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Antonio Vivaldi

1678 - 1741



Vivaldi achieved fame in Venice by emulating the style of Archangelo Corelli's famous Opus 6, a collection of twelve violin concertos (including the baroque war-horse #8, the Christmas Concerto) that were not unlike the several collections that Vivaldi published. It was Opus 3 that brought fame to Vivaldi. L'Estro Armonico ("The Musical Inspiration") is a collection of twelve concertos for violin that established Vivaldi's style: tight, rhythmic compositions, three fast-slow-fast movements, and dazzling instrument solos. They were published in Amsterdam by Estienne Roger in 1711. The publishing house printed most of Vivaldi's works-- over 500 in his lifetime.  He used the Amsterdam house rather than a local one because they engraved the music on plates rather than using movable type as the Venetian printers did.  The results were much more accurate and readable, although they probably cost a fortune to have made.  The final printing came in two volumes, considerably larger than any other Venetian composition at the time.  Vivaldi and Albinoni were the first Italian composers to have their works published this way, and after this every composer in Venice was having their work printed in northern Europe, which had the beneficial side-effect of exposing the north to Italian music, which in turn had the effect that Italian composers started writing for northern tastes-- a giant circle of influences.  The concerto form, popular throughout Italy, was something new in the north.  Roger exposed this music to the northern countries and the Italian influence spread across Europe, especially in Germany.  Vivaldi was at the forefront of this influence.

Vivaldi was progressive musically.  He established the concerto form as an instrumental standard, played with the idea that the soloist was at war with the larger orchestra and using the contrasts to dramatic effect, not only between players but in speed and volume levels as well, and he pushed the envelope on violin technique, something in which he probably remained untouched until Paganini. His usual writing style was antiphony, a simple style, which allowed him to experiment with instrument solos and maintain a light and innocent texture to the music.

Over 500 Vivaldi concertos exists today, as well as 40 cantatas, 22 operas, and more than 60 sacred works, and there were  many more that have not survived (or been discovered.)   The era demanded the composer be prolific.  Older works were not played unless excessively popular.  In fact, older works were often not even kept around since they were all written for a specific performance, and there was little use for the music following that performance.  Popular concertos were published so that other orchestras might play them.  Works which had not been published tended to become lost.  It is likely that an output greater than what exists today found its way to a Venetian dumpster as Vivaldi discarded work that had met its purpose in performance. Vivaldi often took older pieces of music and worked them into his current writing; perhaps to meet deadlines and perhaps to rework a good idea.  Such is the case with RV.442, a concerto for flauto (a treble recorder) which was to reappear with slight alteration in Opus 10, a published collection of flute concertos.  The same piece of music later found its way into arias for the operas Teuzzone, Il Tigrane, and Giustino.  If a composer were to do this today, we would consider it an artistic exploration of an integral idea.  In Vivaldi's case, before the recording studio and orchestra revivals, it was simply a way to hold on to work he felt deserved another listen.  The task of preserving Vivaldi was generally left to collectors of that time, rich noblemen who had commissioned work from Vivaldi or who had purchased the published form.  The works belongs to whoever paid for the manuscript, not the composer.  The composer never saw royalties for the music that was played--the royalty receive the royalties (my apologies for lapsing into weak humor.) Composers only received payment for the printed material.  This may be one reason Vivaldi took up opera, as a way to get his hand in the pot.

Vivaldi was one of the rare Italian composers interested in woodwind instruments.  He composed several concertos for the bassoon, oboe, recorder and flute, as well as the rarer chalumeaux and clarinet.  Woodwind instruments had become an integral part of Northern European orchestras, but the trend hadn't made it to Italy, where the violin was king.  It is partly through Vivaldi's interactions with travelers to Venice (among them G. H. Stoltzel and Johann Heinichen) and his own travels to Germany and France that led him to explore woodwinds, as well as his obligations to produce music for the instruments to be played at the Ospedale.  It is likely that Vivaldi played some of these instruments as well.

