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Antonio Vivaldi and “The Four Seasons”

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678–July 28, 1741), nicknamed il Prete Rosso (“The Red Priest”) because of his red hair (not his political affiliations), was an Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, and Catholic priest, born in 1678 in Venice, then the capital of the Republic of Venice. He was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to a belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though not known for certain, the child’s immediate baptism was most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi’s mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi’s official church baptism took place two months later.

Vivaldi’s parents were Giovanni Battista Vivaldi and Camilla Calicchio, as recorded in the register of San Giovanni in Bragora. Vivaldi had five siblings: Margarita Gabriela, Cecilia Maria, Bonaventura Tomaso, Zanetta Anna, and Francesco Gaetano. Giovanni Battista, who was a barber before becoming a professional violinist, taught Antonio to play the violin and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son. Antonio was probably taught at an early age, judging by the extensive musical knowledge he had acquired by the age of 24, when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Giovanni Battista was one of the founders of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, an association of musicians.

The president of the Sovvegno was Giovanni Legrenzi, an early Baroque composer and the maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica. It is possible that Legrenzi gave the young Antonio his first lessons in composition. The Luxembourg scholar Walter Kolneder has discerned the influence of Legrenzi’s style in Vivaldi’s early liturgical work Laetatus sum (RV Anh 31), written in 1691 at the age of thirteen. Vivaldi’s father may have been a composer himself. In 1689, an opera titled La Fedeltà sfortunata was composed by a Giovanni Battista Rossi – the name under which Vivaldi’s father had joined the Sovvegno di Santa Cecilia.

In 1693, at the age of fifteen, Vivaldi began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi only said Mass as a priest a few times. He appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties, but he remained a priest. In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at an orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. While Vivaldi is most famous as a composer, he was regarded as an exceptional technical violinist as well.

Over the next thirty years Vivaldi he composed most of his major works while working at the Ospedale della Pietà. The orphan girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir. Vivaldi wrote concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for them. The sacred works, which number over sixty, are varied, including solo motets and large-scale choral works for soloists, double chorus, and orchestra. In 1704, the position of teacher of viola all’inglese was added to his duties as violin instructor. The position of maestro di coro, which was at a later time also filled by Vivaldi, required a lot of time and work. He had to compose an oratorio or concerto at every feast and teach the orphans both music theory and how to play certain instruments.

In 1705, the first collection of his works was published by Giuseppe Sala. His Opus 1 is a collection of twelve sonatas for two violins and basso continuo, in a conventional style. In 1709, a second collection of twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo appeared, his Opus 2. Also in 1709, he was dismissed from the Ospedale, but after a year as a freelance musician, he was recalled with a unanimous vote in 1711. Clearly during his year’s absence the board realized the importance of his role. He became responsible for all of the musical activity of the institution when he was promoted to maestro di’ concerti (music director) in 1716.

A real breakthrough as a composer came with Vivaldi’s first collection of twelve concerti for one, two, and four violins with strings, L’estro armonico Opus 3, which was published in Amsterdam in 1711 by Estienne Roger. In February 1711, Vivaldi and his father traveled to Brescia, where his setting of the Stabat Mater (RV 621) was played as part of a religious festival. It was followed in 1714 by La stravaganza Opus 4, a collection of concerti for solo violin and strings. Despite his frequent travels from 1718, the orphanage paid him 2 sequins to write two concerti a month for the orchestra and to rehearse with them at least five times when in Venice. Their records show that he was paid for 140 concerti between 1723 and 1733.

In early eighteenth century Venice, opera was the most popular musical entertainment. It proved most profitable for Vivaldi. There were several theaters competing for the public’s attention. Vivaldi started his career as an opera composer as a sideline. His first opera, Ottone in villa (RV 729) was performed not in Venice, but at the Garzerie Theater in Vicenza in 1713. The following year, Vivaldi became the impresario of the Teatro Sant’Angelo in Venice, where his opera Orlando finto pazzo (RV 727) was performed. In 1715, he presented Nerone fatto Cesare (RV 724, now lost). In a later season, Vivaldi put on an opera, Arsilda, regina di Ponto (RV 700).

During this period, the orphanage commissioned several liturgical works. The most important were two oratorios. Moyses Deus Pharaonis, (RV 643) is lost. The second was Juditha triumphans (RV 644). Also in 1716, Vivaldi wrote and produced two more operas, L’incoronazione di Dario (RV 719) and La costanza trionfante degli amori e degli odi (RV 706). In the following years, Vivaldi wrote several operas that were performed all over Italy. In a letter written by Vivaldi to his patron Marchese Bentivoglio in 1737, he makes reference to his “94 operas,” but only around 50 operas by Vivaldi have been discovered.

In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a new prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). In 1721, he was in Milan, where he presented the pastoral drama La Silvia (RV 734). He visited Milan again the following year with the oratorio L’adorazione delli tre re magi al bambino Gesù (RV 645, also lost). In 1722 he moved to Rome, where he introduced his operas’ new style. The new pope Benedict XIII invited Vivaldi to play for him. In 1725, Vivaldi returned to Venice, where he produced four operas in the same year. During this period Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons, four violin concertos depicting scenes appropriate for each season. They were published as the first four concertos in a collection of twelve, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Opus 8, printed in Amsterdam by Le Cène in 1725.

At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from European nobility and royalty. The wedding cantata Gloria e Imeneo (RV 687) was written for the marriage of Louis XV. Vivaldi’s Opus 9, La Cetra, was dedicated to Emperor Charles VI, whom he met in 1728. Accompanied by his father, Vivaldi traveled to Vienna and Prague in 1730, where his opera Farnace (RV 711) was presented. Some of his later operas were created in collaboration with two of Italy’s major writers of the time. L’Olimpiade and Catone in Utica were written by Pietro Metastasio, the major representative of the Arcadian movement and court poet in Vienna. La Griselda was rewritten by the young Carlo Goldoni from an earlier libretto by Apostolo Zeno.

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. It is also likely that Vivaldi went to Vienna to stage operas, especially as he took up residence near the Kärntnertortheater. Shortly after his arrival in Vienna, Charles VI died, which left the composer without any royal protection or a steady source of income. Soon afterwards, Vivaldi became impoverished and died during the night of July 27/28, 1741, aged 63, of “internal infection”, in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddlemaker.

Vivaldi wrote more than 500 other concertos. About 350 of these are for solo instrument and strings, of which 230 are for violin, the others being for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d’amore, recorder, lute, or mandolin. About forty concertos are for two instruments and strings and about thirty are for three or more instruments and strings. In addition to some 46 existing operas, Vivaldi composed a large body of sacred choral music of which his Gloria, a collection of choral pieces for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, is a very well known and widely praised piece. Other works include sinfonias, about 90 sonatas, and chamber music. The Four Seasons of 1723 is his most famous work.

Vivaldi’s music was innovative and well received during his lifetime, and Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos and arias. While he was alive, Vivaldi’s popularity quickly made him famous in other countries, but after the Baroque period, Vivaldi’s published concerti became relatively unknown and were largely ignored until its vigorous revival in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, Vivaldi ranks among the most popular and widely recorded of Baroque composers.

My collection of Vivaldi works includes the following compositions:
Concerto Grosso in bm, op. 3, no. 10.
Concerto Grosso in dm, op. 3, no. 11.
Concerto in AM, RV 159.
Concerto for (Violin)cello, Strings, and Harpsichord in GM, RV 415.
Concerto for Cello No. 1 in cm, RV 401.
Concerto for Cello No. 4 in am, RV 422.
Concerto for Cello No. 7 in dm, RV 406.
Concerto for Cello No. 8 in CM, RV 398.
Concerto for Cello No. 9 in bm, RV 424.
Concerto for Cello No. 11 in FM, RV 412.
Concerto for Cello No. 12 in GM, RV 413.
Concerto for Diverse Instruments in CM.
Concerto for Flute in cm, RV 441.
Concerto for Flute in FM, RV 434.
Concerto for Flute in am, RV 108.
Concerto for Flute in gm, RV 439, La notte.
Concerto for Flute in cm, P. 440.
Concerto for Two Flutes, Strings, and Harpsichord in CM, RV 533.
Concerto for Guitar (Lute, 2 Violins, and Continuo) and String Orchestra in DM, RV 93 (1730).
Concerto in DM for Guitar (Lute), 2 Violins, Strings and Basso Continue in DM, RV 93.
Concerto in CM for Mandolin, Strings, and Harpsichord or Organ Continuo, RV 425.
Concerto in GM for Two Mandolins, Strings and Organ Continuo, RV 532.
Concerto for Oboe and Bassoon in GM, RV 545.
Concerto for Two Oboes and Two Clarinets in CM, RV 559.
Concerto for Strings and Organ in DM, RV 124.
Concerto for Two Trumpets in CM.
Concerto in am for Viola D’Amore, Strings, and Cembalo, op. 25, no. 2.
Concerto in dm for Viola D’Amore, Strings, and Cembalo, op. 25, no. 4.
Concerto in dm for Viola D’Amore, Lute, Strings, and Continuo, RV 540.
Concerto for Viola D’AMore, Guitar (Lute), Strings, and Basso Continuo in dm, RV 540.
Concerto for Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord in EbM, RV 256.
Concerto in cm for Two violins, strings, and Basso Continuo, F1:14.
Concerto for Two Violins, Strings, and Harpsichord in BbM, RV 524.
Concerto for Four Violins and Orchestra in BbM, P. 367, RV 553.
Concerto for Wind Instruments, Violin, Strings, and Harpsichord in FM, RV 571.
L’Estro Armonico, op. 3, nos. 1-7 (Seven Concertos for Violins and String Orchestra).
The Four Seasons, op. 8, nos. 1-4 (Four Concerti Grossi).
Sinfonia No. 3 in gm, P. 3, RV 149.
Trio in CM for Lute, Violin, Cello, and Continuo, RV 82.
Trio in gm for Lute, Violin, Cello and Continuo, RV 85.


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