Antonio Vivaldi | Biography

Biography

Vivaldi’s influence on the development of Baroque music was immense. He ignited transformations in music for the church, the opera house and the concert hall. But his most important achievement was in his music for strings. He introduced a range of new styles and techniques to string playing and consolidated one of its most important genres, the concerto. Vivaldi’s concertos became a model for his contemporaries, and the form was soon one of the most important in eighteenth century Europe. Vivaldi played the violin from an early age, probably taking lessons with his father. He trained for the priesthood and was ordained in 1703. His red hair earned him the nickname ‘il prete rosso’ (the red priest). In the same year as his ordination, he was appointed to the Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian convent for orphaned or illegitimate girls. He taught the violin there, organised services with music, composed and gave concerts. Publications of his works began appearing in 1705: trio sonatas, violin sonatas and concerto sets. Prior to these, he had disseminated a number of concertos in manuscript form. He also wrote two oratorios for the Pietà, the most significant being Juditha triumphans (1716).  Opera became an increasingly important part of Vivaldi’s output in the second decade of the 18th century. His first opera, Ottone in villa, was premiered in Vicenza in 1713. He also wrote for theatres in Venice and Mantua, where the Habsburg governor, Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, was a famous music lover. Following the success of Vivaldi’s opera Armida al campo d’Egitto there, the prince appointed Vivaldi as maestro di cappella da camera. Vivaldi remained in Mantua for two years from 1718, writing cantatas and serenatas for the court. Rome was Vivaldi’s main base from 1720. Here he composed more operas under the patronage of Cardinal Ottoboni. Further opera work took him back to Venice, where he was involved with the Teatro San Angelo from 1726 to 1728. During his travels, Vivaldi retained a position with the Pietà, regularly providing the school with concertos. From 1730, he visited Vienna and Prague, trying with mixed success to stage his operas in those cities. He hoped to become composer to the Imperial court in Vienna. But the death of Emperor Charles VI in 1740 left him without even a prospective patron.  Vivaldi died in poverty the following year. Among the works he left, the most significant are his concertos, about 500 in all. Around half of these are for solo violin and strings. About forty are for two soloists, and thirty for three or more. The solo instruments in these categories include bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d’amore, recorder, trumpet and mandolin. Vivaldi had injected the concerto form with a remarkable variety of structure, originality of scoring and imagination of conception. His standard model was the three movement design, with two allegros framing a slow movement in the same, or a closely related, key. These concertos alone show him to be one of the most important composers of the late Baroque. His innovations here anticipate the early Classical style. He has even been credited as a precursor of musical Romanticism. The pictorial dimensions of Vivaldi’s concertos, most notably Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) and La Caccia, RV362, anticipate 19th-century developments. So too do his unusual combinations of instruments, his chromaticism and his use of special effects such as scordatura (in RV348 and RV391). He also composed around 90 sonatas, which maintain traditional formal designs and stylistic traits. The Trio Sonatas op.1 and op. 5 are modelled after those of Corelli and are in a chamber music style. In other sonatas, the previously distinct genres of church and chamber music are subtly merged. Of the forty or so operas Vivaldi composed, only twenty-one have survived, and many of these are incomplete. Vivaldi’s operas are among the few from the period to use obbligato instruments in arias, sometimes borrowing arias from other composers such as Handel and Pergolesi. Sacred genres are also opened up to external influences in his work. Musical ideas from operatic and orchestral music make regular appearances. Most of his cantatas are for solo voice (soprano or alto) and continuo, based on the model established by composer Alessandro Scarlatti. Vivaldi’s serenatas, composed to celebrate a particular event or honour a special person, are more expansive works. Among other prominent sacred pieces are his Gloria, RV589, and Magnificat, RV611. Vivaldi’s music suffered a century of neglect after his death. It was rediscovered thanks to a resurgence of interest in the music of JS Bach. While preparing a complete edition of Bach’s music in the nineteenth century, scholars came across his transcriptions of ten of Vivaldi’s concertos. It is ironic that Vivaldi’s ‘resurrection’ came about via a composer on whom he had been a crucial influence.