One of my favorite composers is Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). While I love his secular pieces (such as The Four Seasons), I am especially fond of his Church music. It is so light, bright, and tuneful! Vivaldi loved to go up and down the musical scale, varying the theme a half step at a time.
Ah, Vivaldi, he’s 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.
Here are just a few things I’d like to share about Vivaldi, things you may or may not know:
1. Vivaldi was a Catholic priest. He was ordained in Venice in 1703, at the age of 25. However, it would seem that the active priesthood did not suit him. Within a year, he asked to be excused from the daily celebration of Mass due to a “tightness of the chest,” which he complained of his entire life. Most scholars think that this is a reference to asthma, although there may have been other causes, including heart-related matters. But a deeper reason may lie in the fact the Vivaldi was pressured to become a priest. In those days, often the only way a poor family had to ensure the free schooling of a son was to send him to a seminary. Music seems to have been Vivaldi’s passion. Some biographies of him relate that he would sometimes leave the altar in mid-Mass to go into the sacristy to write down a musical idea that had just come to him!
2. Vivaldi spent most of his musical career working in an orphanage (mostly, though not exclusively, one for girls). While this may seem an odd and unfruitful place for a composer, it actually was not. The Ospedale della Pietà, where he worked for many years, was one of four well-endowed orphanages in Venice. Most of the children were the illegitimate offspring of Venetian noblemen who fathered them in the course of their (sadly common) dalliances. The noblemen funded orphanages to care for these children of theirs. In Venice, these homes developed a reputation for fine music, all performed by girls. The girls were trained in music from their earliest years and concerts were a way for the orphanages to raise money. At the Ospedale della Pietà, some of the girls remained well into adulthood, continuing to perform there. The video below depicts what such a setting was like, and shows 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. Carlo Goldoni, an Italian playwright of the time, described Vivaldi as “… this priest, an excellent violinist but a mediocre composer …” But Vivaldi also had fans and patrons, and he 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. To be fair, though, he always maintained that she was with him as a housekeeper and a friend. Furthermore, her sister also shared the house with them. Vivaldi trained Anna to sing and she had an excellent reputation as a singer. Vivaldi stayed with her until his death. Were they more than friends? It’s hard to say, but why not take Vivaldi at his word?
5. Vivaldi’s works all but disappeared 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.” (This expression refers to a person who shines brightly in his own time but is largely forgotten after death.) From his death until 1950, the name Antonio Vivaldi was largely unknown.
6. Vivaldi’s works began to come back to light beginning in 1926. It was at this time that the Salesian Fathers, wishing to sell a large number of old volumes in their archive, invited Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at the National Library of Turin, to assess their value. Many of the 97 volumes in the archive contained Vivaldi manuscripts. And thus Vivaldi music reappeared on the landscape. Although the Second World War slowed the process of compiling and collecting the full library of Vivaldi music from other sources, the hunt was on! In 1951, concertgoers in England were among the first to hear this newly rediscovered baroque master. Since then, Vivaldi has assumed his place alongside Bach and Handel, and is considered by most to be their equal. With them, he paved the way to Mozart.
7. Vivaldi died in 1741 at the age of 63. The cause was said to be “internal fire,” probably another reference to the asthma that plagued him all his life.
Yes, Vivaldi, the gift of his music is great!
The video below depicts the way in which Vivaldi’s Church music was likely performed. It shows how Vivaldi probably gave performances, secular and liturgical, with “his ladies.” Note that both the orchestra and the choir contain only women. This particular performance takes place in the Church of the Pietà in Venice, which was Vivaldi’s church and is attached to the Ospedale della Pietà. 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 being in an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) arrangement, but for historical accuracy it is performed here exclusively by women. Notice the beautiful candles, too!