The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 17th Century: Vivaldi (Part 1)

“There are no words, it’s only music there.” ~ Antonio Vivaldi

Listening to Vivaldi’s music always conjures up such joy and serenity in me. His lively, melodic allegros are uplifting and life affirming, whereas his soulful adagios have a transcendental quality. It strikes me that he must have possessed an unrelenting zest for life. He certainly made the most of living with a fertile mind trapped inside a sick body.

Famous for his evocative ‘Four Seasons’ concertos and sometimes referred to as “il Prete Rosso” (the Red Priest), due to the colour of his hair; he lived, performed and composed his immortal music almost entirely in Venice.

Antoni Vivaldi portrait2

Vivaldi is now considered one of the key figures of the baroque era. However, his work and reputation only started to garner attention and gather steam in the early 20th century. Since then the flamboyant Venetian maestro has more than made up for lost time…

Knowing how much I love Vivaldi’s music, I can see it’s going to be a challenge for me to exercise brevity in this post! Because of the volume of his work I have decided to dedicate two posts to him.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (4 March 1678 – 28 July 7141)

I think it’s fair to suggest that Vivaldi was the ‘rock star’ of his day. Although he was a priest he refused to say mass and was suspected of being involved in a ménage à trois with two teenage girls.

His music was passionate, dangerous, dramatic and yet ethereal. His creativity produced a massive body of violin sonatas and concertos, as well as concertos for a range of other instruments, operas, arias and sacred music. It’s thought he wrote nearly 800 compositions during his lifetime.

His main contemporary, the grand-daddy of them all, JS Bach, was influenced by him and incorporated some of Vivaldi’s works into his own repertoire for harpsichord, thus keeping his work alive in Europe, known only to a handful of musicologists and scholars.

However, unlike Bach and Händel whose memories and music survived their mortal reign, after Vivaldi’s death, his music fell from favour and Vivaldi himself was remembered more for being an eccentric violinist and cleric than as a prolific composer. He was very nearly a Venetian nobody instead of his rightful place as the Venetian Master.

Early life 

Vivaldi was born in Venice, the eldest of 6 children. Just as the legend of the storm that raged in Vienna the moment Beethoven passed away has proliferated, so goes the story that Vivaldi was born during an earthquake in Venice. It’s a romantic notion that would support his often visceral, elemental music, whether true or not.

He was born with severe asthma, which as you can imagine, in the late 17th century would have proved fatal in most cases. Little Antonio’s mother may have done a deal with God, that if he spared her first born then she would dedicate his life to the church.  Asthma plagued Vivaldi all his life, however he did become a priest, but is only known to have actually said mass for about a year after being ordained.

Vivaldi & Son

Before Johann Georg Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, there was Giovanni Battista and Antonio Lucio Vivaldi; an enduring and successful father and son partnership. Giovanni was a successful musician, performing with Vivaldi as well as peddling his music manuscripts on the streets and generally helping his son’s career wherever he could.

Career

Thankfully for us Vivaldi followed his heart and his real passion – music. Those that heard him play commented on the ferocity of his technique. Only a violin virtuoso could write such demanding music for his instrument!

Ospedale_della_Pietà - VeniceIn 1703 Vivaldi was assigned to the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for abandoned and illegitimate babies. The unfortunate infants were passed through a hole in the wall, which had a warning issued above it from Pope John Paul urging parents to keep their children if they were able to care for them. In Vivaldi’s day there could be as many as four babies deposited a day. Sadly, before the orphanages opened many were tossed in the canals as unwanted appendages.

The boys were taught trades, such as stone cutting and weaving, whereas the girls were tutored in music and singing. It was the perfect vocation for Vivaldi, as master of violin he was able to write music for his students (approximately two concertos a week), and his young female protégés performed in a small section of the Pietà behind a decorative grille.

Venice became popular as a tourist destination after its position as a trading centre and economic power had waned, hence Vivaldi and his ensemble of young ladies were added to the list of the city’s attractions!

