Antonio Vivaldi was the most influential Italian composer of his generation who made a substantial contribution to musical style, violin technique, orchestration and orchestral programme music.
Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678. He learned violin from his father and became a priest in 1703. He was known as ‘il prete rosso’, ‘the red priest’ because of his hair colour, which was a family characteristic, his father being known as professionally as Rossi for the same reason. Later that same year, he was appointed violin teacher at thePio Ospidale della Pietá, and he composed most of his major works while employed there. It was an orphanage, and at first he specialised in teaching girls who showed decent aptitude. Regular musical performance at the Pietá were a focal point for the nobility of Venice, as well as for foreign visitors. In early his years of employment there, Vivaldi was responsible for cultivating a group of very capable musicians and supplying them withensemble works to perform. Meanwhile, he sought more and more recognition as a composer and was eventually commissioned to compose an entire mass, a vespers, an oratorio and over 30 motets, before simultaneously finding work elsewhere.
In 1711, Vivaldi had his L’estro armonico op.3 published by the Amsterdam publisher Etienne Roger, which was to become some of the most influential music in the early half of the 18th century. The publication consisted of 12 concertos for one,two and four solo violins and led to a huge demand for Italian instrumental music in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany.Bach transcribed several of these concertos for keyboard and various touring German musicians met Vivaldi on their visits.
Between 1716 and 1720, Vivaldi wrote extensively for the violin – he wrote La stravaganza op. 4, a set of 12 violin concertos and his next three publications were also for violin, consisting of 6 sonatas and 18 concertos.
Vivaldi toured a lot from 1718 onwards. He wrote several serenatas and cantatas for the Mantuan court, where he was employed as maestro di capella da camaraas well as three operas for carnival seasons of 1719 to 1720 during his time there. He then spent some time in Rome and performed operas and met a new patron, Ottoboni, who commissioned Vivaldi to write two concertos per month. It was in this period that he composed theFour Seasons, in which each season is conveyed in four violin concertos. ‘Spring’ borrows some motifs from a sinfonia in the first act of his opera ‘Il Giustino’.
His Gloria e Imeneo was commissioned by the French ambassador to Venice in celebration of the marriage of Louis the XV.
Vivaldi’s distinctive musical language shows an affinity for Lombardic rhythms, syncopation and a flexible use of the sixth and seventh degrees of the minor scale. A lot of examples are evident of Vivaldi transporting ideas from major to minor and from minor to major with great liberty and with frequent juxtaposition of slow and fast harmonic rhythms.
Vivaldi chose to sell off a lot of his manuscripts to finance his trip to Vienna, where he took up residence at the Kärntnertortheater and intended to produce some operas there, but this plan fell through. Soon after his arrival in Vienna, his would-be patron Charles VI died, leaving Vivaldi with little chance of employment. He died impoverished at the age of 63.
Vivaldi’s work fell into obscurity after his death and was known mainly only to historians and lexicographers until the twentieth century, when a major revival of Vivaldi brought him back into the forum as one of the most significant composers of the Baroque era.