Antonio Vivaldi

1678–1741

Baroque

Vivaldi was from Venice, in Italy – one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Surrounded by its canals and bridges and glorious buildings, his musical imagination grew.

Vivaldi trained as a priest to begin with. People called him ‘The Red Priest’ (‘Il prete rosso’) because he had red hair. The nickname stuck, even though he didn’t end up working as a priest at all – he could only think about music! So he concentrated on that instead.

In 1703 the ‘Red Priest’, already a brilliant violinist, got a job at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. This was a home for orphaned and abandoned children, and it gave special training in music to the girls. People travelled for miles to hear its famous orchestra and choir. Vivaldi composed much of his music for its pupils and teachers to perform.

He wrote over 40 operas, over 500 concertos for many different solo instruments (violin, recorder, flute, lute, cello, bassoon, etc.), sacred music including his Gloria, and much more. He was busy! He did borrow his own music sometimes: occasionally he even took a whole piece and plonked it into a new one, just changing the instruments! The recycling didn’t matter: if it was nice music, people enjoyed it all over again. Composers did it a lot in those days.

He also wrote expressive and descriptive music. His world-famous set of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, paints musical scenes with inventive sounds: if you close your eyes, you can see all sorts of things as you listen. It is an early example of ‘programme music’, which only got going properly 100 years later in the Romantic era!

Vivaldi was rather boastful. He was obviously good at what he did and had a lot of money, but it’s risky to be a know-it-all: fashions changed and Venice decided he was yesterday’s news. He tried moving to Vienna but didn’t do very well. He died a poor man and was buried in a simple grave. People forgot about him and his music was lost. It took nearly 200 years for it to be found again!

Antonio Vivaldi, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Pick a bit of Vivaldi below…

The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in E major, Op. 8 No. 1, RV 269, ‘La estate’ (‘Summer’): III. Presto

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons are really famous violin concertos. There are four of them, one for each season in the year. Here is the last movement of ‘Summer’, where the heat brings thunderstorms!

Performers: Katarina Andreasson, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Björn Gäfvert

Taken from Naxos 8.570212

Gloria in D major, RV 589: I. Gloria in excelsis Deo

This is the beginning of Vivaldi’s famous Gloria for choir and orchestra. The string instruments and trumpets give a lively introduction for the whole choir to sing ‘Gloria, gloria’. It is a favourite of choirs!

Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.554056

Concerto for two cellos in G minor, RV 531: II. Largo

Some of Vivaldi’s concertos were for more than one solo instrument. Here there are two cellos playing in this slow movement: can you hear them? The first one begins with a sad melody, and at 0.04 the second cello copies it.

Performers: Raphael Wallfisch, cello; Keith Hurvey, cello; City of London Sinfonia; Nicholas Kraemer

Taken from Naxos 8.550908

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Vivaldi’s best-known work, The Four Seasons, consists of what?

a. Symphonies
b. Violin concertos
c. Operas

 Vivaldi composed and taught where?

a. Palazzo ducale
b. Ospedale della Pietà
c. Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco

 Why was Vivaldi called ‘The Red Priest’?

a. He wore a red cloak
b. He was angry
c. He had red hair

 What happened to most of Vivaldi’s music after he died?

a. It was burnt
b. It was lost
c. It became unpopular

 Which of these instruments did Vivaldi play?

a. Violin
b. Bassoon
c. Flute


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Vivaldi was a fine violinist, which is why he wrote so many violin concertos – over 230.
  2. After he died, nearly everything Vivaldi wrote was lost. People almost forgot him, until his music was rediscovered in the 1920s and his rise to fame began.
  3. Vivaldi ended up with the nickname ‘The Red Priest’ because he had trained as a priest and he had red hair.
  4. Vivaldi suffered from a kind of asthma.
  5. Just as Vivaldi wrote music for girls at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, George Friedrich Handel provided music and support for the Foundling Hospital in London at a similar time.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Concertos


The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in E major, Op. 8 No. 1, RV 269, ‘La Primavera’ (‘Spring’)

