Some things you may not know about the composer Antonio Vivaldi

One of my favorite composers is Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). While I love his secular pieces such as the Four Seasons, I am especially found of his Church music. It is so light, so bright and tuneful, and Vivaldi loved to go up and down the musical scale, varying the theme a half pitch at a time.

Ah Vivaldi, he is right up there with Handel, Bach and Mozart. I consider him to be an especially Catholic treasure given his large body of sacred Latin Liturgical music.

Just a few things about Vivaldi, that I’d like to share, things you may or may not know:

1. Vivaldi was a Catholic priest. He was ordained in 1703 at the age of 25, in Venice. However, it would seem the active priesthood did not suit Vivaldi. Within a year he asked to be excused form the daily celebration of Mass, due to a “tightness of the chest,” which he complained of his whole life. Most scholars think this is a reference to asthma, though there may have been other causes including heart related matters. But a deeper reason may lie in the fact the he was pressured to become a priest. In those days, going to a seminary was often the only way a poor family had to ensure free schooling for a son. Music seems to have been his passion. While it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the story, it is noted in some of his biographies that he would sometimes leave the altar to go into the sacristy and write down a musical idea that had come to him!

2. He spent most of his musical career working in an orphanage for girls. While this may seem an odd and unfruitful place for a composer, actually it was not. The “Ospedali” where he worked was one of four well endowed orphanages in Venice, some for girls, some for boys. And the residents were largely made up of “illegitimate” children of Venetian noblemen who conceived these children in their (sadly common) dalliances. The noblemen funded orphanages like these to care for such children of theirs. In Venice these homes developed a reputation for fine music, as the children were trained in music from the earliest years and concerts were a way the orphanages also raised money. At the Ospedali della Pieta where Vivaldi worked, some of the girls stayed on well into adulthood and continued to perform there. The video below shows what such a setting was like, and how Vivaldi would give performances, secular and liturgical with “his ladies.”

3. Not all found Vivaldi’s music as outstanding as many of us do today – An Italian Playwright of the time Carlo Goldoni writing in his memoirs described Vivaldi as “This priest, an excellent violinist but a mediocre composer…” Yet, to be fair, Vivaldi had his fans and patrons, and earned a decent living selling copies of his many concertos, operas, and Church works.

4. In 1720 Vivaldi began living with a woman, Anna Giraud. Though to be fair, he always insisted she was only with him as a housekeeper and friend. Further, her sister also shared the house. Vivaldi trained Anna to sing and she had an excellent reputation as a singer. Vivaldi stayed with her till his death. Were they more than friends? It is hard to say, but why not take Vivaldi at his word?

5. Vivaldi works all but disappeared from the scene after his death in 1741, and were not heard regularly or known widely again until the 1950s. In this sense he was an opaque luminary. The expression “opaque luminary” refers to people who shine brightly in their own time, but who, after their death are largely unknown. And until 1950 the name, Antonio Vivaldi was largely unknown.

6. Vivaldi’s  works came back to light beginning in 1926 when the Salesian Fathers wished to sell a large number of “old volumes” in their archive and invited Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at the National Library of Turin to assess their value. Many of the 97 volumes contained Vivaldi manuscripts, along with other rare music. And thus Vivaldi Music once again came to light. The second World War slowed the process of compiling and collecting the full library from other sources, but the hunt was now on, and in 1951 concert goers in England were among the first to hear this newly rediscovered baroque master. Since then Vivaldi has taken his place with Bach and Handel, and is considered quite equal among them. He with them, paved the way to Mozart.

7. Vivaldi died in 1741 at age 63. The cause was said to be “internal fire” which was probably yet another reference to the asthma that plagued him all his life.

Yes, Vivaldi, the gift of his music is great.

In this video, is depicted the manner in which Vivaldi would have had his Church music performed.Note that it is all women who sing and play, (For Vivaldi worked at the “orphanage” for girls). Period musical pieces are also used and it is performed in the Church of the Pietà in Venice, Vivaldi’s church in Venice, attached to the Ospedali where Vivaldi largely worked. This is the movement from the now famous Gloria in D. The text is Domine fili, unigenite Jesu Christe. Most of us who have sung this piece are used to it in an SATB arrangement, but here, for historical purposes, it is sung by all women. Note the candles too!

12 Replies to “Some things you may not know about the composer Antonio Vivaldi”

  1. Sorry Msgr.

    For all the bloggers out there here is the background on Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. (Better known as the “black mozart”).

    Joseph Boulogne (1745 – 1799) was the son of a French aristocrat and an African slave woman. He is considered to be one of the first composers to write music in the western tradition with African ancestry. Here is part of a ballet he wrote in 1780. Performed by Tafelmusik Orchestra conducted by Jeanne Lamon.

  2. Thank you Monsignor! We love Vivaldi and never realized he was a priest…? One of Mother Angela’s sisters has a Vivaldi CD on the violin. My son use to play Vivaldi pieces on piano. I loved it! Thank you again.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story about a great catholic composer who also happenned to be a priest. The video is also quite remarquable. Is it not St. Paul who told us to always seek beauty and truth? There is a lot of sordid and negative stories it the news and on the internet, it poisons our mind and spirit and makes us become participants in a form of unhealthy voyeurism. Not to mention all the waste of time. I sometimes wonder
    if wasting time is in part sinful. There is so many stories out there to read or listen to and so little time we have. Choices must be made, maybe the best ones would be to choose the ones that nourishes and elevates our soul?

  4. Very nice piece with some good trivia.

    Another great composer many don’t know was a Catholic priest was the Rev. Fr. Tomás Luis de Victoria, ordained in 1574.

    We are due for another one any century now!

  5. Msgr. Many thanks for showcasing Vivaldi, one of my favourite baroque composers too! Viva Vivaldi!
    Another great baroque composer you may have discovered is Heinrcih Biber , do listen to his Rosary Sonatas, they are out of this world.

  6. BBC Channel 4 made an interesting documentary on the ospidale’s connection to Vivaldi featuring a group of academic music historians singing works written for the all-female choir (at the time it was debated if women could sing all the voices needed in polyphany – its now proven that Vivaldi knew they could!) and a British lady has researched the work of mercy for orphaned and destitute girls of Venice.
    Its been uploaded in several 15 min segments here

  7. Vivaldi as always been one of my favorite classical composers also! Thanks for sharing this.

  8. vivaldi is my favorite composers.
    I always like to listen to his music.
    some of his works are very exellent except four seasons.
    some famous classical composers’ work are also beautiful . but some of them are too heavy.
    i only listen one time . but I often iike to listen to vivaldi’s work. sometimes i can not control myself and i spend too much time.

  9. I had a gut feeling that Vivaldi was a priest or he was very much related to Catholic Church. He had such talent that can be only given by God. He was so blessed 🙂 We can see it in every piece of his music. Your website confirmed my feelings. Thank you

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