A flamboyant character with an eye for the ladies, Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most prolific composers of the 17th century. The Italian’s vast output includes 86 solo and trio sonatas, a substantial quantity of vocal music, some 46 operas, and an astounding 500 concertos.
Compared with musical heavyweights such as Bach and Handel, some feel that Vivaldi had a limited expressive range and tended to fall back on stock-in-trade musical devices. Yet the extraordinary level of invention and variety he achieved, working within such well-defined limits, is staggering.
The exact date of Vivaldi’s birth has confused scholars for many years, although it was known that a problem immediately following his delivery resulted in the midwife performing an emergency baptism. One theory is that the earthquake that hit Venice on March 4, 1678 may have induced general panic around the future composer’s bedside.
Vivaldi’s father, Giovanni Battista, was a violinist at St Mark’s Cathedral, and although he taught his prodigiously gifted son to play from early childhood, a musical career seemed unlikely, especially after the 15-year-old Vivaldi was shunted off to join the priesthood. He received Holy Orders in 1703, and thereby earned the nickname “Il Prete Rosso” (The Red Priest) on account of the distinctive colour of his hair.
Following his ordination Vivaldi appears to have turned his back on the church almost immediately. He gave up attending mass and went in search of “worldly” employment. Within just a few weeks he had secured his first professional appointment as maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, one of four orphanages for girls in Venice. Remarkably, this was to remain his base for the greater part of his life from 1703 to 1740.
It was largely for the highly gifted members of the Pietà that Vivaldi composed his remarkable series of instrumental concertos and sonatas. His first publication appeared in 1705 (a set of 12 trio sonatas), but it was L’estro Armonico (“The Inspiration Of Harmony”), published in 1711, that fully declared Vivaldi’s exuberant inventive genius. . These outstanding sets so impressed Johann Sebastian Bach that he transcribed six of the works.
During his time at the orphanage, Vivaldi composed over 200 solo violin concertos, 27 for solo cello, and around 20 apiece for the flute and oboe, the latter for an outstanding young player at the Pietà referred to simply as “Susanna” in surviving documents.
Given that Vivaldi was never the most healthy or robust of people, and that his rather cushy job at the Pietà suited his genius to a tee, he might well have decided to see out his days in this idyllic environment. However, by now jealous factions were emerging from behind the scenes, determined to get rid of him. As a result, following several changes of title, a temporary dismissal, and with his music gaining in recognition Vivaldi began to spread his wings. From 1718 to 20 he was based in Mantua, and then spent most of the 1720s commuting back and forth between Rome and Venice, occasionally posting parcels of his latest concertos to the Pietà from the Italian capital.
One indication of Vivaldi’s rising fame is the remarkable set of six flute concertos, Op.10, that he composed in 1726. The year before, Vivaldi had had a set of four violin concertos published that were destined to make his name – but not for another two-and-a-quarter centuries: The Four Seasons.
Throughout the 1730s Antonio continued to travel widely, to Bohemia, Austria and throughout Italy, despite the fact that his worsening health meant taking an expensive entourage of carers with him. Among them were the talented operatic contralto Anna Giraud and her sister Paolina, both of whom, it was widely believed, were more to Vivaldi than just good friends.
Charles de Brosses, who became intimate with Vivaldi towards the end of the composer’s life, paints a rather sorry picture of a man for whom even the Venetians apparently had little time anymore: “He is an old man with a mania for composing. I heard him boast of composing a concerto in all its parts quicker than a copyist could write them down. To my great astonishment, I find that he is not as well regarded as he deserves in these parts of Venice, where everything has to be fashionable, where his works have been heard for too long, and where last year’s music no longer makes any money.”
Severely short of funds and desperately unwell, the 62-year-old Vivaldi made one last ill-advised trip to Vienna in the hope of rekindling former glories. Destitute and alone, he passed away there on July 28, 1741 aged 63. Largely unnoticed, he was given a cheap burial the same day in a hospital cemetery that sadly no longer exists.
Vivaldi’s art virtually died with him, largely because most of his contemporaries had valued him more highly as a violinist than as a composer. Incredibly, it was not until the 1920s, when his private collection of original scores was unearthed, that his name began to be more widely circulated. It is only after years of painstaking research and re-evaluation that Vivaldi has finally established his rightful place as perhaps Italy’s greatest ever composer of instrumental music.
As one German traveller of the period put it after seeing Vivaldi play, “Nothing like this has ever been seen before, nor will it ever again.”