A Guide to Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons and Beyond

Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most important composers of the Baroque era and one of the best Italian composers of all time.

Among his many achievements, Vivaldi deserves credit for bringing the emerging concerto form into the mainstream of classical music. He was also a virtuoso violinist and a busy concert impresario.

But how much more do we know about the life and times of this hugely influential composer?

Who was Vivaldi?

Vivaldi must rank alongside Bach and Handel as one of the greatest Baroque composers. What’s more, his reputation was not gained posthumously: Vivaldi was a much sought-after and extremely busy composer and performer during his lifetime.

Vivaldi was also a key figure in the development of classical music, pioneering many changes in orchestral playing and violin technique. He also had a huge effect on the development and popularisation of the new concerto form.

What music did Vivaldi compose?

Vivaldi is most famous for his many concertos, composed for a variety of musical instruments. Of course, the violin, Vivaldi’s own instrument, took precedence here.

How many violin concertos did Vivaldi compose?

Of the nearly 500 Vivaldi concerti that have survived, more than 300 are for a solo instrument and string orchestra accompaniment. Of these, around 230 are for solo violin. That figure dwarfs the numbers composed for bassoon (40), cello (25), oboe (15), and flute (ten).

What is Vivaldi’s most famous work?

Vivaldi’s compositions extended well beyond the developing concerto form. He also wrote sacred choral works and more than 50 operas. His most famous work, however, is the set of four violin concertos known as Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons), a signature work for violinist Nigel Kennedy and many others.

What was the Ospedale della Pietà?

Vivaldi wrote a large number of pieces for the all-female orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for abandoned children in Venice.

Where was Vivaldi born?

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born on March 4, 1678, in Venice.

Did Vivaldi become a priest?

Vivaldi began studying for the priesthood at the age of 15 and was ordained at 25, but was given dispensation to no longer say public Masses due to a health problem: strettezza di petto, literally ‘tightness in the chest’.

Where did Vivaldi live?

Vivaldi spent his first three decades in his hometown of Venice. In 1717 or 1718, it was time for a change, as the composer and conductor were offered the job of maestro di cappella of the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of the city of Mantua, 100 miles west of Venice.

It was in Mantua that Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons, whose musical depictions are likely inspired by the countryside around the city. In this way, The Four Seasons can be considered among the earliest musical-tone poems.

Then, later in life, Vivaldi moved to Vienna, hoping for royal support from Emperor Charles VI. This turned out not to be a fruitful move, however: the Emperor died soon after Vivaldi’s arrival, and the composer himself died in poverty less than a year later.

What was Vivaldi’s nickname?

Vivaldi’s red hair and brief career in the priesthood earned him the nickname Il Prete Rosso (‘the Red Priest’).

What was Vivaldi’s famous letter?

Vivaldi’s most famous surviving letter, the one in which, four years before his death in 1741, the composer mounts a defence of his artistic and moral reputation, is viewable only on the rare occasions when it goes on view in auction rooms prior to sale.

Fortunately, this letter was one of six written by Vivaldi to his noble patron Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona that were published privately in 1871, so it has been used by biographers ever since to establish facts about the composer’s life.

In one paragraph, Vivaldi writes of travelling during the previous 14 years to countless European cities in the company of his pupil, friend, and assistant, the contralto Anna Girò.

European travels

He identifies some of the cities. Ferrara, where he had previously directed operas and was attempting, in the teeth of a ban by the city’s Cardinal, Tomaso Ruffo, to do the same again. Mantua, where he had been musical director to the Austrian governor from 1718 to 1720. Rome, where he had resided during three carnival seasons (including those of 1723 and 1724) and had played the violin in private to the Pope. Finally, Vienna, where he had been summoned, presumably by the imperial court, on some prior occasion, is still unidentified.

All these ventures to distant cities would, at the time, have seemed perfectly natural for a violinist-composer who was also a composer of operas and who doubled as an impresario.

To acquire fame and patrons outside his native Venice, Vivaldi had to appear in public as a virtuoso of his instruments (violin and viola d’amore) and to perform concertos and sonatas of his own composition that were more challenging than those he chose to release for publication and circulation.

