About Antonio Lucio Vivaldi
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (4 March 1678 – 28 July 1741), nicknamed il Prete Rosso ("The Red Priest") because of his red hair, was an Italian Baroque composer, priest, and virtuoso violinist, born in Venice. Vivaldi is recognized as one of the greatest Baroque composers, and his influence during his lifetime was widespread over Europe. Vivaldi is known mainly for composing instrumental concertos, especially for the violin, as well as sacred choral works and over 40 operas. His best known work is a series of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons.
Many of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for abandoned children where Vivaldi worked from 1703 to 1715 and from 1723 to 1740. Vivaldi also had some success with stagings of his operas in Venice, Mantua and Vienna. After meeting the Emperor Charles VI, Vivaldi moved to Vienna hoping for preferment. The Emperor died soon after Vivaldi's arrival, and the composer died a pauper, without a steady source of income.
Though Vivaldi's music was well received during his lifetime, it later declined in popularity until its vigorous revival in the first half of the 20th century. Today, Vivaldi ranks among the most popular and widely recorded Baroque composers.
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice, the capital of the Republic of Venice in 1678. He was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to the belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though not known for certain, the immediate baptism was most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi's mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi's official church baptism (the rites that remained other than the baptism itself) did not take place until two months later.
Vivaldi's parents were Giovanni Battista Vivaldi and Camilla Calicchio, as recorded in the register of San Giovanni in Bragora. Vivaldi had five siblings: Margarita Gabriela, Cecilia Maria, Bonaventura Tomaso, Zanetta Anna, and Francesco Gaetano. Giovanni Battista, a barber before becoming a professional violinist, taught Antonio to play the violin, and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son. He probably taught him at an early age, judging by Vivaldi's extensive musical knowledge at the age of 24 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Giovanni Battista was one of the founders of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, an association of musicians.
The president of the Sovvegno was Giovanni Legrenzi, a composer of the early Baroque and maestro di cappella at St. Mark's Basilica. It is possible that Legrenzi gave the young Antonio his first lessons in composition. The Luxembourg scholar Walter Kolneder has discerned in the early liturgical work Laetatus sum (RV Anh 31, written in 1691 at the age of 13) the influence of Legrenzi's style. Vivaldi's father may have been a composer himself: in 1689, an opera titled La Fedeltà sfortunata was composed by a Giovanni Battista Rossi, and this was the name under which Vivaldi's father had joined the Sovvegno di Santa Cecilia: "Rosso" is Italian for "Red", and would have referred to the colour of his hair, a family trait.
Vivaldi's health was problematic. His symptoms, strettezza di petto ("tightness of the chest"), have been interpreted as a form of asthma. This did not prevent him from learning to play the violin, composing or taking part in musical activities, although it did stop him from playing wind instruments. In 1693, at the age of 15, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25. He was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, "The Red Priest", because of his red hair. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a reprieve from celebrating the Holy Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi only said Mass as a priest a few times. He appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties, but he remained a priest.
At the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà
In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist as well. The German architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach referred to Vivaldi as "the famous composer and violinist" and said that "Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion he added a free fantasy [an improvised cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such a fashion."
Vivaldi was only 25 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working there. There were four similar institutions in Venice; their purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached 15. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale's renowned orchestra and choir.
Shortly after Vivaldi's appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad, too. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them. These sacred works, which number over 60, are varied: they included solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. In 1704, the position of teacher of viola all'inglese was added to his duties as violin instructor. The position of maestro di coro, which was at one time filled by Vivaldi, required a lot of time and work. He had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments.
His relationship with the board of directors of the Ospedale was often strained. The board had to take a vote every year on whether to keep a teacher. The vote on Vivaldi was seldom unanimous, and went 7 to 6 against him in 1709. After a year as a freelance musician, he was recalled by the Ospedale with a unanimous vote in 1711; clearly during his year's absence the board realized the importance of his role. He became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution when he was promoted to maestro di' concerti (music director) in 1716.
In 1705, the first collection (Connor Cassara) of his works was published by Giuseppe Sala: his Opus 1 is a collection of 12 sonatas for two violins and basso continuo, in a conventional style. In 1709, a second collection of 12 sonatas for violin and basso continuo appeared, his Opus 2. A real breakthrough as a composer came with his first collection of 12 concerti for one, two, and four violins with strings, L'estro armonico Opus 3, which was published in Amsterdam in 1711 by Estienne Roger, dedicated to Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany. The prince sponsored many musicians including Alessandro Scarlatti and Georg Frideric Handel. He was a musician himself, and Vivaldi probably met him in Venice. L'estro armonico was a resounding success all over Europe. It was followed in 1714 by La stravaganza Opus 4, a collection of concerti for solo violin and strings, dedicated to an old violin student of Vivaldi's, the Venetian noble Vettor Dolfin.