Vivaldi’s four violin concertos called The Four Seasons were written around 1721 and their fame today is unbelievable. They are heard in the concert hall, on countless recordings, on answerphones, in films, and in shopping centres all over the world. Vivaldi wrote instrumental pieces that were descriptive, and violin pieces that were ‘virtuosic’ (which means they had really difficult bits to play that sound impressive). Both these things were unusual in the time he lived, and both are found in The Four Seasons. It was probably the countryside around Mantua, where he was living, that made him think up all the amazing bits of musical description. He even put a poem – a ‘sonnet’ – with each one when it was published: we don’t know who wrote the sonnets (perhaps it was Vivaldi himself), and we don’t know whether the sonnets came before the music or the music came before the sonnets! But in the end, they went together. In the score (the pages with the music written down) Vivaldi even added bits and pieces of text to show what was being described – such as ‘the barking dog’. So The Four Seasons are the first examples of ‘programme music’ – music that describes something, such as a story or, as here, a poem. So this first one is about ‘Spring’. Listen out for these things being described: in track 1, birds at 0.31 and a storm at 1.42; in track 2, a barking dog on the viola – two notes heard first right at the beginning and then many other times, against the slow violin tune; in track 3, bagpipes at 0.16.

Performers: Katarina Andreasson, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Björn Gäfvert

Taken from Naxos 8.570212


The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 8 No. 2, RV 315, ‘L’estate’ (‘Summer’)

Vivaldi wasn’t thinking of a lovely, lazy, comfortable summer. His summer is harsh: hot sun, hard earth, the fear of lightning and thunder, and the buzzing of gnats. When you realise that, the music suddenly sounds realistic! So the first movement (track 1) begins as if it is tired. The sun has dried everything out. It is too hot, and a shepherd is frightened of thunderstorms. There are ‘soft breezes’ (2.44) but the threat of violent thunderstorms (2.59). Can you hear the gnats and the flies buzzing underneath the solo violin in track 2? The shepherd is tired, and still scared of the storms to come. In track 3, the thunderstorms arrive!

Performers: Katarina Andreasson, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Björn Gäfvert

Taken from Naxos 8.570212


The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in F major, Op. 8 No. 3, RV 293, ‘L’autunno’ (‘Autumn’)

‘Autumn’ is more relaxed than ‘Summer’. In track 1, the music describes peasant songs and dancing to celebrate the harvest. In track 2, having drunk too much, they’ve all fallen asleep! Hunters come striding in at dawn (track 3). Listen to the solo violin’s ‘double-stopping’ at 0.42–0.57 – playing two notes at once. The beast runs away from the hunters at 1.52, but they follow it (2.07)… it is wounded and dies (2.58).

Performers: Katarina Andreasson, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Björn Gäfvert

Taken from Naxos 8.570212


The Four Seasons: Violin Concerto in F minor, Op. 8 No. 4, RV 297, ‘L’inverno’ (‘Winter’)

‘Winter’ is icy cold… This concerto begins with an amazing description of the ice and the wind. At 1.15, you can hear how it matches the poem: ‘To run, stamping one’s feet every moment, our teeth chattering in the extreme cold’. It is warmer in the ‘Largo’ (track 2) – inside, by the fire. There is a brilliant mixture of three ingredients: 1. Pizzicato (plucking) in the violins; 2. A beautiful, slow, solo violin melody; 3. Long held notes underneath from the cellos and organ. Can you hear them all? Track 3 takes us outside again: just a single held note from the organ makes it sound cold, as the solo violin ventures out. It’s slippery… people are sliding around. Eventually they fall over and try to get across the ice before it cracks open completely. Vivaldi didn’t even need percussion to describe all this drama!

Performers: Katarina Andreasson, violin; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Björn Gäfvert

Taken from Naxos 8.570212


Concerto for Strings in G major, RV 151, ‘Concerto alla rustica’

Unlike The Four Seasons, this concerto doesn’t describe anything. It is simply music. You can imagine whatever you like! It doesn’t have a solo instrument either: it is for string instruments and harpsichord (with two oboes in the last movement). As usual in Vivaldi’s concertos, there are three movements: the first is fast, the second is slow, and the third is fast again. Can you hear the tinkly harpsichord underneath? Listen in track 2 at 1.11 to the end of the track, and you might be able to hear its buzzy notes. Track 3 is typical of the cheerful, dancelike music that Vivaldi was so good at!

