Classical Composer Profile : Antonio Vivaldi
by Betty Fry
I suppose I will always think of Nigel Kennedy whenever I hear any one of Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’. The character of the virtuoso violinist almost took over his joyous playing of these wonderful pieces, and I think I shall be forever grateful to him for bringing Vivaldi’s music so happily to my attention. His unique interpretation of the music was acclaimed for its exuberance and vitality, and brought it to a much wider public.
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, and was the son of a barber who turned violinist to play in an orchestra. Taught to play the violin by his father, he was nevertheless trained for the priesthood, but it does not seem to have been a calling, and his enthusiasm for such a career seems doubtful.
He was not ordained until he was twenty five years of age, but very soon gave up saying mass, allegedly because of a chronic chest complaint. He claimed that the incense aggravated his asthma. Even so he became known by the nick name of ‘The Red Priest’ because of his flame coloured hair.
But he was enthusiastic about music and obtained a position as a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls in Venice. Music lovers from all over Europe came to hear the excellent all girls orchestra that he trained and directed.
But his relationship with his young charges was often the talk of the town. Most famous of these girls was the soprano Anna Giraud, who was thirty years his junior. Vivaldi wrote a number of his operas for her – although she was not exceptionally talented – and the pair travelled around Europe together.
In 1737, this association, coupled with the fact that Vivaldi was a priest who rarely said Mass, brought him into conflict with the Church. Vivaldi insisted his relationship with Anna was perfectly proper. However in spite of his protestations he had to call off a planned opera season in nearby Ferrara, at considerble cost to himself, because it was banned by the senior Cardinal.
For many years Vivaldi’s work was largely forgotten, but in the mid 20th century the discovery of a large number of manuscripts, combined with the revival of interest in the Baroque period, produced a Vivaldi renaissance. The advent of the long playing record gave a final push, and Vivaldi’s music is probably better known today than it has ever been.
Which brings me back to my favourite pieces, ‘The Four seasons’. They are a group of concertos for strings and solo violin, and as such these concertos are milestones in the history of music, because they stand halfway between the older 18th century great concertos, which divided a string orchestra into a group of large and a group of small instruments, and the true concerto as we now know it – a concert work for orchestra and solo instrument.
Each of the ‘Four Seasons’ is accompanied by an illustrative sonnet rather like a poetic commentary upon the music. Vivaldi himself described Spring as arriving joyously, with bird song and gentle breezes. A storm blows up but soon passes, and the birds resume their song. In the second movement, the solo violin plays a tender and faintly melancholy tune over a murmuring accompaniment, as a shepherd and his faithful dog doze peacefully in a meadow.
Finally peasants dance under a bright blue sky, with the solo violin standing out sweetly from the rest of the strings. Winter is gone for another year and summer is on its way. The music says it all.
For Summer his music and the lines of the sonnet tell of sultry heat, then the call of the cuckoo, followed by sudden and ominous gusts of wind. For the middle section of this piece the poem describes a shepherd boy frightened by flashes of lightening, and tormented by swarms of gnats and flies. Finally thunder cracks and rumbles while hail and rain beat down on fields of corn.
Vivaldi captures all these moods and impressions with just a small orchestra, plus a part for the solo violin.
For Autumn the vibrant rhythm of Vivaldi’s opening movement transports one into a rustic scene of dancing and merrymaking. In his illustrative sonnet he tells of how .. ‘The peasant celebrates with song and dance, His joys in the fulsome harvest, And with the cup of Bacchus so o’erwhelmed, His levels in sleep are drowned’.
A hypnotic section brings the music to the day’s end, with the peasants gradually falling into a contented sleep, and then stirred by a brief return to the initial jollity, which concludes the movement.
Winter he shows in all its different moods, the prefacing sonnet describes it thus :- ‘To shiver icily in the freezing dark in the teeth of a cruel wind, to stamp your feet all the time, so chilled that your teeth chatter. To remain in quiet contentment by the fireside while outside the rain pours in torrents. To step forth strongly, fall to the ground, and again run boldly on the ice until it cracks and breaks, such is winter’.
These four pieces are a fine example of Vivaldi’s ability to paint a picture with music intended to make the listener visualise the scene, or experience a feeling. As with the human voice, the violin can express a wide range of emotions, and Vivaldi was a pioneer in this respect.
He wrote a great deal of fine music for other instruments, and for voices; but it is his music for strings particularly, and above all the violin, that ranges so effortlessly from song like joy to melancholy, with all the romantic feeling of a true Italian.
Ultimately his continual absenteeism from the Pieta led to his dismissal from the orphanage, and he moved to Vienna to seek his fortune with the Emperor Charles VI. who had lavished him with honours because of the high regard he felt for his work.
Sadly the King died just before he arrived, and Vivaldi himself became ill soon afterwards with a gastric infection, and died in 1741 while still in Vienna, Unfortunately, despite a prosperous life, and a healthy regard for money, he had run out of resources and was buried in a paupers grave.
Within decades of his death Vivaldi’s music fell into obscurity and remained largely unknown until the beginning of the 20th century. But in 1926 Alberto Gentili made the sensational discovery of 14 volumes of unpublished music in a monastery in Borgo San Martino. Further volumes were found in the Vivaldi family library, and in 1930 the entire collection was brought to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin.
The enormous extent of his work was then realised; many concertos for stringed instruments; hundreds more for oboe, bassoon, flute, recorder, and other instruments; much splendid church music; and at least fifty operas.
Vivaldi was primarily a choral writer and perhaps his best and most well known composition ‘Gloria in excelsis’, (Glory to God in the highest), is truly music to fit its lofty theme. In one of the most thrilling openings to a religious piece, strings play a short phrase which is repeated with small additions on brass and woodwind, building up the excitement. The tension is released as the choir bursts in with ‘Gloria, Gloria’ sung again and again, each time with increasing power. Orchestra and voices work together closely, delivering an energetic and joyous hymn of praise.
Vivaldi was always Italy’s most distinguished baroque composer, but as his vast output was brought to light, so his reputation grew. And great though they may be, Vivaldi is distinguished from other industrious baroque composers by his vitality, melodic invention, and originality. And in contrast to many later nicknames appended to classical works, all Vivaldi’s titles are his own.