’t eventuate, or the pay didn’t, you were left with a lot of debt. The role of an opera impresario seemed to Vivaldi the ideal solution.
Vivaldi claimed to have written almost 100 operas. That is likely to have included revivals, and others’ work for which he wrote arias. Perhaps half that number would be a more accurate figure. But if he had been counting on making a fortune with opera, he was disappointed. Slowly, inevitably, he fell into debt. The reasons were many, but most important was that Vivaldi didn’t have the same flair for opera as he did for concerti. Perhaps temperamental opera singers were harder to write for than the Pietà’s orphans. Not that he wrote bad operas. More that they were average, with nothing to mark them out from the ever increasing competition.
Secondly, by the time Vivaldi turned to opera he was past the middle of his career and his fame. Slowly, musical preeminence was moving to the countries of central Europe such as Germany, away from Venice. People were starting to forget just who Vivaldi was. He had ceased to be a household name across Europe.
Thirdly, there was opposition from the Church. A priest mixed up in the licentious world of opera was not the advertisement the Church wanted, after the Counter Reformation. Vivaldi also caused tongues to wag because of his involvement with one of his singers, the mezzo soprano Anna Girò. Although she was 32 years younger than Vivaldi, 18 to his 50 years, or because of this age difference, there was talk that the two both travelled and lived together, and that Anna’s sister was part of the menage. Nobody believed Vivaldi’s story that the three were just good friends. Vivaldi had known Anna since she was 10. Finally Vivaldi was forbidden to continue, and this spelt financial ruin for him.
Canaletto, Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, 1732
In 1718 Vivaldi moved to Mantua for two years, in search of an aristocratic patron. When he left Venice for an attempt at opera in Vienna at the end of his life he was probably deeply in debt, possibly ill, and becoming a has been.Vivaldi died in Vienna almost totally unnoticed in 1741. After his death much of his music was lost. Other musicians had valued it and help preserve it to some extent Johann Sebastian Bach admired Vivaldi’s work, and transposed some concerti for other instruments. It is thought this helped Bach learn composition. By the time historians of music came to evaluate Vivaldi, the Romantic Movement was in full swing, and Vivaldi’s style was anathema to them. He was firmly relegated to the position of a minor Baroque composer whose work had largely vanished. Until a huge hoard of autograph scores was discovered in 1926. Slowly, the phenomenal originality, scope and power of his achievement became apparent. And Vivaldi became popular all over again.
The verve and exuberance in Vivaldi’s concertos brings 18th century Venice vividly to life. This was the music of a man who was forced to live one day at a time by precarious health. Living was probably very precious for him. He became one of the greatest of violin players, and his compositions, written often for his own performance, are among the most technically difficult for violinists to play. Many of his compositions suggest a vividly drawn picture. The Four Seasons with its accompanying sonnets describing the natural world and its creatures is not the only evocation of Vivaldi’s world. His concerti evoke an exciting place of fast movement and vigorous action, and would be an appropriate soundtrack for a period action film.
Vivaldi’s work is similar to what was later called program music, music describing a particular place or situation. Like his contemporary Canaletto, twenty years younger, Vivaldi shows us Venice as it was in his day. He does so with the wit of Goldoni, thirty years his junior, in evocative sounds not words. And he also evokes the sense of adventure and love of life found in the original memoirs of Casanova, 50 years after Vivaldi.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.