The popularity of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” has paradoxically led us to underestimate the Venetian’s true greatness. Once renowned across Europe, by the early twentieth century Vivaldi was considered a minor composer. Then, several events occurred to re-awaken interest in the music of “The Red Priest.”
Inevitably, when one hears the name of Antonio Vivaldi, one thinks of his famous set of four violin concertos, The Four Seasons. By one estimate it is the most played piece of classical music in world history. Though it has made Vivaldi famous for at least the last century or so, The Four Seasons has paradoxically led us to underestimate the Venetian’s true greatness. The first bars of the first concerto in the set, “Spring,” like the openings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, have been so overplayed that we really cannot hear the music anymore. Like those pieces, The Four Seasons has become a cliché, a piece of kitsch that we hear in muzak form as we shop at the mall, ride in an elevator, or watch a television commercial. At the same time, it has made Vivaldi a one-hit wonder in the concert-going public’s mind, akin to a Carl Orff (of Carmina Burana fame) or a Samuel Barber (he of the funereal Adagio).
The Four Seasons’ fame has also resulted in the pigeon-holing of Vivaldi as a composer of instrumental music, specifically of string concerti. Moreover, a put-down has dogged Vivaldi through the ages, repeated by Igor Stravinsky among other notables: that he did not write 500 concerti but the same concerto 500 times. (The present writer wishes he could utter a rejoinder on Vivaldi’s behalf to Stravinsky himself, expressing his gratitude that the Russian composer did not inflict such a number of his own works upon our ears.) It is true that string concerti comprise the majority of Vivaldi’s output, that a certain uniformity of form, style, and technique governs much of this oeuvre, and that only a fraction stand out to the casual listener as obviously “great” works that can be readily distinguished from the others. Still, though Vivaldi’s achievement in this vast body of repertoire is undeniably uneven, its existence alone would be enough to qualify the Venetian as one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
And yet Vivaldi, who lived from 1678 to 1741, was nearly forgotten by time. Even before his death, his music began to fade from the world, and during the nineteenth century Vivaldi went largely unperformed. The Romantics had little time for him. The revival of interest in Vivaldi’s contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, by the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn and others, strangely served merely to diminish Vivaldi, who was said to pale in comparison to the German master. “A scribbler in the worst sense of the word” was how one late-nineteenth century musicologist described the Venetian.
Many of Vivaldi’s manuscripts were first ignored in the decades following his death, then lost. Once renowned in life across Europe as “The Red Priest” (so-called because this ordained Catholic clergyman-composer sported a shock of bright orange curls), by the early twentieth century Vivaldi was considered a minor composer by the cognoscenti, on a par with such second-rate contemporaries as Arcangelo Corelli and Giuseppe Torelli. Only The Four Seasons was known to the general public—though much less so than today—and that in a corrupted edition.
Then, beginning in the fourth decade of the twentieth century, several events occurred to re-awaken interest in Vivaldi’s music. In 1930 the Turin National Library acquired a large collection of Vivaldi manuscripts: more than one hundred concerti, twenty-nine cantatas, twelve operas and an oratorio. In 1939, the city of Siena held a “Vivaldi Week,” during which many of these newly-discovered works were performed. In the 1940s the Antonio Vivaldi Italian Institute was founded, as were several Italian chamber orchestras that championed and recorded the works of the Red Priest. Also during this period, and most unexpectedly, Vivaldi’s name was brought to the public’s attention by a musical joke: The great violinist Fritz Kreisler passed off one of his own compositions as being one of the newly-discovered works of the Venetian. The ruse, soon revealed, served to heighten interest in the legitimate and as yet unknown works of Vivaldi.
