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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Antonio Vivaldi

Historical study and countless near-perfect recordings have probably given us all a squeaky-clean view of music in 18th century Italy. It was in fact turbulent, exciting, sometimes violent, more like the world of today's rock stars than modern classical artists. And one of the stars who rose - and spectacularly fell - in 18th century Italy is our focus here. Welcome to the world of Antonio Vivaldi.

Certain facts about Vivaldi are well known to most music lovers. He wrote The Four Seasons, he worked at a girls' orphanage in Venice, he was a priest. Some of Vivaldi's other works are standards in their genres; what chorister in the western world hasn't sung (or at least heard) the well-known Gloria? But as is often the case, there is so much more to the man, not least the fact that he wrote such a massive body of music. Some 500 concertos and more than fifty operas are known today, in addition to dozens of sacred works and countless other smaller scale vocal and instrumental works. And while the Venetian connection is well-known, the facts of the man's remarkable life, lived large on the European musical stage, are not well-known. Let's see what we can cover in this short article, because it's an amazing story.

For a composer remembered today largely on the basis of his instrumental concertos, it might seem odd that the thread which binds Vivaldi's life story together is actually opera. This is probably because Vivaldi's concertos, even those published in his lifetime, are almost impossible to date accurately. His opera performances, though, are better-documented, and enable us to piece together a bit more of his career.

Venice is my second home and under the current travel restrictions I miss it terribly. I took this picture on a visit there in 2011.

What is beyond doubt is that Vivaldi's life was colourful. Even his birth was dramatic. Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4 March 1678. He was thought to be in danger of dying when he was born so the midwife performed a provisional baptism on the infant, something which was permitted in cases of emergency. What the emergency was is not known for sure. It may be that the baby showed signs of the illness which plagued Vivaldi all through his life, now generally regarded as a form of asthma. But there may be another explanation. On the day Vivaldi was born, Venice was struck by an earthquake, and the midwife may have performed the baptism in a moment of panic. Nothing like making an unforgettable entrance into the world.

The boy received his official baptismal rites in church two months later. His father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, was a musician, and at the time was employed at St Mark's Basilica in Venice as a violinist. Vivaldi senior clearly played a vital role in the boy's musical education, and remained a colleague and copyist for his son long after Antonio had become famous.

Young Vivaldi was tonsured for the priesthood in 1693, when he was 15. It may be that his mother, Camilla Vivaldi, née Calicchio, dedicated her son to the priesthood in the panic surrounding his birth, but this is conjecture. He was ordained a priest nearly ten years later, in March 1703, a few weeks after his 25th birthday.

Concurrently with his training for the priesthood, Vivaldi was developing solid musical skills. His earliest known public appearance was as a casual violinist at St Mark's in 1696 and there can be no doubt, given his later reputation as a dazzling virtuoso on the violin, that he impressed from an early age.

Vivaldi's life a professional musician starts to be better documented from September 1703 with his appointment as violin teacher at one of Venice's four institutions for orphaned or abandoned children. The Ospedale della Pietà (literally, the "hospital of mercy") focused on the care of young orphaned or abandoned girls; boys in such institutions more readily left once they had grown up and were better able to make their way in the world. Girls, if they were not married off, found jobs in a household or placed in convents, often lived their entire adult lives in these institutions, taking up roles as teachers or carers of the younger girls.

These institutions - and especially the Pietà - gave these girls a first class musical education. The musical church services given by the girls were really thinly-disguised concerts and they became famous tourist attractions. The girls and younger women formed entire orchestras and choirs (even singing tenor and bass parts), and the older women led the ensembles with great skill and precision. (I've devoted an earlier post in this blog to Vivaldi's sacred music.)

Antonio Vivaldi

One of Vivaldi's pupils, known as Anna Maria, is mentioned in the titles of some of his works; she became famous as a violinist in her own right well beyond the bounds of the Pietà. A group of older women also formed an elite group known as the figlie privilegiate di coro, and they taught the younger girls, led performances, and even took in external students.

There can be no doubt that most of Vivaldi's orchestral works - concertos for various instruments and sinfonias for strings without soloists - were written for the girls and women of the Pietà to perform. Of Vivaldi's 500-odd surviving concertos, around 350 feature a single solo instrument and around 230 of these are for violin. The enormous range in style and difficulty bears witness to the fact that Vivaldi wrote works of varying degrees of difficulty for his students. Some of them are very straightforward; some are incredibly virtuosic.

The earliest collection of concertos Vivaldi published was the set called L'estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration). It was published as his Opus 3 in 1711 and contains works featuring one, two and four solo violins. It seems obvious to me that these would be ideal works for use at the Pietà. This concerto for one violin, for example - the third in the set - has a solo part of only moderate technical demands. [listen]

On the other hand the concertos for four solo violins are far more virtuosic. One can imagine the red priest (as Vivaldi was nicknamed) joining three of his most talented pupils in a performance of one of these dazzling pieces. This concerto, the tenth in L'estro armonico, became famous all over Europe. Even JS Bach knew it and arranged it as a concerto for four harpsichords. [listen]

The board of governors at the Pietà reviewed all salaried posts annually. Vivaldi's job was no exception and in February 1709, after five and half years' service, the board terminated his contract. We don't know the reasons but it's likely this was done simply as an economic measure and not because of any misconduct. Vivaldi's connection with the Pietà, though, was only just beginning. In 1711, the same year as the publication of L'estro armonico, he was offered his old job back as the Pietà's violin teacher; it seems the board of governors didn't realise what a treasure they had until it was gone.

