If ever there was a composer who met the definition of a virtuoso it was Antonio Lucio Vivaldi. His compositions are no doubt timeless musical works, and his technical skill with a violin was practically peerless.
Born in Venice, Italy, in 1678, Vivaldi was one of nine children. His father Giovanni was a professional violinist who recognized his son’s talent for music.
According to some estimates, the young Vivaldi wasn’t ten years old when he began studying the violin under his father’s tutelage, touring with Giovanni as an accompanist in performances around Italy. Once he had mastered the instrument—which didn’t take him long—Vivaldi began studying composition under the guidance of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia, an association of musicians cofounded by his father.
To be sure, Vivaldi excelled.
By the age of 13, he had completed one of his earliest works, a liturgical piece entitled Laetatus sum (1691). Even in the face of constant health problems (what historians believe to have been asthma), Vivaldi continued to compose, play violin, and study advanced playing techniques for the next two years.
Those who watched him perform marveled at his rapid yet emotionally evocative playing style. After attending one of Vivaldi’s concerts, German architect Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach noted how he “played a solo accompaniment excellently, and at the conclusion . . . added a [cadenza] which absolutely astounded me, for it is hardly possible that anyone has ever played, or ever will play, in such fashion.”
A new calling?
Vivaldi seemed poised for great success; then, for reasons unclear to this day, he made a surprisingly dramatic decision. In 1693, the rising virtuoso suddenly shifted his focus to religion, entering the seminary to become a Catholic priest.
But officially ordained in 1703, Vivaldi’s continually poor health prevented him from leading Mass. As a result, he returned to music, accepting a position as a violin instructor, or maestro di violino, at a church-run orphanage in Venice.
Here, in his spare time, he went on to write a series of memorable string compositions.
Vivaldi’s duties were demanding. In addition to teaching the violin and writing music, he was in charge of the orphanage’s well-respected orchestra, and he took it upon himself to compose many of the works that it performed.
Over a six-year period, he had written 60 sacred vocal compositions, cantatas, and concertos. Furthermore, his Opuses 1 and 2 saw publication in 1705 and 1709 respectively, followed in 1711 and 1714 by Opuses 3 and 4—all works dominated by stringed instruments.
Though best known for his string compositions, Vivaldi also wrote a fair number of operas. The majority of them, he composed as side jobs for various Italian theaters.
Between 1713 and 1715, he completed and produced three operas: Ottone in villa (1713), Orlando finto pazzo (1714), and perhaps his most successful production Nerone fatto Cesare (1715).
The following year he wrote and produced two more—La costanza trionfante degl’amori e de gl’odii and L’incoronazione di Dario (January 1717)—the former of which was so popular that it was performed for decades throughout Italy.
Although he devoted much of his efforts to writing and producing operas, his greatest work brought him back to his first love, the violin. In 1723, Vivaldi put the finishing touches on a piece he called the Four Seasons.
Believed to have been inspired by his trips into the countryside of Mantua, this collection of four violin concertos was groundbreaking conceptually as well as musically. Indeed, it is among the earliest known examples of what would eventually be labeled program music.
Vivaldi devoted one concerto to every season, and, in doing so, he managed to recreate a highly sentient depiction of the visual, tactile, and auditory elements associated with each.
In Summer, for instance, he used not just tone but cadence and playing technique to simulate babbling brooks, songbirds, and thunderstorms. Likewise, the brisk runs so prominent in Winter instantly call to mind a heavy snowfall driven by a biting wind.
Few composers before or since have been capable of such musical feats. Ironically, this professional and artistic achievement marked the peak of Vivaldi’s career.
In the coming years, he continued to write operas and compositions for strings. But gradually, interest in his work waned, what little money he had dried up, and his lifelong health problems progressively worsened.
In a last-ditch effort to jump-start his career, the once renowned maestro and virtuoso traveled to Vienna in 1741 in pursuit of patronage opportunities. He found none.
On the night of July 27 that same year, he died alone in a Viennese boardinghouse and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He was 63.