Vivaldi’s reputation grew in academic circles throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and the public began to know more of his works, if not the details of his biography. Even today, it is the rare concertgoer who knows that Vivaldi was a Catholic priest. (One indeed wonders whether Vivaldi’s reputation suffered next to the Lutheran Bach’s at least partly because of the Red Priest’s vocation, though by all accounts he preferred composing to celebrating the sacraments.) Also little known is that Vivaldi composed the vast majority of his works while serving as the director of the choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for the illegitimate daughters of the Venetian nobility.
The revival of interest in Vivaldi’s music is ongoing. First recordings of many of his works have continued to appear in recent years, thanks mainly to the efforts of the French classical music recording company Naïve, which is assembling its “Vivaldi Edition.” The artists involved in this project are mainly Italian devotees of what is called “historically-informed performance (HIP). They use replica or original instruments of the period, which, to put it simply, are much sharper and tangier in tone than modern instruments and which produce a more lively and varied, less homogenized tone. The Italian “HIPsters” also favor fast speeds and sudden shifts in dynamics, which produce an aggressive quality to the music. (This is not your grandpa’s easy-listening Vivaldi.) In this writer’s opinion the historically-informed school has captured the true, fiery spirit of the Red Priest’s music. Indeed, contemporaries described Vivaldi’s way of playing his own music as “wild” and “terrifying.”
As director of music at the Ospedale, Vivaldi was required to produce a certain number of works per month for the all-female orchestra and choir. He wrote nearly all his sacred vocal works, including his famous Gloria, for the girls and women of the Ospedale. Females took the tenor and bass parts in the pieces when required, a fact at first doubted by musicologists but then confirmed by the orphanage’s own documents. The concerts given by the girls were the primary source of the orphanage’s income, and under Vivaldi’s direction, the Ospedale’s orchestra became renowned throughout Europe.
On one occasion, Jean-Jacques Rousseau—a composer in his own right—eagerly came to hear the Ospedale’s girls perform in a Venetian church, only to be vexed upon discovering that the young women of the orchestra and choir performed behind a screen that shielded them from public view—and the leering eyes of men like Rousseau. “What grieved me were those accursed grills,” Rousseau lamented, “which allowed only tones to go through and concealed the angels of loveliness.” In short course, the Frenchman finagled his way into the Ospedale to meet the “little girls” but was disappointed to find that “scarcely one was without some considerable blemish.” Only “two or three,” he concluded, “looked tolerable.” Rousseau persevered nonetheless in an attempt to find something attractive in Vivaldi’s women, and at the conclusion of his visit the charms and talents of the girls had won him over: “My way of looking at them changed so much that I left nearly in love with all these ugly girls.”
Vivaldi himself may have fallen in love with a female who was much his junior. The composer was in his late forties when he met the teenaged Anna Girò, a contralto who possessed great acting skills though only a mediocre voice. The girl became Vivaldi’s favorite singer and protégé, and the Red Priest travelled with her (and her sister) throughout Europe, as she assumed starring roles in Vivaldi’s operas. Vivaldi even kept house with the Girò sisters. Rumors abounded, and the Cardinal of Ferrara, suspecting Vivaldi of immorality, barred Vivaldi from entering his city. The Red Priest for his part denied any improper conduct on his part, and the truth of the essence of the relationship between the priest and his protégé likely will never be known. What is certain is that the duo of Vivaldi and Girò collaborated on many operatic successes. Throughout his career as a composer and especially in his later years, Vivaldi acted as an opera impresario, staging his own works as well as the works of others and arranging pasticci, operas cobbled together by borrowing parts of works by various composers.
Vivaldi’s success as a composer and impresario did not last. In the final years of his life, the music of “the famous Vivaldi” was going out of style, and Vivaldi was reduced to begging aristocratic friends for money. Often better known by his colorful nickname during his lifetime, upon his death in Vienna the Red Priest was hardly remembered at all for his music. Today we are at last beginning to honor Vivaldi as he should be honored: as one of the greatest composers of his day, and of all time.
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The featured image—an anonymous 1723 painting of Antonio Vivaldi—is in the public domain and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.