The Church of St Mary of the Visitation is the Church of the Pietà in Venice. The present building dates from just after Vivaldi's lifetime and the facade dates from 1906.

In the meantime, Vivaldi's reputation as a composer had been steadily growing well beyond Venice. His Opus 1, a set of trio sonatas, was published in 1705 (here’s one of them) and publications like L'estro armonico became famous across Europe. Vivaldi was well on his way to becoming a real wheeler and dealer in his own music as a saleable commodity to the highest bigger. He was a musical equivalent (and contemporary) of Canaletto; a Vivaldi concerto was regarded as a quintessential Venetian souvenir in the same way as one of Canaletto's paintings was. This was the period when Venice was well past its days of military glory and more famous for being the glittering tart of Europe: an essential and titillating part of the Grand Tour, famous for excess, gambling, courtesans, and a Carnival season which lasted for six months. This was Vivaldi's world, the final slide before Napoleon would - within the century - bring the thousand year Republic to its end.

Canaletto: The Mouth of the Grand Canal, looking West towards the Carità (1729-30)

Vivaldi was not, at first, in charge of music at the Pietà; he was employed as maestro di violino, or the principal string teacher. The maestro di coro (or musical director) was Francesco Gasparini. Gasparini went on sick leave in April 1713 (and never returned) and it was from this time that Vivaldi added to his responsibilities the task of writing sacred music for the institution's services.

Plaque in Venice commemorating Vivaldi's work at the Pietà

1713 also saw the first known performance of a Vivaldi opera, not in Venice but on the mainland in Vicenza. Ottone in Villa is a spectacular, virtuoso work, the first of more than fifty operas Vivaldi is known to have composed between 1713 and his death 28 years later. [listen]

From June 1715 Vivaldi was awarded a choirmaster's bonus payment in addition to his contracted salary - more than two years after he had been covering for Gasparini - but less than a year later, in March 1716, he was voted out of a job yet again at the annual review by the Board of Governors. Again we have no idea why, but it seems that Vivaldi's increasing professional interests outside the Pietà were getting on the nerves of those who expected total devotion to the Institution from its fiery and famous violin master.

Even more bizarre is the fact that only two months later the Pietà offered him a more senior position, as maestro de' concerti (concert master). Later that year Vivaldi wrote a massive oratorio for the Pietà, the only one of his four known oratorios to have survived today. It sets the gory story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament Apocrypha. Juditha triumphans makes clear references to Venice's war against the Turks, making it as political as it was religious. In Venice, politics and religion were pretty much the same thing anyway. [listen]

In addition to music for some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, most of Vivaldi's sacred music is made up of large-scale psalm settings, for solo voices and/or choir with orchestra. There is also a large number of motets for solo voice and orchestra which often functioned as introductions to the psalm settings. Nearly all the solo parts are for female voices, and the early sacred music, written for the girls and women of the Pietà, indicates that there must have been some amazing singers in their ranks.

Vivaldi's setting of the psalm Nisi Dominus is a nine-movement work scored for alto voice and strings, and was performed at the Pietà in 1717. This is how it opens. [listen]

In addition to all this, Vivaldi's career as a composer of opera continued in parallel to his association with the Pietà. In the mid-17-teens he became the impresario of the S Angelo theatre in Venice and mounted his own works as well as those of other composers. In 1716, the same year as he wrote Juditha triumphans, Vivaldi wrote two operas, one for his own theatre and another for the theatre of S Moisè (also in Venice). The latter was La costanza trionfante, which was so popular it was revived and revised a number of times in the following years. [listen]

Title page of the first edition of Juditha Triumphans

Vivaldi's operatic style was regarded at the time as progressive and therefore aroused the condemnation of more conservative musicians. He generally took a cavalier approach to the text, focusing on the music and vocal display above all else. Yet it's interesting that on a commercial level, Vivaldi's operas were never as successful as those of many of his contemporaries. He had a reputation for writing dazzling theatre works, but his two most successful operas - La costanza trionfante and Farnace - only ever managed a few revivals each. Long-running seasons eluded him.

Between 1718 and 1720 Vivaldi's career was based in Mantua, where he held the post of maestro di cappella da camera (director of secular music) for the Governor of Mantua, Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt. His three years in Mantua saw him produce several new operas. In 1721 and 22 he spent time in Milan, and in 1722 he moved to Rome where the admirers of his dashing new operatic style included Pope Benedict XIII.

