Venice, Violins, Vienna, and Vivaldi

Venice, Violins, Vienna, and Vivaldi

It’s hard to imagine that the name of Vivaldi was lost to history for 200 years. But sometimes fame is fickle that way. We can be thankful that we live in an age when Vivaldi’s music is known, enjoyed, and appreciated. 🙂

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, one of eight children. His father Giovanni was a professional violinist who taught young Antonio to play the violin and then toured Venice with him — a traveling father-son duo. At the age of 25 Antonio was ordained to the priesthood, where he was known as “Il Prete Rosso” (the red priest) because of his vivid head of hair. When his lifelong struggle with asthma affected his ability to perform daily Masses, he became a music teacher at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, a home for abandoned children. Here he taught music theory, instruments, and singing. His pupils became so accomplished that people came from miles around to hear them perform. When he wasn’t teaching music to others, Vivaldi was also a prolific composer.

In 1740 Vivaldi moved to Vienna, hoping to acquire the financial backing of Emperor Charles VI, who had knighted the composer twelve years before. But Charles passed away soon after Vivaldi’s arrival, and Vivaldi himself died in poverty less than a year later.

Vivaldi’s name and his work faded into obscurity, where they remained until the twentieth century, when researchers discovered a treasure trove in a monastery: hundreds of compositions by Vivaldi.

In addition to numerous works for wind and string instruments and somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty operas, Vivaldi composed a quartet of violin concertos that became his most famous work. Entitled “The Four Seasons,” it was probably inspired by the scenery around a region in northwestern Italy called Mantua.

Countryside near Mantua, Italy — most likely the inspiration for “The Four Seasons”

“The Four Seasons” was groundbreaking in the way in which Vivaldi incorporated nature sounds into the composition of his music. You can play a kind of musical “hidden pictures” game by listening for these sounds throughout the piece:

Concerto #1 (Spring): birds, a brook, grasses whispering in the breeze, a dog barking, a country dance, and bagpipes.

Concerto #2 (Summer): the sun beating down on the land, a darkening sky and agitated insects, and then wind, thunder, lightning, sheets of rain, and hail.

Concerto #3 (Autumn): a harvest festival with merry song and dance, hunting, brisk air, and a quiet repose at the end of the day.

Concerto #4 (Winter): the sounds of someone who is cold (shivering, chattering teeth, stamping feet), frozen ground crackling underfoot, slipping and sliding on ice, bitter and wild winds, and the warmth of a blazing fire.

Here is a performance of “The Four Seasons” at the National Botanical Gardens of Wales, with some added bird sounds at the beginning; it features acclaimed violinist Julia Fischer.

Here are some resources to look for at your library to enhance your study of Antonio Vivaldi:

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (book and CD) by Anna Harwell Celenza

Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra (book) by Stephen Costanza

I, Vivaldi (book) by Janice Shefelman

Antonio Vivaldi (book) by Olivier Baumont (First Discovery series)

Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery (CD) by Classical Kids


Viva Vivaldi! 🙂

Lucy Watson

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