The mystery began to unfold in 1926. In northern Italy, a monastery in need of money dug into its archives and decided to sell several crates of antique manuscripts. Most of the papers were compositions by a virtually unknown Italian. In nearby Turin, a professor of music examined the old volumes to estimate their value. He spent years tracking down their many missing pages. Soon, he realized, he had discovered a “new” genius: Antonio Vivaldi, a man almost lost from history books, a creator of dozens of operas and more than five hundred concertos! Now decades have past since Vivaldi’s rescue from obscurity. He has become second only to Handel and Bach as the most popular composer from the Baroque period.
His modern rediscovery is not Vivaldi’s first brush with fame. His work attracted admirers well outside Italy from its first publication, around 1703. Soon after came a set of 12 concertos, which Bach liked so much that he transcribed several for keyboard. The Suzuki violin pieces in Book 4 also come from this set. While Vivaldi met equal success in opera and church music, he’s best loved today for instrumental pieces like these. Earlier in the Baroque, Arcangelo Corelli featured groups of soloists in his concertos. Vivaldi reshaped the concerto into the form we know today: an extended conversation between one soloist and an orchestra. Just like a real conversation, the musical “talk” is sometimes friendly, and sometimes competitive.
Vivaldi wrote more than half of his concertos for his own instrument, the violin. He also wrote often for cello, for woodwinds, and for unusual combinations of soloists: 2 mandolins, or 4 violins and cello, or lute and 2 violins. The concertos’ movements usually follow a fast-slow-fast format. Solo passages alternate with a ritornello—a strong, memorable refrain played by the whole orchestra. Typical of the Baroque style, constant motion and clear order mark Vivaldi’s often joyous music.
Sheer inventiveness may explain how Vivaldi could write more than 500 concertos, but his job best explains why. For most of his life, he worked at a Venice orphanage for girls, teaching violin and directing music. The renown student orchestra at the orphanage, the Ospedale della Pieta, played his compositions. Even when he took a few years away—to stage his operas outside Venice, or to accept royal appointments—Vivaldi still mailed back two concertos each month. The Ospedale paid him one ducat per concerto.
People nicknamed Vivaldi “Il Prete Rosso” (The Red Priest), but his red hair far outlasted his career as a priest. He stopped leading church services within a year of his ordination and began teaching the same year. Health problems, he said, kept him from celebrating Mass. It’s possible, in fact, that he trained for the priesthood just because it offered a free education for a boy from a poor family. Music lessons, at least, were cheap: Vivaldi’s father was a professional violinist.
After the Baroque period, changing tastes doomed his music to obscurity. Even today, his reputation suffers from the less imaginative pieces he wrote for his students. But he could also create masterpieces, among the greatest of which is The Four Seasons. Beautiful in themselves, these four violin concertos show Vivaldi’s skill at “programmatic” works—music that colorfully evokes specific scenes. Birds sing, a dog barks, and thunder peals in the “Spring” concerto. Drunkards doze through Adagio movement of “Autumn.” Winds blow, teeth chatter, and walkers slip to the ground in “Winter.” Listeners of Vivaldi’s day loved matching the music with descriptive words that the composer supplied. People still do today.
© Andrew Campbell