In 1723, even though he was not based in Venice, Vivaldi entered a contract with the Pietà. It seems that couldn't live with him and they couldn't live without him. Or at least, they couldn't live without his music. The contract required Vivaldi to provide two new concertos a month for the institution, regardless of where he was. When he was in Venice he was required to direct some rehearsals of his new works, but that was it. Under the terms of this contract alone Vivaldi provided the Pietà with 140 new concertos between 1723 and 1729.

While undertaking his travels as a touring opera impresario, Vivaldi continued to publish his concertos. After the Opus 3 collection in 1711, concerto collections appeared in print in 1716, 1719 and 1720. With an eye to quality as well as the market, Vivaldi chose to have his music published in Amsterdam where the publisher Etienne Roger used a more modern style of printing than was available in Venice at the time. By all reports Vivaldi drove hard bargains with his poor publisher, but there can be no doubt that the popularity of Vivaldi's concertos across Europe didn't do Roger any harm financially.

This was especially true in 1725 with the publication of another collection of twelve concertos, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Battle of Harmony and Invention). The first four concertos in this collection became instant best-sellers. They still are. [listen]

Anonymous portrait of a musician thought to be Antonio Vivaldi (1723)

In that same year, 1725, Vivaldi returned to Venice, and by now tongues were wagging about his private life. In the early 1720s, he had met the young mezzo soprano Anna Girò (this was her stage name; her real name was Anna Maddalena Tessieri). She had come to Venice around 1722 to study singing and at the time she would have only been in her early teens. In Venice she lived with her elder half-sister, Paolina. Before long she became associated with Vivaldi and over the years he not only wrote many operatic roles for her but travelled across Europe in her company. Paolina always accompanied Anna on her travels as a chaperone but for many years Anna and Vivaldi were regarded, as they say in the business, as "very close".

The notion was all the more scandalous to some because even though Vivaldi had ceased to say Mass many years before, he was still officially a priest. It seems, though, that he and Anna were indeed just good friends, colleagues and professional associates, and there is no firm evidence to support the idea that they were lovers.

Vivaldi wrote many roles for Anna Girò, who was regarded as a fine singing actress but with a light voice. One of these roles was the title role in Griselda, which premiered in Venice in 1735. Vivaldi clearly knew his protégé's strengths and weaknesses and had the librettist for Griselda alter the libretto to ensure Anna wasn't over-stretched in her part. [listen]

Vivaldi had more concerto collections published in the later 1720s, the last - his Opus 12 - appearing in 1729. After that date he decided not to publish his music, but rather to sell hand-written manuscripts as he could get a better price for these.

The final dozen or so years of Vivaldi's life were largely spent on the road, while maintaining Venice as his base. His travels in the early 1730s probably included Prague; two of his operas are known to have been performed there although Vivaldi's presence is not actually documented. Around 1735, the year Griselda was first performed in Venice, Vivaldi operas were also heard in Verona, Ancona, Reggio nell'Emilia and Ferrara, all under the composer's supervision.

And even at this stage the Pietà still wanted him. In August 1735 he was appointed - finally - to the director of music's position, although less than three years later his contract was terminated on account of his constant absences. Still, he continued to compose on a casual basis for the Pietà for another two years, until 1740. Among the sacred works written for the Pietà near the end of his life is a setting of the psalm In exitu Israel, composed for Easter Sunday 1739. [listen]

The end of Antonio Vivaldi's life was very sad indeed. Despite commissions from royalty and nobility across Europe in his later years, by the late 1730s it was clear that he was no longer the fashionable figure he once was, especially in Venice. A meeting with the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI is probably what made Vivaldi decide to move to Vienna in 1740. It's clear that he intended to stage operas there and that he assumed he would have the patronage of the Emperor to support him.

Emperor Charles VI

In October 1740 - only a couple of months after Vivaldi settled in Vienna - Charles VI died and the theatres were closed for a period of mourning. In one stroke Vivaldi lost his means of income and his hope of ongoing support. Rather than returning to Venice - was he too poor, or ill? - he remained in Vienna and managed to sell a few concertos. Less than a year later, on 28 July 1741, he died. He was financially destitute by the time of death and was given a simple funeral and commoner’s burial. Ironically it was in the same city exactly 50 years later that the same fate befell Mozart.

Vivaldi's funeral was held in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna; at the time, one of the Cathedral's choirboys was a lad from the village of Rohrau called Joseph Haydn.

Antonio Vivaldi's music was gradually rediscovered through the 20th century, first the concertos and chamber music, then the sacred music, and finally the operas. Works lost or previously unknown are still coming to light, including sacred works found in 2003 and 2005, and a lost opera was rediscovered in 2006. Even better is the fact that vast tracts of Vivaldi's huge output are available in good recordings, so his legacy is more available to the world now than it has ever been. But it's probably the concertos which best capture his spirit and artistry, and we'll end this post with a fiery concerto Vivaldi wrote for the Dresden court orchestra. It's music which to me seems to sum up the man beautifully. [listen]

Ghezzi: Caricature of Vivaldi (1723)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2011.

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