The tradition of the students giving concerts at the Pietà continued long after their first and most famous composer passed on and in 1770 the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after seeing a performance commented:

“I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music; the richness of the art, the exquisite taste of the vocal part, the excellence of the voices, the justness of the execution, everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure.”

Imagination and inventiveness

The three movement style (fast – slow – fast) became firmly established in Vivaldi’s concertos, and the first movement generally consisted of five tutti (ensemble together) and four soli (soloist). He was influential on the sonata form and the creation of the classical concerto of the 18th century.

Professor Livanova remarks that his concertos, as distinct from Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, are characterised not only by:

“free development of orchestral texture,…but also by the singling out of the concertante solo of the solosist’s principle part, which would be executed with the brilliance of virtuosity. It was in the violin concerto that they found the most direct expression for instrumental virtuosity, analogous to the aspiration for vocal virtuosity in the operatic aria of the time… However, in the first stages of development the violin concerto had not yet sacrificed its artistic meaning to external virtuosity.”

Love

When he was 48 years old Vivaldi fell for singer Anna Giro, a sixteen year old girl who was to be his muse and companion for the rest of his life. Her older sister Paolina was her chaperone, thus many spurious rumours began to spread about the nature of their relationships. What is known is that Anna lived with him, featured in most of his operas and she was with him when he died in Vienna in 1741.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo - Girl with a mandolin

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – Girl with a mandolin

This brilliant article (Saint or Sinner?) by Susan Orlando investigates his character and relationships more closely.

Obsession with Opera

Vivaldi claimed he had written 94 operas, but only 50 of them have been discovered. Being an opera impresario was more of a side line for Vivaldi, and although he had limited success it was his ‘thing’. I haven’t even scratched the surface of his operatic output, let alone the many arias that comprise them. His skill at setting music to a story probably stood him in good stead when he composed the Four Seasons.

Here is an impassioned rendition from contralto Sonia Prina of ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ from Giustino:

Viva Vivaldi! A fabulous selection of arias from mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli:

Vivaldi’s personal archive (the Turin manuscripts)

Sometime after his death, Vivaldi’s private collection of handwritten manuscripts were sold to the Genoese Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717 – 1794), the Austrian ambassador in Venice who was a patron of Gluck. Perhaps as an act of charity on behalf of Durazzo, around half of the collection was gifted to a Salesian monastery in Piedmont.

Vivaldi - Gloria image Miles Fish

Vivaldi – Gloria Manuscript – Turin Image credit – Miles Fish

Hidden in a musty store room, ensconced among 97 volumes of music scores, Vivaldi’s music lay gathering dust for two hundred years at what is now the Collegio San Martino near Turin, until they were re-discovered unexpectedly in 1927 by Alberto Gentili, a professor of music history at the University of Turin, who was called in to value the collection so that it could be sold.

National University Library Turin

National University Library Turin

Gentili soon reaslised that he had an amazing find on his hands, and wanted to keep Vivaldi’s original autographs in the city of Turin. However, after careful sorting it became apparent to Gentili that only half the works were present, and he suspected the missing scores were still owned by descendants of the Durazzo family. His hunch turned out to be correct and eventually after tracking down the Durazzo heir, the remaining manuscripts (along with the original find) were purchased by local businessmen Roberto Foa and Filippo Giordano respectively, in memory of their sons, for the Turin Library.

I would so love to visit Turin just to see this collection! On an upper floor of the Turin National University Library, safely on display, are Vivaldi’s original manuscripts consisting of 450 works: 110 violin concertos, 39 oboe concertos, over a dozen operas and a substantial selection of sacred music.

Manuscript of the Gloria RV 589 - image credit Miles Fish

Manuscript of the Gloria RV 589 – image credit Miles Fish

What is striking is that the notes appear to have been transported straight from Vivaldi’s brain onto the paper, with very little crossing out and no sketches. The mark of a genius!

In part 2 I’ll be focusing on the Opus 3 concertos, the Four Seasons and some other gems from his vast musical legacy.

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