Vivaldi was obligated to write religious music for the Ospedale, since it was after all a religious organization.  He certainly didn't balk at the task, as he had balked at the saying of Mass.  Vivaldi's religious music did more than fulfill his duties as a priest, it expanded his musical range in new directions and gave us a wider variety of music to listen to rather than just concertos.  Now we have motets, liturgical works, an oratorio, two Magnificats, and two large scale choral and orchestral works known as Gloria.  One of these Glorias has become his most popular religious work, short by the choral standards set by later composers, but nonetheless full of memorable musical passages true to the "Vivaldi sound" and nearly too much fun for a church-going event.  Only one oratorio exists today, Juditha Triumphans.  Oratorios by Vivaldi's time had come to resemble operas, only with a religious theme.  Juditha Triumphans is a bit of a propaganda piece for Venice, which was involved in a war at the time with the Turks.  It is a very martial piece complete with battle scenes and dramatic action of the highest order.

Later in life Vivaldi became interested in opera.  The opera form in Venice had been perfected by Claudio Monteverdi nearly a hundred years before.  In 1637, Venice opened its first public opera house, the San Cassiano.  The popularity of opera by Vivaldi's time made it one of the most prosperous forms of musical entertainment in Venice, where a composer could earn around 200 ducats per opera (as opposed to the 60 ducats Vivaldi was being paid annually at the Ospedale)  The popularity of opera was not entirely because of the music.  Tickets were cheap, which enabled even the lower class citizens to attend.  The nobility was equally enthralled by the spectacle, and attended the opera along with the lower classed patrons.  There were few places in Venice where gentry and peasantry could mix.  It is likely the luminaries attended the opera to show the under-classed their devotion to the arts.  Obviously, the opera was more of a social event, lasting all evening, with food, wine, laughter, flirting, and from time to time music.  Very often residents attended the opera several times a week, some every day.  The audience was more interested in each other than the performers.  They would pause in their festivities from time to time to listen to an aria, but most of the music was intended as a background, and operas often lasted four hours or more.  This was also the time of great scenic spectacle, with mechanically moving flats, deus ex machina, and forced perspective, making the visual entertainment as important as the music.  The following eyewitness account is a lively example of opera at that time:

  • "The Operas, which are performed every day, begin at 7:00 in the evening and last until 11:00 at night, after which most people go to the fancy-dress ball.  Foreigners should not be ashamed to go to the orchestra section at the opera.  Even princes, counts, and other persons of quality occasionally take seats there because you have a better view than in the boxes.  Moreover, everyone wears a mask.  But whatever you do, do not do anything wrong, because the people in the boxes, especially the upper ones, are at times so insolent they will do anything -- even spit -- particularly when they see someone using  a small candle to read the libretto.  The most insolent of all are the...common folk, who stand below the boxes on all sides.  They clap, whistle, and yell so loudly that they drown out the singers.  They pay no attention to anyone, and they call this Venetian freedom...It is customary to give the fellow who shows you to your place a few sols to keep him happy."

It must have been exciting for Vivaldi to move from the drier academic Ospedale to the world of opera where pleasures were primary.  He became the manager of the San Angelo (St. Angelo) Opera House where he wrote forty-six operas (and perhaps forty more) as well as directing productions by other composers.   The opera form Vivaldi used came from Naples, and was appropriately called the Neapolitan form.  This consists of a rececitive (where the dialogue and story occurs, more fun to watch than listen to) and the aria (the story stops for a character solo which enabled the singers to show their stuff, probably much better to listen to than watch.)  For some reason, the audience concentrated attention on the arias and ignored the rececitives, thereby neglecting the main story (which might already be familiar to them anyway.)  The first Vivaldi opera we know of was Ottone in Villa, presented in 1713.  He wrote the opera Orlando Furioso three times, the first in 1714 being a failure, the second presented a month later as a contractual obligation, and a third final (and popular) version in 1727.  All of this was done after first presenting the opera in 1713 with music written by Giovanni Ristori, which goes to show how Venetians didn't mind seeing operas based on familiar stories (I suppose so they didn't have to pay as much attention to what was happening on-stage.)  Never one to let good things go, this opera contains echoes of the Four Seasons and Vivaldi used some of the arias in other operas.  We know of 50 operas, although only 22 exist today.  Vivaldi once wrote that he had composed 94 operas.

