Behind the Music : Vivaldi

APO's Ben Gemmell looks at the life of the composer of some of the most performed pieces in the modern orchestral repertoire.

The music of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi resonates with poetry, harmony and emotion in performances today just as it first did nearly 300 years ago.

It hasn’t always been so. The hundreds of pieces he wrote, which included concertos, operas, sonatas and sacred works, fell into obscurity after the end of the Baroque period. His compositions were performed rarely throughout the subsequent Classical and Romantic periods. It wasn’t until after WWII that his works resurfaced and the orchestral world would start to appreciate Vivaldi – and especially his best-known piece, The Four Seasons – again.

Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Venice, then the capital of the Venetian Republic. His father Giovanni Battista Vivaldi was a professional violinist who taught his son music from a young age and the pair toured as a musical duo.

His father was a founding member of Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, an association of musicians. It was the president of this group, Baroque composer Giovanni Legrenzi, who music historians believe first introduced Vivaldi to composition.

In 1703 and after training as a priest, Vivaldi started teaching at Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian orphanage and music school. There, as maestro di violino (master of violin) he taught a variety of instruments and composed pieces for his students to perform.

Eventually rising to the position of maestro de' concerti (music director), Vivaldi would remain attached to the institution for the next thirty years, despite his burgeoning career. It was there, between 1716 and 1717, where he wrote The Four Seasons.

At the time, the concept of representing the different seasons musically – in a piece which had elements of birdsong, tempestuous weather, raucous summer parties and warm winter fires – was revolutionary. The piece, which was first published in 1725 is also one of the earliest examples of ‘programme music’, meaning a work with a narrative.

At the peak of his career, Vivaldi had works commissioned by many in the European nobility. He also became an influential figure among the composers of his period – Johann Sebastian Bach cited Vivaldi as helping inspire his St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion.

But the years leading up to his death were rife with financial problems and declining health.

When Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died in 1740, it left Vivaldi, who had been appointed court composer, stranded. With no royal patron and little income, he died impoverished a year later, at age 63.

By the end of the 20th century, The Four Seasons had become a money-spinner for many others. A 1989 album by English violinist Nigel Kennedy sold more than two million copies while parts of the piece would become a favourite for advertising agencies wanting to add a touch of Baroque prestige to their commercials.

Its ubiquity made The Four Seasons for many, an entry point into the world of orchestral music.

Edited by Russell Baillie

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