The names that dominate Baroque music (readers will know that this is one of my favorite genres) are all male: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Phillipp Telemann, etc. But not every composer in that genre or era (1600-1750) was male. Not by a long shot. This is post is part a short series that will introduce baroque music composers, both male and female.
When a guy like Johann Sebastian Bach transcribes your concerti into keyboard compositions because he admires their form, you ought to know that you have accomplished something. Bach’s admiration is not the only measure that we have of Antonio Vivaldi’s musical greatness, but it is a pretty good indicator.
He was known as the “red priest” because of his red hair and his preference for crimson vestments. Anyone serious about music today knows the work of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) because of his wide mastery of musical forms, his creativity and innovation, and the sheer energy that his music imparts.
Vivaldi’s first music teacher was likely his father, a well-known violinist in Venice where Antonio was born in 1687. Vivaldi, who was to become one of the most celebrated violinist of his day, made his first public appearance with the instrument in 1696. Despite his talent, he trained for the priesthood and was eventually ordained. For some reason — possibly an asthma condition that historians have speculated about — he left the active priesthood after only about a year.
He became what was known then as a “secular priest,” and joined Ospedale della Pietà, a home for orphaned and abandoned girls, one of several such institutions in Venice. He was the violin master there, and his teaching duties offered him the perfect opportunity to explore musical forms, teach his young and talented students, and create his many compositions.
Vivaldi held several positions with the Pietà: violin master, director of instrumental music), and paid external supplier of compositions. He stayed with the school for most of his career, but it was never an easy relationship. Vivaldi found himself constantly in disputes with the school’s directors, and he never had more than a one-year contract, which was continually under review.
Despite those disputes, the school gained an enviable reputation for the music that its students produced, and that reputation was due mainly to Vivaldi. He published his first compositions in 1705, two years after he joined the school, and for the rest of his life he turned out compositions at an almost unbelievable rate.
While Vivaldi remained based in Venice, he traveled widely through Europe and many friends and patrons to whom he supplied music. He wrote sonatas, solos, choral works, concertos, and operas that found adherents and audiences everywhere. He wrote more than 500 concertos, nearly 50 operas, and at least 90 sonatas for individual instruments. He is credited with developing and popularizing the standard concerto form of three movements: fast – slow – fast.
After his death in 1741, interest in Vivaldi’s music declined (as did that of many other Baroque composers), and in the 19th century it was rarely practiced or played. Much of it was thought to be lost. The 20th century, musicians took a renewed interest in Vivaldi, and major discoveries of his musical manuscripts were made in the 1920s and 1930s. Those discoveries continue even into the 21st century.
Today, Vivaldi is honored along with Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and George Frederick Handel as among the giants of Baroque music, and his compositions are a part of the standard repertory of many musical organizations.
One of Vivaldi’s most famous works is his Four Seasons concerti, which you can hear at this link.
Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)
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