Of course, dealing with the opera world involved cooperating with more people than working at the Ospedale. Not only was he using the words of a librettist, but opera productions involved scenery, lighting, costumes, financial backers, and worst of all--the opera divas! There survives an account of Vivaldi's wranglings with a producer, Marchese Luca Casimiro degli Albizzi, to get one of his operas produced. The producer continually hounded, "you are not to touch the subsance of the libretto nor the division of the acts, because that is the way I wish it. I know you say it is all to improve it, but in Florence I know what is needed." He added, "I don't object to the few words in the recitatives which you have changed, but as for the arias, I think you have taken unwarranted liberties; I have counted twelve, and I abhor totally those which have been composed like this and which block the action when they ought to reprimand, or exhort, or pray." Albizzi even scolded Vivaldi for relying on past works, "you will do as I said and said repeatedly to you, not to seek out old arias and then include them arbitrarily as you see fit. And if in the theater they recognize them, you know that such a thing does no credit to you, and perhaps those who sing the parts are obliged to change them anyway, and that means the loss comes out of my pocket." Of course, Albizzi was not completely against Vivaldi (he did not hire a new composer) and at times he even defended him, "I don't disapprove of the idea that Your Gracious Self change the aria on behalf of your daughter. I permit this because it is not a new score. But in that of Vivaldi you must sing everything he sends." I present this as just a small example of life in the opera world. In fact, it shows how our historical viewpoints are entirely dependent on existing evidence. For example, the above letters only show Albizzi's point of view, and we have no idea how Vivaldi replied. Also, while we may look upon this as a typical incident in the opera world, it is merely the only incident that exists, and chances are it is as much unusal as it is ordinary (although, judging from opera productions of today, it seems little has changed.) Had we more information, the picture might be quite different, and there is undoubtedly a storehouse of knowledge to be stumbled upon in the ancient holdings of Europe's libraries and family archives.

The opera world that began in Monteverdi's time and boomed in Vivaldi's time continued booming as Vivaldi grew older (and kept booming thereafter, right up to the booming excesses of Wagner!) A second generation slowly took ground, and Vivaldi found that he was now the established composer with the popular upstarts surrounding him, just as he had once been. Styles were changing, and the castrati singer Farinelli (who appeared in some of Vivaldi's operas) was the toast of Venice. Where Vivaldi had earned around 4,200 lire at the peak of his fame, this new generation commanded astronomical salaries of 12,400, 18,600 (Farinelli) and 22,000 lire. This no doubt illustrates how immensely popular Venetian opera had become (thanks in no small part to Vivaldi.) While Vivaldi was a success in the opera world, he was by no means top dog, as he had been when he headed the Ospedale. By the time of his death, the wave of excitement he stirred over his first concertos had long since subsided, and his operas were generating less than a ripple. Indeed, the same can be seen today, where several versions of the Four Seasons have been recorded, but very little is known of his operas.

We should now look at Vivaldi's published works, those which were accesible to the greatest number of people in Vivaldi's day, as the most influential work of his life, yesterday and today. Vivaldi published twelve collections of his works as opus 1-12.  An opus (latin for "work", the never used plural being Opera) was a collection of six or twelve concertos, and they were usually similar in style or solo instrument.  The concertos usually weren't written as part of a collection, rather the collection was made from already existing parts. What follows is a list of the opus volumes Vivaldi published:

1705 Opus 1 - This is a collection of sonatas - four movement pieces written for three instruments (2 violins and harpsichord) that are heavily reminiscent of Archangelo Corelli's work. It is highlighted by a sonata titled Variations on La Folia, a popular folk tune of Vivaldi's day which has been worked over by several composers. Dedicated to Annibale Gambara, a Veronese nobleman.

1709 Opus 2 - This is another set of sonatas for two instruments (violin and harpsichord) in the style of Archangelo Corelli.  However, Vivaldi's inventiveness is beginning to show.  Dedicated to Frederik IV of Denmark during his visit to the Venetian carnival.