To ensure his operas were produced to his satisfaction, he had to be present at the theatres where they were staged, ingratiate himself with the local nobility, and supervise the box office.

What did Vivaldi suffer from?

Elsewhere in the same letter, however, Vivaldi mentions a fact that seems utterly incompatible with the life of a travelling virtuoso-cum-impresario. Ever since birth, he has suffered badly from bronchial asthma, for which he uses the term strettezza di petto, literally ‘tightness in the chest’.

Around 1706, asthmatic attacks forced him, as a newly ordained priest, to give up the lucrative practice of reciting Mass for the souls of benefactors of the Ospedale della Pietà, the home for foundlings whose all-female orchestra he directed.

In fact, as he writes, he gave up saying Mass in public for good. His medical condition caused him to stay at home and to use a gondola or a carriage for locomotion rather than his own two feet.

A composer’s entourage

So how did Vivaldi manage to travel around so freely outside Venice in an age when such activity was slow, uncomfortable, and often perilous? A large part of the credit must go to his loyal entourage. His chief assistant was his father, Giovanni Battista, who stayed by his side until his own death in 1736.

We know that Giovanni Battista accompanied him on a visit to Bohemia in 1729, since the elder Vivaldi obtained leave from his post as a violinist at St. Mark’s specifically to join him.

Then there were Anna Girò and her half-sister Paolina, who acted as her companion and chaperone. Perhaps Vivaldi’s brothers and one or two family servants sometimes joined the party.

After 1713, when Antonio’s first opera, Ottone in Villa, got a staging in Vicenza, it was his operatic commitments that governed his movements.

He might have to ‘up sticks’ two or three times in a year: once for a carnival season in a city centre, and again for a spring or summer opera in a provincial centre. Vivaldi died, as he so often lived, in transit.

When did Vivaldi die?

Arriving in Vienna in 1740 to take command at the Kärntnertor theatre, he was prevented from giving his opera L’oracolo in Messenia there in the following season on account of the public mourning and closure of all theatres decreed after the death of Emperor Charles VI.

Perhaps this setback brought on his death in July 1741.

Vivaldi didn’t reconcile himself to his chronic illness, and it seems his wanderlust was—quite literally—a displacement activity to compensate for the frustrations of his limited mobility in daily life.

In fact, one can argue that Vivaldi had a general preoccupation with mobility that left a distinct mark on his activities as a violinist and composer.

‘One in the eye for his disability’

Every demonstration of mobility was, as it were, one in the eye for his disability. Feeble though his legs and body may have been, Vivaldi’s fingers leaped up and down the violin’s fingerboard further and more rapidly than any of his contemporaries could manage.

Even his musical handwriting conveys the impression of abnormal speed and fluency.

But it was as a composer that Vivaldi gave vent to his obsession with mobility most forcefully.

The very layout of his scores expresses vigorous movement. Voices and instruments operate within unusually wide compasses, darting up and down, criss-crossing, and causing the texture to constantly transform itself.

Instead of bunching his parts close together, Vivaldi likes to spread them wide open and thereby create extra room for manoeuvre.

In his melodic and accompanimental lines alike, Vivaldi privileges wide intervals—typically, compound intervals (those more than an octave). For example, the hiccupping ninths at the start of his Concerto funebre, RV 579.

We will understand Vivaldi better if we remember that he was a lifelong invalid who refused a sedentary existence, whether physical or psychical.

His ambition, his brazen self-confidence, his self-pity whenever his plans went awry, his suspicion of all but the favoured few, his resistance to collaborating with other musicians, his money-mania—all stemmed from a repressed insecurity born of a bodily ailment.

Every new composition, every successful operatic production, and every demonstration of violinistic pyrotechnics was for him a token of his triumph over the odds.

Where is Vivaldi buried?

The great composer was buried next to Vienna’s Karlskirche. This baroque church is now part of the site of Vienna’s TU Wien university.

Michael Talbot

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