Antonio Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist, a virtuoso composer – at least in terms of quantity – and a virtuoso teacher, as clearly evidenced by the level of competence attained by his pupils. A Venetian all his life, travelling but always returning, Vivaldi epitomizes Italian Baroque Music like no other composer.
But first, let us look briefly at Vivaldi's home City-State.
Situated on 120 islands formed by 177 canals in the lagoon between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea, Venice became known as the “Queen of the Adriatic” reflecting its historic role as a naval power and commercial center.
The Crusades and the resulting development of trade with Asia and the Middle East led to the establishment of Venice as the greatest commercial center for trade with the East and politically the strongest European power in the Mediterranean region. Governed effectively by its wealthy merchants with a focus on trade, Venice prospered; the great houses, palaces, public buildings and statuary we enjoy today are the legacy of aristocratic wealth. Having put down its main rival, Genoa, in the war of 1378-1381, Venice established its supremacy over the Adriatic, its 'home waters', and the northern Mediterranean. Further wars of conquest enabled Venice to acquire neighboring territories, and by the late 15th century, the city-state was the leading maritime power in the Christian world.
Travel up and down the Croatian coast to see evidence everywhere of Venetian architecture and city planning.
Vivaldi was born in 1678, and by this time, Venice was losing its commercial power, as new trading routes opened, and new power structures developed in the Mediterranean. So Venice, undeterred, opened itself up to the newly travelling aristocracy as a tourist center, with its Masqued Carnivals and Splendiferous Canal Processions set against the backdrop of its unique location and architecture.
In 1668, "An Italian Voyage" by Richard Lassels was published, and the institution of the Grand Tour of Europe was born. The Grand Tourist was typically a young man with a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature as well as leisure time, financial means, and some interest in art. London was a frequent starting point for Grand Tourists, and Paris a compulsory destination; many traveled to the Netherlands, some to Switzerland and Germany, and a very few adventurers to Spain, Greece, or Turkey.
The essential place to visit, however, was Italy. The British traveler Charles Thompson speaks for many Grand Tourists when he describes himself as "being impatiently desirous of viewing a country so famous in history, which once gave laws to the world; which is at present the greatest school of music and painting, contains the noblest productions of statuary and architecture, and abounds with cabinets of rarities, and collections of all kinds of antiquities."
Domestic music making among the wealthier families was a popular and highly prized art, and for many Grand Tourists the virtuosi, concerts and compositions of baroque masters especially in Italy would have been a major focus of their travels. They would also bring back music scores or hand-written copies of the latest Italian compositions.
Within Italy, the great focus was Rome, whose ancient ruins and more recent achievements were shown to every Grand Tourist. Here too, it may be said that baroque music was born. During the first half of the 1700s, baroque music adopted the Italian forms of the concerto and sonata, and with them, much of the Italian baroque "vocabulary" together with the latest Italian compositions. In the north, Venice was also recognized as a great music center both for its concerts and its operatic traditions. The violin was especially prized among Venetian composers, perhaps due to the proximity of eminent violin makers and families such as Amati and Stradivarius.
Though Vivaldi composed many fine and memorable concertos, such as the Four Seasons and the Opus 3 for example, he also wrote many works which sound like exercises for students. And this is precisely what they were. Vivaldi was employed for most of his working life as violin teacher and composer by the Ospedale della PietÃ . Often termed an "orphanage", this Ospedale was in fact a home for the female offspring of noblemen and their numerous dalliances with their mistresses. The Ospedale was thus well endowed by the "anonymous" fathers; its furnishings bordered on the opulent, the young ladies were well looked-after, and the musical standards among the highest in Venice. In the years before online degrees and state-funded music schools, it was common for children to study music in charitable boarding schools. Many of Vivaldi's concerti were indeed exercises which he would play with his many talented pupils. And the listener can only be impressed by the high technical standard they demand and imply. Indeed the Ospedale's orchestra was highly respected and in frequent demand for concerts outside the Ospedale.
While maintaining his relationship with the Ospedale, Vivaldi also had a great interest in opera. In 1713 he was given a month's leave from the Ospedale in order to stage his first opera, Ottone in villa, in Vicenza. In the 1713-4 season he produced an opera by the composer Giovanni Alberto Rostori (1692-1753) for the Teatro Sant' Angelo. As far as his theatrical activities were concerned, the end of 1716 was a high point for Vivaldi. In November, he managed to have the Ospedale della Pietà perform his first great oratorio, Juditha Triumphans devicta Holofernis barbaric. This work was an allegorical description of the victory of the Venetians (the Christians) over the Turks (the barbarians) in August 1716. In 172O Vivaldi staged new operas written by himself in the Teatro Sant' Angelo.
Vivaldi also wrote works on commission from foreign rulers, such as the French king, Louis XV - the serenade La Sena festeggiante (Festival on the Seine), for example. This work cannot be dated precisely, but it was certainly written after 1720.
Though he later traveled around and often beyond Italy, Vivaldi remained in the service of the Ospedale della Pietà, which nominated him "Maestro di concerti." He was required only to send two concertos per month to Venice (transport costs were to the account of the client) for which he received a ducat per concerto. His presence was never required.
Between 1725 and 1728 Vivaldi was also extremely active in the field of concertos. In 1725 the publication Il Cimento dell' Armenia e dell'invenzione (The trial of harmony and invention), opus 8, appeared in Amsterdam. This consisted of twelve concertos, seven of which were descriptive: The Four Seasons, Storm at Sea, Pleasure and The Hunt. Vivaldi transformed the tradition of descriptive music into a typically Italian musical style with its unmistakable timbre in which the strings play a major role.
These concertos were enormously successful, particularly in France. In the second half of the 18th century there even appeared some remarkable adaptations of the Spring concerto: Michel Corrette (1709-1795) based his motet Laudate Dominum de coelis of 1765 on this concerto and, in 1775, Jean-Jacques Rousseau reworked it into a version for solo flute. "Spring" was also a firm favorite of King Louis XV, who would order it to be performed at the most unexpected moments, and Vivaldi received various commissions for further compositions from the court at Versailles.
During the late 1730s Venice was suffering a severe economic downturn. Vivaldi at last resigned from the Ospedale in 1740, planning to move to Vienna under the patronage of his admirer Charles VI. His stay in Vienna was to be shortlived however, for he died on July 28th 1741 "of internal fire" (probably the asthmatic bronchitis from which he suffered all his life) and, like Mozart fifty years later, received a modest burial.
Vivaldi's music became widely known, and performed, throughout Europe, due in large part to his publications with Estienne Roger of Amsterdam, whose distribution was well-organized.
Bach for example adapted a number of Vivaldi's works for organ and harpsichord, and as concertos for harpsichord and strings. He also included several of Vivaldi's works during the popular musical evenings which he organised during the 1730s at Zimmerman's Coffee House in Leipzig.
Today Vivaldi is perhaps best known for his Four Seasons. However students of individual orchestral instruments can be sure of finding challenging pieces which Vivaldi composed for his own students at the Venice Ospedale.
Check the links below for further reading.