1711 Opus 3 - L'Estro Armonico (The Musical Inspiration) - Freed from his obligation to teach at the Ospedale, Vivaldi took up the challenge of one of the largest concerto collections ever attempted in Venice.  L'Estro Armonico rocketed Vivaldi to European fame, and propelled the sale of several collections that followed.  The typical Venetian concerto at the time was written with two violin parts, a lead and a secondary.  L'Estro Armonico contains 4 violin parts, two sets of lead and secondary.  Corelli is often credited with exerting grand influence over Vivaldi's musical tastes in these concertos, mainly because they are written in a Roman style, using 4 violin parts, much like Corelli's celebrated Concerti Grossi Opus 6.  There is, however, some dispute about this.  Corelli's Concerti Grossi Opus 6 was not published until 1714 (by the hard working Estienne Roger) and may have only been available to Vivaldi if he had gone to Rome, but influential credit may be given to another Roman composer, Giuseppe Valentini, who's Concerti Grossi Opus 7, published in 1710, uses the same style as Vivaldi does in this collection.  Another secondary influence on this collection is Venice's own Tomaso Albinoni.  Influences are always sought for L'Estro Armonico in an attempt to explain where Vivaldi got all his wonderful ideas, and to understand which composers he had learned from and was patterning himself after.  These influences may not have been as direct as it seems, since the Roman style of concerto was becoming commonplace throughout Venice and Vivaldi might have been simply jumping on something new and exotic (as he was want to do.)  The concertos themselves are a strange mix of Venetian and Romans styles.  Influences aside, Vivaldi's presence is commanding-- full of exuberance, joy, and Mediterranean warmth.  Vivaldi had now become the influence for composers throughout Europe, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz, and ironically it is the Venetian elements rather than the Roman ones that most composers emulated.  He promised in the dedication of L'Estro Armonico that he would follow this with 12 concertos for solo violin (such confidence in his success!)  Dedicated to the Grand Prince Ferdinando of Tuscany.

1714 Opus 4 - La Stravaganza - Riding the success of L'estro Armonico, Vivaldi followed it up with this smorgasbord of violin technique more closely aligned to his own style.  He was now clearly confident with the concerto form and used it to play and invent as many combinations as he could dream up.  The purpose of the twelve is to break from tradition and show the violin in all its extravagant forms, even the traditions set by Vivaldi in the L'Estro Armonico.  Vivaldi was researching the varying sounds the violin could make, and the varying techniques used to make them.  Concerto 8 provides the best example of this thinking, and it is also the strongest concerto in terms of structure and theme.  All but two of the concertos are in three movements, fast-slow-fast.  Vivaldi was finally settling on this as his favorite form, and he developed the slow movements considerably, drawing them out and complicating them to contrast with the faster outer movements.  It is hard to understand how impressive these two collections must have sounded to music lovers of the time without first having a firm grasp of the traditions that existed, the norm of the day, that everyone was accustomed to.  It was only a century before that composers were breaking away from the vocal church music, chant, and solemn latin biblical text based church music.  This form of music was still popular in Vivaldi's day, and he wrote an enormous amount of it, but it is accompanied by lively, non-religious instrumental music and opera spurred on by the development of instruments capable of performing complicated music (and sounding pleasing at the same time.)  These were new forms of music that remain as popular today as when they were introduced.  Dedicated to Vettor Dolfin, a Venetian nobleman, card shark, and student of Vivaldi's.

1716 Opus 5 - A collection of six sonatas that seems to be written for the tastes of northern Europe.  They are more restrained and noble, less "joi de vive" and fun.  There is no dedicatee.

1717 Opus 6 - Six violin concertos, reminiscent of early Vivaldi rather than Corelli.  There is no dedicatee.

1721 Opus 7 - Another return to form in what has become "the Vivaldi sound."  12 violin concertos.  It is possible that some of these works are not Vivaldi's.  It may be that Vivaldi gave six concertos and his publisher Roger added six more from other composers.  I leave it for you to decide which ones they might be, but if I were you I would suspect the two oboe concertos.  It has been proposed that Vivaldi boycotted the publisher because of this and did not publish again until after Roger's death in 1723. There is no dedicatee. 
~  Concerto no. 4, the one least doubted on the basis of style carries a handwritten note by its original owner 'cattivo e non e di Vivaldi' = 'bad and not by Vivaldi'.  As regards the doubts over the 2 oboe concertoes, the Pieta was employing oboe teachers as from 1703 onwards and indeed Vivaldi's sonata RV779 contains a very demanding part for oboe dated to 1710. They are mainly doubted because they sound more like concertoes 'with oboe' rather than 'for oboe' -- a non-characteristic composition for Vivaldi. My personal opinion & feeling are for their authenticity.
(comment graciously donated by Vivaldi Homepage visitor Vincent Farrugia)

