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Vivaldi is a name known from the thousandfold general classic compilations, but looking beyond his main bangers, there is true and lasting genius to be found.
Let me open this by confessing that I’m a huge Antonio Vivaldi fan. That’s right, Big Tony is my main man.
He’s one of the giants of the Baroque period that roughly ran from 1600 to 1750. Vivaldi had a great command of counterpoint, which is simply two melodic lines being played together, but he took it to a new and exciting level.
Most people will have heard of Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons), his most famous and popular work. The four concertos that make up the Opus 8 are not only technically brilliant, they are master works in imagination. He gave strings a major role and in doing so, created a distinctive Italian style of music.
These concertos represent great musical innovation because Vivaldi aimed to emulate the sound of birds, storms, icy cold winters. Listen to “Winter” – many commentators remark on the use of staccato to suggest rainfall.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote about 500 concertos, some 300 of which are for a solo instrument with string orchestra and continuo (continuo is sort of comparable to a rhythm section of keyboard, bass and drums). The Four Seasons was but one of those 500 concertos, so there’s a whole lot of Vivaldi that you might be missing out on.
One of my favourite works is his opera Griselda (1735), based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. To be honest, I’ve been listening to this opera for years (played at rather loud volumes in the privacy of my own home) but don’t really know the plot. For me it’s the music, it’s just sublime. This aria, “Ritorna a Lusingarmi” is dazzling:
You might not think of him as a composer of opera, but Vivaldi wrote up to 90 operas, although only about 50 have been authenticated. Of those, there are just 16 complete operas in existence, the rest having been lost along the way. The operas contain some wonderful melodies. The arias are superb and the orchestral accompaniments quite beautiful. They were considered rather avant-garde for the time.
Here’s a fabulous little bit from L’Olympiade (1734):
Venice was Vivaldi’s base his whole life. Born there, he was ordained a priest in 1703 but didn’t have much of a religious calling. Indeed, not long after ordination, he claimed that asthma prevented him from fulfilling priestly duties.
Happily, his musical talent was quickly recognised. A virtuoso violinist, he became the violin teacher (and later director) at the Ospedale della Pietà in 1703, a home for orphaned or illegitimate girls (often the result of liaisons between noblemen and women other than their wives). These homes were well subsidised and the girls there had remarkable musical proficiency.
He was essentially employed there for 30 years and wrote many of his major works while under their umbrella. He also wrote opera for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo; his first one was Ottone in villa (1713).
He also had a few foreign commissions, including composing for the marriage of Louis XV of France and for Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. There are stories that the Pope invited Vivaldi to play for him at the Vatican.
Vivaldi has often been criticised as being unoriginal, but this is so unfair and well, just plain wrong. Consider L’estro armonio (1711), a set of 12 concertos where harmonies are sustained and the refrain is repeated. This was incredibly innovative because everything seemed lifted, more exhilarating.
It was a style that was embraced by the mighty Bach, who admired the Italian’s work so much that he transcribed about ten of his works.
There’s no question that Vivaldi had a major impact on the development of the concerto form. His work led to the three-movement concerto with a pattern of fast/slow/fast movements.
Vivaldi also wrote cantatas, motets and sonatas. While it’s true that many pieces were written as exercises for his very gifted students at the Ospedale, it’s also true that they require hard work to master. They are energetic, lyrical and virtuosic.
Towards the end of his life, Vivaldi went to Vienna hoping to find patronage, but tastes had changed and he was unable to find employment. Despite the fame and success he enjoyed, he died in relative poverty and was buried in a simple grave in Vienna.
His works then fell into oblivion until the twentieth century when composer Alfredo Casella initiated a Vivaldi Week in 1939. To the great joy of the listeners, the Gloria (RV 589) was performed. Hooray!
Nowadays, Vivaldi is a fixture in chamber recitals and some of his operas have been performed in recent years, notably by Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera. They’re all outstanding works and warrant close listening.
Vivaldi was a prolific composer and we’ve barely scraped the surface here, so go Google him. I’m signing off on a high note here – the high note of a trumpet played by the awesome Maurice Andre. Check it out: