All of the currently familiar names in baroque music have been known continuously since their lifetimes, albeit with degrees of popularity varying from age to age. Not so with Vivaldi however. Although a substantial amount of his work had been printed during his lifetime, mostly by the Amsterdam printer Estienne Roger, only a few copies of these editions had survived, these in libraries and private collections, known only to musicologists and scholars. Although, centuries later, some of Vivaldi's music had been brought out in modern reprints, the name of Vivaldi had little or no meaning to the general public or the average musician.
The same applies to Vivaldi's main place of employment. Churches and Palaces with which individual baroque composers were associated, remain to this day. Once again however, we draw a blank in Vivaldi's case, for the ancient Ospedale della Pieta is long since gone, with only a guess, albeit reasonably precise, as to its original location. At some time, therefore, and probably well after Vivaldi's death, the Ospedale, for whatever reason, would have closed. What then of its extensive, and valuable collection of original Vivaldi manuscripts? They would surely not have been unceremoniously discarded. It may reasonably be speculated that the Ospedale's remaining priests would have sought a safe depository for Vivaldi's, and other valuable documents in their library. And where more likely than another religious establishment, which could be relied upon to continue their safekeeping?
So we move now to the story of Vivaldi's 20th century rediscovery, a tale with its own drama and several tense moments for the key players.
In the autumn of 1926 a boarding school in Piedmont run by Salesian Fathers discovered in their archives a large amount of old volumes which the administrators, no doubt short of funds as religious boarding schools often are, wanted to sell to antique dealers. They called upon the National Library in Turin to value the material to give them some idea of the price which prospective dealers would have to pay. The matter was turned over to Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at Turin University. He asked for a list and suggested that the material be sent to Turin so that he could inspect it carefully. The Salesians obliged and several crates arrived. Dr. Gentili immediately went to work examining the contents. On opening the first crate he found before him volume upon volume of Vivaldi autographs.
Controlling his overwhelming emotions, he immediately realized that the matter required very delicate handling. Steps had to be undertaken to prevent the manuscripts from falling into the hands of professional dealers which would result in the inevitable dispersion of individual manuscripts and possible sale abroad. Naturally Dr. Gentili and the library administration fervently wished to secure this treasure for Turin. Yet the library was without funds to acquire the collection from the Salesians and to approach the government was very risky, for if the state were to become the owner of the collection the government would have exercised the right of choosing the institution in which the manuscripts were to be housed. Proceeding with the utmost secrecy, Dr. Gentili went begging and finally succeeded in finding a public-spirited Turinese who would agree to purchase the collection and donate it to the Turin Library in memory of his deceased infant boy. The University accepted the donation and the Turin Library took possession of 97 volumes containing rare printed music, manuscripts and autographs of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Studying the individual volumes carefully, Dr. Gentili made a somewhat disturbing discovery. The last pages of some volumes failed to show the conclusion of the composition and a logical continuation could not be found in other volumes. It therefore became evident that the material had been bound randomly and was in fact only part of a possibly much larger collection which had no doubt been split among the heirs of the one-time owner. Further investigation revealed that the collection had been assembled by the Genoese Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794), Austrian Ambassador in Venice and active patron of Gluck.
A great deal of searching and sleuthing had to be done to find living members of the Durazzo family and potential owners of the remnants of the original collection. It transpired that there was only one other owner, who could thus be holding the balance of the collection. Indeed he was, but he proved to be a very difficult person to deal with and it required much tact, ingenuity and patience to persuade him to sell his share of the collection to the Turin Library. Yet even with his agreement obtained, where would the money come from for the purchase? History was necessarily repeating itself - Dr. Gentili was forced once more to go begging-bowl in hand, searching for a willing sponsor. Finally he made contact with a Turinese industrialist who had lost a small child and provided the necessary sum for the purchase of the manuscript, donating the collection to the Turin Library in the name of his son. Thanks to the tireless efforts and ingenuity of Dr. Alberto Gentili the great collection of Vivaldiana (319 items) had been saved for posterity in bulk.
The establishment of the Turin Collections led to the Vivaldi renaissance, marked by the Vivaldi week celebrated in Siena in September, 1939 and the projected issuance of the Complete Works of the great Venetian master. Alas, the war halted this promising start, and the entire project was put on hold. After the liberation of Italy, Antonio Fanna, a young Venetian businessman and fervent admirer of Vivaldi, founded the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi for the publication and promotion of Vivaldi's music and enlisted the cooperation of the Casa Ricordi, the greatest Italian music publishing house. Conditions immediately following the war could hardly have been more difficult; Italy was totally impoverished, the Ricordi printing presses had been bombed and their warehouses burned down. But with the dual challenge of postwar reconstruction and the significance of the task in hand, the newly discovered Vivaldi items began to appear in publication and were soon heard in Italy, spreading throughout Europe.
In London, as part of the great postwar Festival of Britain held in 1951, the Royal Festival Hall was opened on the Thames' south bank, and it was there that excited London concert-goers were presented with a season almost entirely devoted to the manifold and varied works of this newly discovered baroque master. Thus the once-obscure Antonio Vivaldi was elevated to his present status as the great Italian contemporary of Bach and Handel.
There is little printed material on Vivaldi, so we were interested to learn of a new book published December 2007. Hidden Harmonies: the Secret Life of Antonio Vivaldi is a new historical novel about the colourful life of the composer of the Four Seasons. Click the link for full publisher info. Or read our review.
BAROQUE COMPOSERS & MUSICIANS