1725 Opus 8 - The Four Seasons were published in Amsterdam in 1725.  There are four violin concertos each named after a season of the year.  Each includes a sonnet, written by Vivaldi, that describes the intent of the music, which makes them unique among Vivaldi's canon.  The four concertos are part of a larger collection of twelve called Il cimento dell'armonia e del'invention, or The Contest of Harmony and Invention, Opus 8.  The title indicates an ongoing battle between harmony, form, and rationality and the opposing forces of invention, fantasy, and creativity.  This may be intended to show how Vivaldi used the rigid concerto form (three movements, fast-slow-fast, each with specific guidelines) to display his imagination and inventiveness.  Programmatic music such as this was very uncommon in the baroque era (and the classical era, for that matter) and it is probably a part of the whole idea of invention and creativity that Vivaldi ascribes a story (or outline, really) to his music.  The idea of contrasts was one of his foremost objectives, so to join musical notes with written words makes them part of the overall concept.  The concertos were written for Count Graf Wenzel von Morzin of Bohemia, to whom Vivaldi sent many concertos.

1727 Opus 9 - La Cetra - This collection of twelve violin concertos emphasizes what Vivaldi had learned in the opera business.  The concertos are full of lyricism and melody unlike his earlier work.  It is also the first time Vivaldi solidified his concertos by making each of the three movements in the same key.  Before the middle movement was usually minor and the outer movements major.  It is notable in that two of the concertos, #6 and #12, required instrument tuning common only in German-speaking countries.  They are dedicated to the Austrian Emperor Charles VI.  (Vivaldi was rewarded with a gold chain and medallion.)

1728 Opus 10 - Il gardellino - This is the only collection written for an instrument other than the violin.  This was the first collection of flute concertos ever published, six concertos in all.  The flute was a new instrument in Baroque times, actually called a transverse flute (an early incarnation) and was introduced to the Ospedalle during Vivaldi's occupation.  The flute eventually replaced the recorder as the upper woodwind of choice.  Vivaldi wrote concertos for both instruments and their parts are commonly switched.  In fact, all but concerto 4 are arranged from previous concertos, most of them recorder concertos.  The timid little flute might seem like a difficult solo instrument for Vivaldi's outward bravado, but quite the opposite is true.  Vivaldi turns the flute into a fiery little pipe. In the first concerto, La tempesta di mare, Vivaldi shows he has no qualms pushing the flute to its limit.  Normally used for color to depict flighty, feathery sounds, Vivaldi's flute becomes a storm at sea with crashing waves, and he imbibes the instrument with an onry fury quite unlike its reputation.  The second concerto, La Notte (the Night) has become a baroque favorite and is popular among Vivaldi collections.  It is not a sleepy, contemplative concerto as the title indicates, but rather a nightmare, a restless sleep, that continues to show the flute is a mean instrument.  Having established the presence of the soloist, Vivaldi retreats to delicate birdcalls in the third concerto, the Goldfinch.  The final concertos are all individual, the fifth being played entirely with muted strings.  There is no dedicatee.

1729 Opus 11 - Six more violin concertos, with an oboe in the mix, characteristic of Vivaldi's familiar style.  There is no dedicatee.

1729 Opus 12 - Vivaldi's final collection is a set of six violin concertos.   There is no dedicatee.

Vivaldi stopped printing his works after this, claiming it was more profitable to just sell the autographed manuscripts.  There is an Opus 13, Il pastor fido, dated 1937, but the true author is Mr. Nicolas Chédeville, a Parisian musician who published this collection and claimed that Vivaldi had written it.  He even stole some bits of Vivaldi's opus 4, La Stravaganza, to make it sound authentic.  There are also rumors of an Opus 14, six cello sonatas, but it's just a rumor.

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