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550056


Oboe Concerto in D minor, RV 454

Vivaldi wrote around 20 oboe concertos. The oboe, a woodwind instrument that speaks with a lovely clear sound over the top of an orchestra, can be heard easily as a solo instrument. It comes in at 0.31 in track 1, after the orchestra has played an introduction. For slow music with a lovely, long melody, the oboe is perfect. It seems to sing with soul – with sadness that you can feel. Listen to track 2. In the third, fast, movement, it is very able to run around with faster notes, with the orchestra bouncing like a trampoline underneath! Vivaldi sometimes borrowed music from his own compositions – he had already written a version of this concerto for violin. But it didn’t matter – if the music was good, it could be enjoyed all over again with a different combination of instruments.

Performers: Stefan Schilli, oboe; Geoffrey Thomas, harpsichord; Judit Kiss-Domonkos, cello; Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest

Taken from Naxos 8.550859


Cello Concerto in A minor, RV 418

Vivaldi wrote 28 cello concertos – that’s more than anyone else has ever done (so far!). He didn’t play the cello himself, but at the Ospedale della Pietà, where he worked, there were many cellists – both teachers and pupils. So Vivaldi provided music for them to perform. The cello is a low-sounding instrument, and in Vivaldi’s time it usually provided support in the bass-line (playing the ‘continuo’ part) rather than standing out as a solo instrument. None of Vivaldi’s cello concertos was published when he was alive – perhaps because nobody believed in the cello as a solo instrument. Vivaldi knew better! He was groundbreaking in so many ways. You can clearly hear the cello here, in all three movements, and that is partly because of how he wrote the music – he makes sure that its sound comes through all the other notes from the orchestra. It first comes in 0.26 in track 1, with an interesting melody.

Performers: Raphael Wallfisch, cello; City of London Sinfonia; Nicholas Kraemer

Taken from Naxos 8.550909


Flute Concerto in D major, Op. 10 No. 3, RV 428, ‘Il Gardellino’

A ‘gardellino’ is a goldfinch – a kind of bird. Vivaldi enjoyed describing things in his music – and the flute is the ideal instrument to depict birdsong. You can hear the goldfinch sing first at 0.27 in track 1 – the flute is completely on its own for about 30 seconds. You can imagine the bird in a tree! The whole concerto seems to smell of the countryside. The slow middle movement (track 2) has a gently surging rhythm that rises and falls, called a ‘siciliano’ – it is often found in Baroque music. Here, it could be describing a shepherd wandering happily in the fields.

Performers: Béla Drahos, flute; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.553101


Concerto for two trumpets in C major, RV 537

Some of Vivaldi’s concertos were for more than one ‘solo’ instrument: here there are two trumpets in the spotlight, with a small orchestra supporting them. Just as trumpets are bold instruments, the music begins boldly, with a kind of clear statement. There is no introduction: the trumpets speak right from the start. The ‘Allegro’ follows a pattern called a ‘ritornello’: Vivaldi used this a lot. It means that there is music for the orchestra or ensemble (called the ‘ritornello’) and music for the soloist or soloists, and the two keep swapping. There are no trumpets in the short slow movement (track 2): it’s just for strings. Then track 3 is another ‘Allegro’, with the bright trumpets announcing themselves again.

Performers: Michael Meeks, trumpet; Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpet; City of London Sinfonia; Nicholas Kraemer

Taken from Naxos 8.554040


Bassoon Concerto in C major, RV 476

The bassoon is at the bottom of the orchestra: it bobs along and although our ears can’t often pick it out, it adds loads of personality to the group. Vivaldi wrote 39 bassoon concertos! This was (and still is) extraordinary: bassoon concertos did exist at this time, but it wasn’t very often that the instrument was given a chance to shine. The girls at the Pietà had a wide variety of instruments to choose from, and those who played the bassoon were given all these delightful concertos to play. So sit back and enjoy the lovely, soft, round sound of this friendly instrument! There is a bright ‘ritornello’ to begin track 1 (that means the whole orchestra plays, without the solo bassoon). Then the soloist comes in at 0.21. Ritornello and soloist then keep alternating. Ritornello was a form – a pattern for music – that Vivaldi used a lot. Notice how there are few instruments playing with the bassoon, so nothing competes with its sound and we can hear it really clearly. Listen to its soft song in the slow ‘Largo’ (track 2), where you can hear some gorgeous low notes, as if it is rooting itself into the earth. It couldn’t be more different in the ‘Allegro molto’, where it seems like a real chatterbox when it comes in at 0.19!

