I've decided to quit apologizing for the long breaks between posts, as the frequency with which I post an article is about as often as I get a good night's sleep and have a day to sit back and figure out where the heck I am and what the heck I'm doing! That said, finals are bested, the Fall 2014 final grades are in (at least the ones that matter), and I'm flying high for Christmas break. What better time to write about one of the most fascinating Italian Baroque composers, whose music seems to be heard more often at the holiday times anyway. After all, he did write a whole concerto about Winter.
Antonio Vivaldi was a later Baroque composer, born in 1678 to a humble family in Venice. Whether due to the fact that he was a sickly baby, or the fact that there was an unsettling earthquake the day of his birth, the newborn Antonio was baptized immediately and dedicated to the priesthood in the off chance that he survived to adulthood. As a child, he studied violin and composition from his father as well as from the music director at St. Mark's in Venice.
Vivaldi, whose red hair inspired the nickname "The Red Priest," worked with the Ospedale for over 30 years, teaching general music and strings, as well as composing much of the repertoire that the girls played. Later on, he was appointed music director for the entire program. Under his tutelage, the orphanage's orchestra and choir earned international acclaim. This employment justifies the complaint that I have occasionally heard about Vivaldi's work--it's at times very note-y, and seems to play like a technical etude. Well, that's what many of his concertos were. They were written as part of his curriculum for training his young violin students, and often intended as nothing but passage work etudes. The fact that he was able to write etudes which stand alone as respectable solo works is in and of itself a tribute to Vivaldi's genius.
Some of the characteristics of Vivaldi's concertos--the most famous of which by far are the four violin concertos which make up the Four Seasons--are indeed the technical passage work, the abundance of harmonic sequences (most likely included as part of the girls' music theory education), and a descriptive style reminiscent of word painting techniques of early Italian madrigals. These concertos became widely popular throughout Europe and inspired many transcriptions and arrangements.
Because of his work with the orphanage, Vivaldi managed to avoid being locked into the patronage system so common in the Baroque period. However, a great part of his income was generated through commission work for private individuals as well as performing for audiences as prestigious as the Pope. As a priest, he never married, although he maintained a close friendship and suspected romantic relationship with a young singer, Anna Giro. Vivaldi protested whenever insinuations were made, and there is really no evidence for or against a liaison between the two.
|Antonio Vivaldi, circa 1725|
Much of his fame was forgotten in the following years, and it wasn't until the efforts of performer/composer Fritz Kreisler in the early 1900s that interest in Vivaldi's music was revived. Over 600 of his works have been cataloged, and as of ten years ago, more were still being discovered. Conversely, only 3 portraits of the composer have survived.