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The contemporary study of music is primarily focused on the works of famous composers of the past, who provided foundations for the development of many genres and theories. Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was among the principal composers of the 18th century, and his works are still widely played and studied today. He is most famous for his violin concertos, notably the Four Seasons, which made him a clear example of baroque violin music (Lockey 265). Studying the life and work of Vivaldi can help to place this and other famous concertos in context and to learn more about the influences that affected Vivaldi’s music throughout his life.
Vivaldi was born in Venice, Italy, on March 4, 1678, into the family of Giovanni Battista Vivaldi. Antonio Vivaldi’s father worked as a barber for the vast part of his younger life while also helping his father to run the family-owned bakery (National Arts Centre 2). It is essential to note that Vivaldi’s father had a passion for violin music, and even though he never became as famous as his son, he played in the orchestra of St. Mark’s Basilica until his late years (National Arts Centre 2). This allows suggesting that Antonio inherited his talent for music from his father and that he learned violin early in life to play with Giovanni.
However, a career in music was never an obvious choice for Vivaldi. According to the National Arts Centre, Antonio was the eldest of six children in the family and had three sisters and two brothers, meaning that his parents insisted on him becoming a priest (2). At that time, the priesthood was a popular choice among children from large low-income families because it provided a stable income that could support the family. While Vivaldi did not object to his parents’ decision, he could not join the monastery like other children because of health problems. He entered the priesthood at the age of 15 and received two local parishes (National Arts Centre 2).
Interestingly, Vivaldi remained in the priesthood for the rest of his life, although he stopped saying mass shortly after his ordination (National Arts Centre 3). Combining priesthood with music was not a popular occurrence at the time, which contributed to the public’s interest in Vivaldi and his music.
Between 1703 and 1740, Vivaldi worked as a maestro at the Ospedale Della Pietà, which was a large girl’s orphanage. As mentioned by Berndt, the work there was rewarding for Vivaldi because it enabled him to experiment with different instruments and combinations and thus compose music without significant constraints (1). Besides working as a music teacher, he also sought to promote his work in music and took many opportunities to do so.
To build a name in the music industry, he dedicated many of his works to famous members of the nobility, which contributed to his popularity over the years. For example, in 1715, he dedicated some of his opera works to Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany and praised Estienne Roger, a Dutch publisher, hoping to get his work published in Northern Europe (National Arts Centre 5). Vivaldi’s opportunistic character was among the things that granted him fame and helped to improve his financial position by attracting private customers.
Nevertheless, Vivaldi’s career took an unfortunate turn in 1736 due to a conflict with the Cardinal of Ferrara, Tomas Ruffo. Ruffo was critical of Vivaldi for involving in theatre and opera work and denied permission for him to stage operas in Ferrara (National Arts Centre 6).
This had a negative influence on Vivaldi’s financial situation and the success of his future operas. By 1738, his operas were considered “unfashionable” by the members of the Italian nobility, and Vivaldi was forced to move to Vienna, Austria, where found favor with King Charles VI for a short time (National Arts Centre 7). However, after the King died, no other members of the royalty expressed interest in Vivaldi’s music, and he died in poverty.
Throughout his life, Vivaldi composed 94 operas and over 500 concertos (Berndt 1; National Arts Centre 15). His works had a strong influence on the music industry both during his life and after death. Many other famous composers used Vivaldi’s compositions as models for their own work, including Johann Sebastian Bach (National Arts Centre 15). Vivaldi’s compositions can be seen as an example of baroque music, and it reflects the trends that influenced the music industry of the time.
For instance, Vivaldi’s interest in opera was tied mainly to its growing popularity in Europe. Since the first opera house was opened in Venice, Italy in 1673, it is clear that the emergence of this genre has influenced Vivaldi’s work (National Arts Centre 11). The theme of nature was also prominent in baroque music, with many composers trying to mimic the sounds of nature in their works (Lockey 266). This trend is also reflected in Vivaldi’s compositions and was possibly a factor that facilitated the positive reception of Four Seasons.
Overall, the exploration of Antonio Vivaldi’s story makes it clear that music was the central part of his life. While it was rewarding for him to teach and compose music, his efforts brought him both happiness and misery, depending on their success. The popularity of Vivaldi throughout his life and in later centuries is justified not merely by the beauty of his music but also by its relation to the baroque tradition. The fact that Vivaldi’s works can be linked to essential trends affecting music at the time makes it more interesting to study his music and allows listeners to understand it better.
Berndt, Suzie. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). n.d. Web.
Lockey, Nicholas. “Antonio Vivaldi and the Sublime Seasons: Sonority and Texture as Expressive Devices in Early Eighteenth-Century Italian Music.” Eighteenth-Century Music, vol. 14, no. 2, 2017, pp. 265-283.
National Arts Centre. The Story of Antonio Vivaldi: His Life, His Times and His Music. n.d. Web.