(1678 – 1741)
Vivaldi was both a prolific composer and a noted violinist. His father was a violinist at the ducal chapel of San Marco in Venice, and Antonio began his musical education at home. He was ordained a priest, though chronic respiratory problems (probably asthma) kept him from many clerical duties; due to his red hair he acquired the nickname il prete rosso, meaning “the red priest.” In 1703 he accepted a position as violin teacher at a girls’ orphanage and foundling home in Venice, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà.
These orphanages provided musical training as part of their educational mission; the girls gave regular concerts, which attracted large audiences and garnered the institution an international reputation. Vivaldi was eventually promoted to concertmaster, and despite many years of travel during his career, he continued his association with the institution until 1740.
The frequent concerts at the Ospedale required a constant supply of new compositions, as audiences expected to hear new works. In 1723, for example, the institution asked Vivaldi to produce two concertos for them each month. Vivaldi continued to comply, and grew quite proud of his ability to compose not only well but quickly; he boasted that he could compose a concerto in all its parts faster than a copyist could transcribe them. About 500 of his concertos survive. Vivaldi wrote them for a number of different solo instruments and combinations that reflect not only the popularity of various instruments, but also the variety of players over the years at the Ospedale.
Nearly half are for a solo violin and orchestral strings. He also wrote for other solo instruments, such as flute, cello, oboe, and even mandolin. Others are double concertos for two soloists. Some use three soloists in the form of a concerto grosso, or in other combinations. Most of these works are in three movements, fast-slow-fast. Many fast movements use a form called ritornello, in which the larger orchestral group of strings plays a thematic section that returns several times in various keys, and alternates with freer sections for the soloist or soloists. This form allows for virtuoso writing and provides passages through which the soloist can display his or her skill.
Often the soloist is allowed an improvisatory section near the final cadence of the movement, and because of its location such passages are called cadenzas. The slow movements of Vivaldi’s concertos feature aria-like melodies. Vivaldi named many of his concertos. The names might refer to any number of features about the work, such as the original soloist, the person to whom it was dedicated, some technical aspect about the composition that was especially prominent, or a theme or subject that the music described, for example “Storm at Sea” or “The Hunt.” For his famous “Four Seasons” concertos, he wrote a sonnet on the subject of each one and published them together with the compositions.
As he matured, Vivaldi also began to write operas, where his flair for the dramatic can also be seen. Some 21 works survive in whole or in part, though he wrote many more. At first, he produced them in Venice, but by 1718, he was invited to Mantua to present his current production. In the 1720s, he also spent several years in Rome, before returning to Venice, where he continued to produce operas and write instrumental compositions. But by the 1730s, he was traveling further afield. His last trip was to Vienna, where he died in 1741. Although he had made enormous sums of money during his lifetime, he spent just as extravagantly, and was given a pauper’s burial in Vienna. Vivaldi’s works were extremely popular for most of his career.
Both the volume of his compositions and their high quality made them very influential. He published his works with care, dedicating them to prominent patrons and choosing presses with high-quality printing and good distribution. Etienne Roger of Amsterdam published his set of violin concertos, L’estro armonico, in 1711, dedicated to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This choice both acknowledged the interest of northern Europeans in Italian composers, and helped to continue to expand that market. His work influenced other major composers; Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed some of his works for the keyboard, and many other northern composers studied them with great interest. Vivaldi helped to standardize the writing of concertos, and to popularize the combination of virtuoso soloist with orchestra.
Especially to those in northern Europe, he seemed to embody the best of Italian style in the later Baroque era. Some, however, were more impressed by his abilities as a fiery performer. The composers in the Galant and Sensitive styles that followed the later Baroque period singled out Vivaldi, criticizing him for having continued to write in an archaic style. They desired to separate themselves from elements of Vivaldi’s style, including what they felt were an overemphasis on sheer virtuosity, display, and overly contrived passagework. Unlike other figures the Galant and Sensitive composers of the mid- and later eighteenth century criticized, Vivaldi had largely abandoned the contrapuntal style of Baroque composers. His influence on Bach later inspired a renewed interest in his works after his death, and his instrumental writings in particular continue to enjoy frequent performance and great popularity.