INKPOT#44 CLASSICAL MUSIC FEATURE: VIVALDI – An Inktroduction
The Red Priest
An inktroduction by Chia Han-Leon
AN EARTHQUAKE shook Venice on 4th March 1678, the day Vivaldi was born. Frail and sickly, he was christened Antonio Lucio while his mother swore that if he survived the day, she would have him take up holy orders. Which he did in 1703.
Left: Detail from an anonymous portrait of Vivaldi from the 18th century.
Vivaldi (1678-1741) was known as the Red Priest, il prete rosso, on account of his red hair and/or his loud semi-clerical suit he wore on duty. This humble violinist and ex-priest is also well-known as the director of a Venetian foundling hospital for orphaned, illegitimate or abandoned girls, the Conservatory of the Ospedale della Piet. They were educated at the expense of the city (I think this is very nice of them). Some of these girls were given a strong musical foundation, either in a choir or orchestra, and Vivaldi’s fame spread as wide as his musicians. Indeed, just for them, he wrote some of his best music. Vivaldi said he wrote 94 operas, but only 50 have survived. In addition to over 100 religious works, he wrote at least 450 concerti for various instruments, including 28 for cello (no composer has done more to establish the cello as a solo instrument) and over 40 for bassoon.
Although the details of his life are not readily verifiable, many legends abound about the man and his music. It is thought that during his first year as a priest, as Vivaldi was saying Mass one day, a musical idea came to him. He immediately rushed off from the altar where he was officiating to write down the idea in the sacristy before returning to his priestly duties! Flabbergasted colleagues duly reported him to the Inquistion, which declared him a musician (apparently that also meant you were some kind of madman) and barred him from ever conducting Mass again. Of course, that wasn’t exactly bad news for Antonio…
Vivaldi achieved international fame during his time, but died in poverty in Vienna on 28th July, 1741. At his funeral, six choirboys of St. Stephens Cathedral, including a young Joseph Haydn, sang the Requiem Mass. Like many Baroque composers, his music sank into oblivion at the end of the period, and was forgotten for two centuries…
It was interest in the music of Bach which reminded the world of Vivaldis genius. The re-discovery of twelve Vivaldi concerti transcribed by Bach sparked off interest in the Venetian master. You see, unlike the selfish attitudes today, to have one’s own concerti transcribed by another great Baroque composer was praise of the highest level. The rediscovery led to a spectacular resuscitation of Vivaldi’s music at a historic 6-day concert in the Palazzo Chigi in Siena in September 1939 (unfortunately, the same month World War II started).
The Four Seasons is above all a celebration of an individuals rich impression of the changing seasons, inspiring the evocation of the entire range of emotions associated with them. In these earliest examples of “programme music”, Vivaldi went all out to complete the experience of his audience by providing commissioned paintings and sonnets for the musician and audience. The authorship of these unsigned Sonetto Dimostrativo (“explanatory sonnets”) are not confirmed, though many feel they describe the music so well that Vivaldi is a likely candidate. The printed score is marked with letters of the alphabet corresponding to those in the sonnets, thus pinpointing for the player which musical phrases refered to which lines/description.
Le quattro stagioni were published in Amsterdam in 1725 with its eight other companion concerti as Opus 8. The exact dates of composition of the concerti are, however, not known. This set was collectively known as Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione, or “The Contest between Harmony and Invention” – a testament to Vivaldi’s admirable blend of intellectual technique and creative fantasy.
In his music, Vivaldi captures the bright gaiety of bustling Baroque Venice, the azure sky with its warm Mediterranean sun, the excitement and anxiety of life. The undiscerning say he merely rewrote the same concerto 450 times. These are probably those who have heard no more than a handful. Vivaldi strove to combine instruments of myriad colours, like two oboes with two chalumeau (early clarinet) or viola d’amore and lute. His music is of an astonishing range of feelings and moods too varied to describe…
Chia Han-Leon is a big fan of Texas’s White on Blonde album. He enjoys cream of mushroom soup and derives great and perverse delight in sprinkling extra cheese on top of his pizzas.
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133: adapted 28.12.97; up.2.3.2000 Chia Han-Leon
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