Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

The Red Priest

“Music is the wine that fills the cup of Silence.”

On this day, in the year 1678, was born the brilliant Violinist and Baroque-era Composer: Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, in the Italian city of Venice.

His father (a barber and a virtuoso Violinist himself) had helped him in trying a career in Music and also by entering him in the Cappella di San Marco Orchestra, where he was a well-reknowned Violinist.

In 1703 Vivaldi was ordained as a priest, soon nicknamed Il Prete Rosso – “The Red Priest” because of his bright red hair.

Not long after, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating the Holy Mass because of his ill-health and became a Violin teacher at an orphanage for girls called the Pio Ospedale della Piet in Venice. Next to the front gate of the orphanage was a small nook in the wall where the priests would check for new arrivals – orphaned and abandoned, they were given a home and taught Music.

Shortly after his appointment, the orphans began to gain appreciation and esteem abroad too; Vivaldi wrote for them most of his concertos, cantatas, and Sacred Music. The girls gave concerts that were the highlight of Musical life in Venice. They “sang like Angels” and played their instruments with preternatural skill. It was said that Pio Ospedale della Piet had the best-disciplined orchestra in Italy, but the girls were never seen. At the concerts, they were hidden from the audience.

The first collection of Vivaldi`s works were published in 1705. Many others would follow. At the orphanage, he covered several different duties, with the only interruption for his many travels, and in 1713 became responsible for the Musical activity of the institute.

Not so well known is the fact that most of his repertoire was re-discovered only in the first half of the 20th century in Turin and Genoa, but was published in the second half.

Vivaldi`s Music is powerfully innovative, breaking a consolidated tradition in schemes; he gave brightness to the formal and the rhythmic structure of the concerto, repeatedly looking for harmonic contrasts, and invented ground-breaking melodies and themes.

Moreover, Vivaldi was able to Compose non-academic Music, particularly meant to be appreciated by the wide public, and not only by an intellectual minority. The joyful appearance of his Music reveals in this regard a transmissible joy of Composing. These are among the causes of the vast popularity of his Music. This popularity soon made him famous also in countries like France, at the time very closed into its national schemes.

He is one of the Composers who brought Baroque Music (with its typical contrast among heavy sonorities) to evolve into an impressionist style. Johann Sebastian Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi`s concertos and arias (recalled in his Passions and cantatas). Bach transcribed a number of Vivaldi`s concertos for solo keyboard, along with a number for Orchestra, including the famous Concerto for Four Violins and Violoncello, Strings and Continuo.

However, not all Musicians showed the same enthusiasm: Igor Stravinsky foolishly said that Vivaldi had not written hundreds of concertos, but one concerto, repeated hundreds of times.

Vivaldi`s life, like those of many Composers of the time, ended in poverty. His Compositions no longer held the high esteem they once did in Venice; changing Musical tastes quickly made them outmoded, and Vivaldi, in response, chose to sell off sizeable numbers of his manuscripts at paltry prices to finance a migration to Vienna.

Leaving Venice he wished to meet Charles VI, who adored his Compositions and take up the position of royal Composer in his Imperial Court. However, shortly after Vivaldi`s arrival at Vienna, Charles died. This tragic stroke of bad luck left the Composer without royal protection and a source of income.

Vivaldi had to sell off more manuscripts to make ends meet, and eventually died soon after, in 1741. He was given an unmarked pauper`s grave and his Music was to fall into obscurity until two hundred years later.

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