Performers: Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.555937


Concerto for two mandolins [played on guitars] in G major, RV 532

This concerto is unusual because it was written for two mandolins: plucked string instruments. Today, the mandolin parts are often played on guitars – as they are here. They answer each other and play together like two friends, which can be heard most clearly in track 2.

Performers: Zoltán Tokos, guitar; Béla Sztankovits, guitar; Budapest Strings

Taken from Naxos 8.553028


Concerto in F major for treble recorder, RV 442

This concerto is for treble recorder. That is the one often played in schools – have you played it? The orchestra, even though small, has to be quiet for it to be heard clearly, as it isn’t a very loud sound: you can hear it at 0.31 in track 1. Although it has a bright sort of sound, it manages to sound quite dark and sad for the slow movement (track 2).

Performers: László Czidra, recorder; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia

Taken from Naxos 8.553829

Choral and Vocal


Gloria in D major, RV 589

Vivaldi’s well-known Gloria is his most celebrated choral work. He actually wrote at least three settings of same words, but this is his most famous version, which he composed in around 1715. ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ is a hymn: it begins with words that the angels said when Christ was born. The whole thing celebrates his birth. Vivaldi’s Gloria is popular with choirs, partly because it is joyful and partly because it is not difficult to sing! Vivaldi was a violinist, and he gives most of the busy music to the instruments rather than to the choir. The four parts of the choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) have quite simple music and often sing the same rhythm at the same time. There are some lovely movements for solo singers, such as the ‘Laudamus te’ – a duet for two sopranos. Although it is famous now, this work lay lost and unknown for nearly 200 years. It’s amazing what can be discovered!

Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550767


Stabat Mater, RV 621

The text of the Stabat Mater is a hymn all about the grief of Mary, mother of Jesus, after she sees her son die on the cross. Vivaldi set the words using just string instruments and a contralto solo singer. The music is full of sadness, all the way through. It is in a minor key, and there are not big explosions of sound – just a feeling of sighing and crying. Listen from 2.00 in track 1, for example, to how the voice has a long, slow line that goes down in pitch as Mary seems crushed by what has happened. She sings ‘dum pendebat Filius’ – ‘where hung her son’. It is a beautiful, sorrowful piece of music.

Performers: Marion Newman, contralto; Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.557852

Opera


Griselda, RV 718

There are more than 40 operas by Vivaldi. Griselda is based on a folk story retold by the 14th-century Italian writer Boccaccio in The Decameron. The people of Thessaly don’t like Gualtiero’s new queen, Griselda, because she doesn’t come from an important family. So he decides to prove to them that she is worth marrying: he tests her love and loyalty with all sorts of cruel tricks. She falls for none of them, so in the end people admire her and are happy for her to be queen. Track 1, the Sinfonia, is just for instruments – before the action starts. It sets the scene. Track 2 has a bit of recitative (a kind of speaking in music) then moves to an aria: Ottone, a nasty knight compares somebody who continues to loves someone else, despite being rejected, to a man in charge of a boat who is trying to reach land, despite a stormy sea. It is quite gentle, and you’d think from this that he’s nice… but he’s not. Track 3 includes two hunting horns. It is an aria for the character Corrado, who compares his confidence to catch Ottone with the skills of a hunter who doesn’t get scared when an animal is fierce. Track 4 has Costanza comparing love and duty with two winds blowing against each other: it is one of Vivaldi’s fiery arias, with the soprano singing fast notes really high (listen at 2.18 for example). Track 5 has poor Griselda singing of her suffering, and finally track 6 is a short and happy chorus to finish the opera – everything has ended well!

Performers: Marion Newman, mezzo-soprano (Griselda); Carla Huhtanen, soprano (Costanza); Jason Nedecky, baritone (Corrado); Colin Ainsworth, tenor (Ottone); Opera in Concert; Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon

Taken from Naxos 8.660211-13