In February 1711, Vivaldi and his father traveled to Brescia, where his setting of the Stabat Mater (RV 621) was played as part of a religious festival. The work seems to have been written in haste: the string parts are simple, the music of the first three movements is repeated in the next three, and not all the text is set. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the forced essentiality of the music, the work is one of his early masterpieces.
Despite his frequent travels from 1718, the Pietà paid him 2 sequins to write two concerti a month for the orchestra and to rehearse with them at least five times when in Venice. The Pietà's records show that he was paid for 140 concerti between 1723 and 1733.
Mantua and The Four Seasons
In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a new prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). In 1721, he was in Milan, where he presented the pastoral drama La Silvia (RV 734, 9 arias survive). He visited Milan again the following year with the oratorio L'adorazione delli tre re magi al bambino Gesù (RV 645, also lost). In 1722 he moved to Rome, where he introduced his operas' new style. The new pope Benedict XIII invited Vivaldi to play for him. In 1725, Vivaldi returned to Venice, where he produced four operas in the same year.
During this period Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons, four violin concertos depicting scenes appropriate for each season. Three of the concerti are of original conception, while the first, "Spring", borrows motifs from a Sinfonia in the first act of his contemporaneous opera "Il Giustino". The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters' and the prey's point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music. They were published as the first four concertos in a collection of twelve, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, Opus 8, published in Amsterdam by Le Cène in 1725.
During his time in Mantua, Vivaldi became acquainted with an aspiring young singer Anna Tessieri Girò who was to become his student, protégée, and favorite prima donna. Anna, along with her older half-sister Paolina, became part of Vivaldi's entourage and regularly accompanied him on his many travels. There was speculation about the nature of Vivaldi's and Giro's relationship, but no evidence to indicate anything beyond friendship and professional collaboration. Although Vivaldi's relationship with Anna Girò was questioned, he adamantly denied any romantic relationship in a letter to his patron Bentivoglio dated 16 November 1737.
Later life and death
During the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. The wedding cantata Gloria e Imeneo (RV 687) was written for the marriage of Louis XV. Vivaldi's Opus 9, La Cetra, was dedicated to Emperor Charles VI. In 1728, Vivaldi met the emperor while he was visiting Trieste to oversee the construction of a new port. Charles admired the music of the Red Priest so much that he is said to have spoken more with the composer during their one meeting than he spoke to his ministers in over two years. He gave Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna. Vivaldi gave Charles a manuscript copy of La Cetra, a set of concerti almost completely different from the set of the same title published as Opus 9. The printing was probably delayed, forcing Vivaldi to gather an improvised collection for the emperor.
Accompanied by his father, Vivaldi traveled to Vienna and Prague in 1730, where his opera Farnace (RV 711) was presented. Some of his later operas were created in collaboration with two of Italy's major writers of the time. L'Olimpiade and Catone in Utica were written by Pietro Metastasio, the major representative of the Arcadian movement and court poet in Vienna. La Griselda was rewritten by the young Carlo Goldoni from an earlier libretto by Apostolo Zeno.
Like many composers of the time, the final years of Vivaldi's life found him in financial difficulties. His compositions were no longer held in such high esteem as they once were in Venice; changing musical tastes quickly made them outmoded. In response, Vivaldi chose to sell off sizeable numbers of his manuscripts at paltry prices to finance his migration to Vienna. The reasons for Vivaldi's departure from Venice are unclear, but it seems likely that, after the success of his meeting with Emperor Charles VI, he wished to take up the position of a composer in the imperial court. On his way to Vienna, Vivaldi may have stopped in Graz to see Anna Girò.
It is also likely that Vivaldi went to Vienna to stage operas, especially since he took up residence near the Kärntnertortheater. Shortly after Vivaldi's arrival in Vienna, Charles VI died, a stroke of bad luck that left the composer without royal protection or a steady source of income. Vivaldi died a pauper not long after the emperor, on the night between 27 and 28 July 1741 at the age of 63, of "internal infection", in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddlemaker. On 28 July he was buried in a simple grave at the Hospital Burial Ground in Vienna. Vivaldi's funeral took place at St. Stephen's Cathedral, where the young Joseph Haydn was then a choir boy. The cost of his funeral included a Kleingeläut (pauper's peal of bells).
He was buried next to Karlskirche, in an area now part of the site of the Technical Institute. The house Vivaldi lived in while in Vienna was torn down; the Hotel Sacher is built on part of the site. Memorial plaques have been placed at both locations as well as a Vivaldi "star" in the Viennese Musikmeile and a monument at the Rooseveltplatz.
Only three portraits of Vivaldi are known to survive: an engraving, an ink sketch and an oil painting. The engraving, by Francois Morellon La Cave, was made in 1725 and shows Vivaldi holding a sheet of music. The ink sketch was done by Ghezzi in 1723 and shows only Vivaldi's head and shoulders in profile. The oil painting found in the Liceo Musicale of Bologna gives us possibly the most accurate picture and shows Vivaldi's red hair under his blond wig.
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