For many who at least known his name, Antonio Vivaldi is the composer of a handful of works heard on the radio or a drive-time playlist of 100 Famous Classical Pieces, featured in TV (and internet) commercials, movies and concerts by students, amateurs, and professionals. Pieces such as The Four Seasons (featured prominently in Alan Alda’s 1981 film, The Four Seasons), the Gloria in D RV 589 and the Violin Concerto in A Minor Op. 3 No. 6 (familiar to most students of the Suzuki Violin Method) are staples of the repertoire and frequently rank high on lists of popular classical music. As for the composer, the most widely known aspects of his biography have been that he had red hair, was a priest (nicknamed “The Red Priest” in his own lifetime), and that he taught at and wrote music (a lot of music) for an all-girl orphanage in Venice and directed the girls during their concerts.
To Vivaldi scholars, this image is partly misconstrued and too limited to do justice to his historical importance and artistic legacy. For one thing, the popular perception of Vivaldi’s employment history is hampered by insufficient awareness of the details of the function and operations of the major Venetian welfare centers (ospedali grandi). It is true that Vivaldi was, at various times in his career, contracted by the governors of the Ospedale della Pietà as needed for musical services ranging from teaching violin and viol to providing new musical compositions and leading rehearsals when possible (in addition to performing other, non-contract duties for which he occasionally received a gratuity, such as when he acted as unofficial supervisor of choral music, the maestro di coro). However, as the Venetian-based scholar Micky White pointed out when investigating the surviving records of the wards of the Pietà (which cared for foundlings), the institution accepted boys and girls who were often raised by foster families until they were of suitable age to be apprenticed (boys) or returned – usually permanently – to the institution (girls). Records indicate that the female musicians who were performing Vivaldi’s music were mostly adult women and the music ensemble was generally directed by skilled members of the ensemble. Thus, the image of Vivaldi as the equivalent of an orchestra and choir teacher at a young girls’ boarding school is factually inaccurate and historically anachronistic.
The popular image of Vivaldi’s career also tends not to accommodate his extensive experience as an operatic impresario (hiring, amongst others, Canaletto’s father to design and paint stage sets), his employment as director of secular music for Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt (in residence in Mantua), as a violin instructor for traveling nobles and aspiring professional violinists, as a composer accepting commissions for vocal and instrumental works on a free-lance basis, as a violinist who often performed with his father, or as a tutor and champion to the singer Anna Girò. These activities had an equal or even greater impact on musical life in European orbits than his work at the Pietà.
More importantly, Vivaldi enthusiasts know that Vivaldi’s large corpus of works yields many delights and surprises for the inquisitive explorer. For one thing, the recent explosion of interest in Vivaldi’s operas has unveiled a world of great emotional vitality, instrumental colors, and fertile musical imagination, with moods spanning from the utmost delicacy to impassioned rage, and settings as far apart as China (Il Teuzzone, 1719) and the Aztec empire (Motezuma, 1733). Fans of the film Shine (1996, dir. Scott Hicks) may be familiar with the serene opening movement of the motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera RV 630, but there are also the sharply-etched contrasts in the second movement of the recently discovered Dixit Dominus RV 807, and the charming earnestness of the first movement of the Salve Regina RV 617. Vivaldi is also the composer of numerous chamber cantatas and serenatas (allegorical works for voices and instruments, often performed outdoors to commemorate special events), including one serenata – La Senna Festeggiante RV 693 – where the personified river Seine sings.
Surprises also exist in the instrumental works. Take, for example, the Violin Concerto in D RV 210 (Op. 8 No. 11), which is one of nearly 100 pieces where Vivaldi uses the concept of fugal imitation (more often associated, in music history books, with Bach and Handel rather than their Italian contemporaries). Other works include theme and variation form, traces of French stylistic elements, special effects (such as re-tuning the strings of the violin), written-out cadenzas, and surprising harmonic twists. In writing for larger ensembles, Vivaldi often treated each instrumental part as a flexible resource, changing the relationship between parts (and the number of independent parts) from one musical phrase to another, thereby making smaller scale formal units more sharply distinguished and more readily intelligible (see, for instance, the finale of the Violin Concerto in G RV 314).
The popular image of Vivaldi formed in the mid-20th century has proven remarkably tenacious, despite significant research that has corrected or re-framed important aspects of his story. Perhaps the sheer quantity of his output has impeded greater familiarity with his artistic breadth. Does the model of a music educator for younger girls resonate more strongly for many of today’s audiences than the actual historical relationship between Vivaldi and the musicians at the Pietà? Is it easier to remember (and market) a simplistic, constructed image of Vivaldi rather than the messy, incomplete picture transmitted in the historical record?
Featured Image credit: anonymous portrait assumed to be of Vivaldi. International Museum and Library of Music of Bologna, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.