The Red Priest dies a pauper in Vienna.
Audio credit Vivaldi Spring mvt 1 Allegro – John Harrison
While it may be hard to believe now, the piece of music you are listening to had, for over 100 years, been largely ignored. Yet such was the fate of composer, priest, and famous virtuoso violinist Antonio Lucio Vivaldi.
Born in Venice on March 4, 1678, he was immediately baptized, possibly due to an earthquake that shook the city that same day and in the trauma of the quake, Vivaldi’s mother, Camilla Calicchio, may have dedicated him to the priesthood either out of fear or due to his poor health.
And his health was problematic. His symptoms, “tightness of the chest”, has been interpreted as a form of asthma, but 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.
His father, 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.
In 1693, at the age of 15, he began studying to become a priest and was ordained in 1703, aged 25. He was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest”, because of his red hair, a family trait. However, 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 Vivaldi only said mass as a priest a few times and though he appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties, he remained a priest.
In September 1703 at the age of 25, Vivaldi, who was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist, became the master of violin at one of the four, state run orphanages called the Devout Hospital of Mercy in Venice and over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working there.
Shortly after Vivaldi’s appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad yet his relationship with the board of directors of the orphanage was often strained. Each year the board had to take a vote on whether to keep a teacher and the votes on Vivaldi was seldom unanimous. In 1709 the vote went 7 to 6 against him and he was dismissed. However, after a year as a freelance musician, he was recalled by the orphanage with a unanimous vote in 1711; clearly during his year’s absence the board realized the importance of his role. He then became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution and was promoted to maestro di’ concerti (music director) in 1716.
In early 18th century Venice, opera was the most popular musical entertainment and this proved profitable, if contentious, for Vivaldi as there were several theaters competing for the public’s attention. In 1715, he planned to put on an opera titled Arsilda Queen of Ponto but the state censor blocked the performance because the main character, Arsilda, falls in love with another woman, Lisea, who is pretending to be a man. However, Vivaldi got the censor to accept the opera the following year, and it was a resounding success.
His progressive operatic style also caused him some trouble with more conservative musicians, like Benedetto Marcello, a magistrate and amateur musician who wrote a pamphlet denouncing him and his operas. The pamphlet, The fashionable theatre, attacks Vivaldi though without mentioning him directly.
Though only around 50 operas are known to exist, Vivaldi makes mention of him writing 94 and though he certainly composed many operas in his time, he never reached the prominence of other great composers, as evidenced by his inability to keep a production running for any period of time in any major opera house.
Then, around 1718, Vivaldi was offered a new prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella to the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt who was governor of Mantua. While he continued to write operas during this period, one of which he performed before the new Pope Benedict XIII, it was during this time that he wrote the Four Seasons, the famous four violin concertos depicting scenes appropriate for each season and probably inspired by the countryside around Mantua.
The concertos 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, children ice-skating, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly also by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music. They were published as the first four concertos in a collection of twelve in Amsterdam by Le Cène in 1725.
It was also during his time in Mantua when Vivaldi became acquainted with the aspiring young singer Anna Tessieri Giro 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 exists to indicate there was anything beyond a friendship and professional collaboration between the two and he adamantly denied any romantic relationship in a letter to his patron dated November 16, 1737.
Audio credit Vivaldi Autumn mvt 2 Adagio molto – John Harrison
During the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. In 1728, Vivaldi met Emperor Charles VI who 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. Charles even granted Vivaldi the title of knight, a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna.
However, 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 as changing musical tastes quickly made them outmoded. In response, Vivaldi chose to sell off sizable 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.
Shortly after Vivaldi’s arrival in Vienna, en route to which he may have stopped in Graz to see Anna Giro, Charles VI died, a stroke of bad luck that left the composer without royal protection or a steady source of income. Not long after the emperor died, on the night between July 27 and 28, 1741, while staying in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddlemaker, Vivaldi died of an “internal infection”. On July 28 he was buried in a simple grave at the Hospital Burial Ground in Vienna.
Interestingly, Vivaldi’s funeral took place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where one of the most prolific and prominent composers of the classical period and the “Father of the Symphony and String Quartet”, a young Joseph Haydn, was then a choir boy.
Only three portraits of Vivaldi are known to survive: an engraving, an ink sketch and an oil painting, the later giving us possibly the most accurate picture for it shows Vivaldi’s red hair under his blond wig.
Vivaldi’s music was innovative. He brightened the formal and rhythmic structure of the concerto, in which he looked for harmonic contrasts and innovative melodies and themes and many of his compositions are flamboyantly, almost playfully, exuberant.
Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos and arias and Bach transcribed six of Vivaldi’s concerti but after the Baroque period, Vivaldi’s published concerti went relatively unknown, and largely ignored, including The Four Seasons. Though his body of work includes over 500 instrumental concertos, sacred choral works and at least 50 operas, it would not be until the early 20th century that his work would be rediscovered.
In fact, it was an act of forgery which shed light onto the forgotten works of the composer when Fritz Kreisler composed a Vivaldi-styled concerto and tried to pass it off as an original Vivaldi work. This impelled the French scholar Marc Pincherle to begin an academic study of Vivaldi’s oeuvre. Many Vivaldi manuscripts were rediscovered, and were acquired by the National University of Turin Library with generous sponsorship of Turinese businessmen Roberto Foa and Filippo Giordano.
In 1926, in a monastery in Piedmont, researchers discovered 14 folios of Vivaldi’s work, previously thought lost during the Napoleonic wars. Though some volumes in the numbered set were missing, they turned up in the collections of the descendants of the Grand Duke Durazzo who had acquired the monastery complex in the 18th century. The volumes contained 300 concertos, 19 operas and over 100 vocal-instrumental works.
Audio credit Vivaldi Spring mvt 3 Allegro – John Harrison
The resurrection of Vivaldi’s unpublished works in the 20th century is mostly due to the efforts of Alfredo Casella, who in 1939 organised the historic Vivaldi Week, in which the rediscovered Gloria and l’Olimpiade were first revived. Since World War II, Vivaldi’s compositions have enjoyed wide success. In 1947, the Venetian businessman Antonio Fanna founded the Italian Institute of Antonio Vivaldi having the purpose of promoting Vivaldi’s music and publishing new editions of his works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, whose music is rarely heard outside an academic or special-interest context, Vivaldi is popular among modern audiences.
Rediscoveries of works by Vivaldi are from as recent as 2006 when the lost 1730 opera Argippo was found by conductor and harpsichordist Ondrej Macek and Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot has said of Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, which was rediscovered in 2005, to be “arguably the best nonoperatic work from Vivaldi’s pen to come to light since… the 1920s”
The first recording of The Four Seasons is a matter of some dispute. There is a recording of one made by the violinist Alfredo Campoli taken from a French radio broadcast from early in 1939 and the first proper electrical recording was made in 1942 by Bernardino Molinari, and though his adaptation is somewhat different from what we have come expect from modern performances it is clearly recognizable.
Subsequent recordings of The Four Seasons, of which more than 300 exist, have sold tens of millions of copies, making Vivaldi one of the most popular and well known of the great composers. If he were alive today, he would be a very wealthy man from the royalties alone, though one might also like to imagine a modern Vivaldi still teaching at an orphanage in Italy, instructing the youth and inspiring them with some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written.