Following on from my post on Thomas Tallis, these fragments form an overview of the life of the baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.
Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4th March 1678, the eldest of nine children.His father, Giovanni Battista, was a tailor’s son who went on to become a professional violinist; in 1685 he was engaged as a musician at S Marco under the surname Rossi, which suggests Vivaldi’s famous red hair (his nickname was il prete rosso – the red priest) may have been inherited from his father. Antonio was baptised on 6th May, but a provisional baptism took place on the day of his birth, possibly as a consequence of a medical condition. This illness, which plagued Vivaldi throughout his life, was described by him as ‘strettezza di petto’, and equates today with a type of bronchial asthma.
Between 1693 and 1703, Vivaldi trained for the priesthood at his local churches S Geminiano and S Giovanni. He probably learned to play the violin at home, and in 1703 he became maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, one of four Venetian establishments which cared for abandoned orphans and specialised in offering musical training to the girls in its care. Musical performances and services at the Pieta were a highlight of the Venetian calendar, and as such it was essential that there was a continual supply of new works for the orphans to perform. In addition to the instruction offered by musicians such as Vivaldi, a group of particularly talented young women known as the figlie privilegiate di coro was responsible for teaching the younger pupils.
In addition to his work at the Pieta, Vivaldi was also working on his own career as a composer. The earliest extant work by him is dated 1705 and is his op.1, a set of 12 chamber sonatas dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara. This 1705 edition describes Vivaldi on the title-page as ‘Musico di violino, professore veneto’, making no mention of the Pieta but acknowledging, with the use of the title ‘Don’, his status as a priest.
On 30 April 1713, the Pieta granted Vivaldi permission to leave Venice for one month, and in May, Ottone in villa was given its premiere at the Teatro delle Garzerie, Vicenza. The following November Vivaldi made his operatic debut on the Venetian stage with Orlando finto pazzo at the Teatro S Angelo. Between 1716 and 1718 he also wrote three operas for the S Moise theatre.
Vivaldi spent a great deal of time travelling. According to two letters of 1737 to Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona, he spent three carnival seasons in Rome and was invited twice to play before the pope. In July 1723, the Pieta governors asked Vivaldi to supply the orchestra with two concertos every month, sending them by post if needs be, and to direct three or four rehearsals of them when in Venice. The Pieta’s accounts include payment to Vivaldi for over 140 concertos between 1723 and 1729, evidence that during this period his skill as a composer was invaluable.
Around this time Vivaldi began an association with the contralto Anna Giro. The daughter of a Mantuan wig maker, Giro had become his singing pupil, and between 1723 and 1748 she appeared regularly on the stage, especially in Venice. Both Anna and her half-sister Paolina (who acted as her chaperone) were loyal members of Vivaldi’s entourage, and despite his denials, it was widely assumed that Anna was his mistress.
In 1725, perhaps Vivaldi’s most famous piece, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione op.8 (opening with the four concertos portraying the four seasons) appeared, dedicated to his Bohemian patron Count Wenzel von Morzin.
Between late 1729 and early 1733, Vivaldi travelled widely, promoting opera in small regional towns such as Verona, Ancona, Reggio nell’Emilia and Ferrara, and indeed, up until 1738 he was heavily involved with composing and staging works in various European countries as well as in Venice. But in 1738, Cardinal Tomaso Ruffo, Archbishop of Ferrara, refused to allow Vivaldi to enter Ferrara, on account of his relationship with Anna Giro, and by 1739 his reputation in Venice was also suffering. The time spent away from the Pieta and the theatres in his home town meant that works performed in his absence were open to a certain creative reinterpretation by musicians; Siroe, for example was criticised for alterations introduced by the harpsichordist, which resulted in Vivaldi’s patrons refusing to support the production of another opera, Farnace.
In 1740, with his finances failing and his health in decline, Vivaldi travelled with Anna to Vienna, giving the governors of the Pieta the excuse to cancel plans to buy a ‘portion of [his] concertos’. Vivaldi’s intention had been to travel to Austria for the production of one or more of his operas at the Karntnertortheater, but the death of Charles VI in October meant the closure of all Viennese theatres, further adding to his financial difficulties. In spite of this, Vivaldi stayed in Vienna. However, in July 1741 ill health finally claimed him, and he died in in a house owned by the widow of a saddler. He was given a pauper’s burial at the Hospital Burial Ground, and a statement in a contemporary Venetian commonplace book records that Vivaldi, who had once earned 50,000 ducats, died in poverty. Anna returned to Venice after his death, and a year later his opera his opera L’oracolo in Messenia was produced posthumously at the Kärntnertortheater.
Vivaldi’s vanity was apparently notorious. He bragged about his fame and his illustrious patrons, and often exaggerated the speed and fluency with which he could compose. In addition, he was also extremely sensitive to criticism; in the dedications of his opp.1 and 4, he uses the phrase ‘i miei sudori forse malignati dalla critica’ (‘my efforts, which are perhaps spoken ill of by the critics’). All his biographers cite his preoccupation with money as excessive. Despite the admiration and praise of his contemporaries, interest in Vivaldi’s music largely vanished within only a few decades after his death, not to be revived until the beginning of the 20th century. Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, many for solo violin, but others for cello, flute, oboe, and bassoon, all of which instruments were played by members of the all-female orchestra at the Pieta, as were those that appear only in solo groups in his concerti grossi, including the horn, trumpet, lute, and chalumeau (the forerunner to the clarinet).
As one of his biographers concludes, between 1710–30, Vivaldi’s influence on the concerto was so strong that some established composers such as Albinoni felt obliged to modify their style in mid-career, and because the influence of the concerto affected all forms of composition, Vivaldi can quite legitimately be regarded as ‘a most important precursor to the Bach sons in the evolution of the Classical symphony.’
Sources: Eric Cross, Dennis Arnold, Michael Talbot – Oxford Music Online
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