Things you may not know about Antonio Vivaldi

One of my favorite composers is Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). While I love his secular pieces such as the Four Seasons, I am especially found of his Church music. It is so light, so bright and tuneful, and Vivaldi loved to go up and down the musical scale, varying the theme a half pitch at a time.

Ah Vivaldi, he is right up there with Handel, Bach and Mozart. I consider him to be an especially Catholic treasure given his large body of sacred Latin Liturgical music.

Just a few things about Vivaldi, that I’d like to share, things you may or may not know:

1. Vivaldi was a Catholic priest. He was ordained in 1703 at the age of 25, in Venice. However, it would seem the active priesthood did not suit Vivaldi. Within a year he asked to be excused form the daily celebration of Mass, due to a “tightness of the chest,” which he complained of his whole life. Most scholars think this is a reference to asthma, though there may have been other causes including heart related matters. But a deeper reason may lie in the fact the he was pressured to become a priest. In those days, going to a seminary was often the only way a poor family had to ensure free schooling for a son. Music seems to have been his passion. While it is hard to gauge the accuracy of the story, it is noted in some of his biographies that he would sometimes leave the altar to go into the sacristy and write down a musical idea that had come to him!

2. He spent most of his musical career working in an orphanage for girls. While this may seem an odd and unfruitful place for a composer, actually it was not. The “Ospedali” where he worked was one of four well endowed orphanages in Venice, some for girls, some for boys. And the residents were largely made up of “illegitimate” children of Venetian noblemen who conceived these children in their (sadly common) dalliances. The noblemen funded orphanages like these to care for such children of theirs. In Venice these homes developed a reputation for fine music, as the children were trained in music from the earliest years and concerts were a way the orphanages also raised money. At the Ospedali della Pieta where Vivaldi worked, some of the girls stayed on well into adulthood and continued to perform there. The video below shows what such a setting was like, and how Vivaldi would give performances, secular and liturgical with “his ladies.”

3. Not all found Vivaldi’s music as outstanding as many of us do today – An Italian Playwright of the time Carlo Goldoni writing in his memoirs described Vivaldi as “This priest, an excellent violinist but a mediocre composer…” Yet, to be fair, Vivaldi had his fans and patrons, and earned a decent living selling copies of his many concertos, operas, and Church works.

4. In 1720 Vivaldi began living with a woman, Anna Giraud. Though to be fair, he always insisted she was only with him as a housekeeper and friend. Further, her sister also shared the house. Vivaldi trained Anna to sing and she had an excellent reputation as a singer. Vivaldi stayed with her till his death. Were they more than friends? It is hard to say, but why not take Vivaldi at his word?

5. Vivaldi works all but disappeared from the scene after his death in 1741, and were not heard regularly or known widely again until the 1950s. In this sense he was an opaque luminary. The expression “opaque luminary” refers to people who shine brightly in their own time, but who, after their death are largely unknown. And until 1950 the name, Antonio Vivaldi was largely unknown.

6. Vivaldi’s  works came back to light beginning in 1926 when the Salesian Fathers wished to sell a large number of “old volumes” in their archive and invited Dr. Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at the National Library of Turin to assess their value. Many of the 97 volumes contained Vivaldi manuscripts, along with other rare music. And thus Vivaldi Music once again came to light. The second World War slowed the process of compiling and collecting the full library from other sources, but the hunt was now on, and in 1951 concert goers in England were among the first to hear this newly rediscovered baroque master. Since then Vivaldi has taken his place with Bach and Handel, and is considered quite equal among them. He with them, paved the way to Mozart.

7. Vivaldi died in 1741 at age 63. The cause was said to be “internal fire” which was probably yet another reference to the asthma that plagued him all his life.

Yes, Vivaldi, the gift of his music is great.

In this video, is depicted the manner in which Vivaldi would have had his Church music performed.Note that it is all women who sing and play, (For Vivaldi worked at the “orphanage” for girls). Period musical pieces are also used and it is performed in the Church of the Pietà in Venice, Vivaldi’s church in Venice, attached to the Ospedali where Vivaldi largely worked. This is the movement from the now famous Gloria in D. The text is Domine fili, unigenite Jesu Christe. Most of us who have sung this piece are used to it in an SATB arrangement, but here, for historical purposes, it is sung by all women. Note the candles too!

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8 Responses to Things you may not know about Antonio Vivaldi

  1. toadspittle says:

    .
    “4. In 1720 Vivaldi began living with a woman, Anna Giraud. Though to be fair, he always insisted she was only with him as a housekeeper and friend. “

    What’s the point in telling us that? Who cares? Plenty of people live with women.
    What are we more interested in here – Vivaldi’s music or his morals?

    (Well, his morals naturally.)

  2. An engaging and informative essay. Thank you!

  3. golden chersonnese says:

    A nice performance. The gels were splendid.

    And the first time I’ve heard female basses! Countertenors, shift over!

    I knew a female tenor once, though, one of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who spent most of her religious life in New Caledonia.

    She returned in her late sixties to the land of her birth, where she was given the task of going out to the streets for alms to support the Sisters’ home for the aged poor. She became a lady tenor because one of her much younger Sisters (of migrant Italian birth) desperately wanted to join a mixed choir whose members were all religious of various orders. The older Sister agreed to accompany the younger to choir practice on Wednesdays and was straightway consigned to the tenor ranks with two Marist brothers, where her deepened aged voice could be best concealed.

    Why accept the fate of becoming a lady tenor alongside two Marist brothers, one might well ask? A penance?

    It was because the younger Sister (with a nice treble voice) was not allowed to go to choir practice alone and could only go if two of the Sisters wished to become members of the choir.

  4. toadspittle says:

    .
    “And the first time I’ve heard female basses!”</i<

    Then you should listen to the Red Army Choir, Godlen.
    They used to employ the Olympic shot-putters on their days off.

    (Toad made that up!)

  5. golden chersonnese says:

    Well, my Toad, after this I just won’t hear it said that the Catholics ever discriminated against women who wanted to be bassi profundi.

  6. golden chersonnese says:

    Father Vivaldi’s lady basses.

    http://www.spav.co.uk/SPAVwomentb.html

  7. golden chersonnese says:

  8. Pastorious says:

    The always remarkable and analytical Msgr Pope tells us, straight off, that Vivaldi “loved to go up and down the musical scale”. Well I never! That’s something that many people do not know about musicians.

    Interesting about his psychosomatic illness – he clearly felt ‘suffocated’ by being a priest. Made up for it though, with “Mrs” Vivaldi. If she was attractive, this would also contribute to his breathlessness.

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