Personalities | Antonio Vivaldi | Late Baroque | Classical

(An-ton’-yo Ve-val’-de) 1678–1741
Italian composer and violinist

Vivaldi was born in Venice. After learning the violin with his father, and possibly other teachers too, he joined the orchestra of St Mark’s. He was ordained in 1703, later acquiring the nickname Il prete rosso (‘the Red Priest’), because of his red hair.

Partly because of fragile health and partly perhaps as a result of his musical talent and ambition, Vivaldi abandoned the priesthood shortly afterwards.

In the same year as his ordination he was engaged as maestro di violino by the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian charitable institutions for orphaned or abandoned children. Boys were usually apprenticed to various trades at an early age so the adolescent/adult population of the ospedali was entirely female.

The Ospedali in Venice

Vivaldi was appointed maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in 1709. He was later promoted to maestro de’ concerti. His association with the place continued on and off for years: he was maestro di cappella from 1735 to 1738 and was still providing concertos the year before his death in 1741.

The four Venetian ospedali were the Pietà, the Mendicanti, the Incurabili and the Ospedaletto. Of these the Pietà, which took in foundlings, was both the largest and the most musical. Its most talented girls were trained to sing and play for chapel services and ‘occasional’ entertainments. The choice of instruments on offer to an aspiring performer was unusually varied and in Vivaldi’s time included the mandolin, chalumeau, the newly developing clarinet and the viola d’amore. During the first half of the eighteenth century the Pietà was able to field one of the best-disciplined orchestras in Europe and its virtues were recognized by connoisseurs and travellers throughout the continent.

New Opportunity in the Pietà

Vivaldi’s responsibilities lay foremost in teaching stringed instruments and probably wind instruments as well. Unofficially, he may also have been expected to direct concerts and to provide music for his talented pupils. In 1713, Francesco Gasparini (1668–1727), who had been in charge of music at the Pietà since 1701, took leave of absence, creating an important opportunity for Vivaldi. As acting maestro di coro (1713–19) he was responsible for providing new music for services at the Pietà chapel. Among the works that he almost certainly composed for the Pietà are two settings of the Gloria, the psalm Dixit Dominus, a Stabat Mater (RV 621) and several solo motets and antiphons. It was also for the Pietà that Vivaldi wrote his only surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans (1716). The work contains allegorical references to the Ottoman war in which Venice had been recently victorious; it is scored for female voices and an exceptionally varied assembly of instruments. Its recitatives and arias and, to some extent, its characterization, measure up to the finest of his operas. The earliest, Ottone in villa, had already been performed in Vicenza in 1713.

Le Quattro Stagioni

As teacher of the violin at the Pio Ospedale...

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