Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4th, 1678. Though ordained a priest in 1703, according to his own account, within a year of being ordained Vivaldi no longer wished to celebrate mass because of physical complaints (“tightness of the chest”) which pointed to angina pectoris, asthmatic bronchitis, or a nervous disorder. It is also possible that Vivaldi was simulating illness – there is a story that he sometimes left the altar in order to quickly jot down a musical idea in the sacristy…. In any event he had become a priest against his own will, perhaps because in his day training for the priesthood was often the only possible way for a poor family to obtain free schooling.
Though he wrote many fine and memorable concertos, such as the Four Seasons and the Opus 3 for example, he also wrote many works which sound like five-finger exercises for students. And this is precisely what they were. Vivaldi was employed for most of his working life by the Ospedale della Pietà. Often termed an “orphanage”, this Ospedale was in fact a home for the female offspring of noblemen and their numerous dalliances with their mistresses. The Ospedale was thus well endowed by the “anonymous” fathers; its furnishings bordered on the opulent, the young ladies were well looked-after, and the musical standards among the highest in Venice. Many of Vivaldi’s concerti were indeed exercises which he would play with his many talented pupils. Vivaldi’s relationship with the Ospedale began right after his ordination in 1703, when he was named as violin teacher there. Until 1709, Vivaldi’s appointment was renewed every year and again after 1711.
Between 1709 and 1711 Vivaldi was not attached to the Ospedale. Perhaps in this period he was already working for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo, an opera theater. He also remained active as a composer – in 1711 twelve concertos he had written were published in Amsterdam by the music publisher Estienne Roger under the title l’Estro armonico (Harmonic Inspiration). In 1713, Vivaldi was given a month’s leave from the Ospedale della Pietà in order to stage his first opera, Ottone in villa, in Vicenza. In the 1713-4 season he was once again attached to the Teatro Sant’ Angelo, where he produced an opera by the composer Giovanni Alberto Rostori (1692-1753). As far as his theatrical activities were concerned, the end of 1716 was a high point for Vivaldi. In November, he managed to have the Ospedale della Pietà perform his first great oratorio, Juditha Triumphans devicta Holofernis barbaric. This work was an allegorical description of the victory of the Venetians (the Christians) over the Turks (the barbarians) in August 1716 – the battle for the island of Corfu.
At the end of 1717 Vivaldi moved to Mantua for two years in order to take up his post as Chamber Capellmeister at the court of Landgrave Philips van Hessen-Darmstadt. His task there was to provide operas, cantatas, and perhaps concert music, too. His opera Armida had already been performed earlier in Mantua and in 1719 Teuzzone and Tito Manlio followed. On the score of the latter are the words: “music by Vivaldi, made in 5 days.” Furthermore, in 1720 La Conduce o siano Li veri amici was performed. In 1720 Vivaldi returned to Venice where he again staged new operas written by himself in the Teatro Sant’ Angelo. In Mantua he had made the acquaintance of the singer Anna Giraud (or Giro), and she had moved in to live with him. Vivaldi maintained that she was no more than a housekeeper and good friend, just like Anna’s sister, Paolina, who also shared his house. In his Memoires, the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni gave the following portrait of Vivaldi and Giraud: “This priest, an excellent violinist but a mediocre composer, has trained Miss Giraud to be a singer. She was young, born in Venice, but the daughter of a French wigmaker. She was not beautiful, though she was elegant, small in stature, with beautiful eyes and a fascinating mouth. She had a small voice, but many languages in which to harangue.” Vivaldi stayed together with her until his death.
Vivaldi also wrote works on commission from foreign rulers, such as the French king, Louis XV – the serenade La Sena festeggiante (Festival on the Seine), for example. This work cannot be dated precisely, but it was certainly written after 1720. In Rome Vivaldi found a patron in the person of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a great music lover, who earlier had been the patron of Arcangelo Corelli. And if we can believe Vivaldi himself, the Pope asked him to come and play the violin for him at a private audience.
Earlier, in the 1660’s, musical life in Rome had been enormously stimulated by the presence of Christina of Sweden in the city. The “Pallas of the North,” as she was called, abdicated from the Swedish throne in 1654. A few years later she moved to Rome and took up residence in the Palazzo Riario. There she organized musical events that were attended by composers such as Corelli and Scarlatti. Other composers, too, such as Geminiani and Handel worked in Rome for periods of time. Like them, Vivaldi profited from the favorable cultural climate in the city.
Despite his stay in Rome and other cities, Vivaldi remained in the service of the Ospedale della Pietà, which nominated him “Maestro di concerti.” He was required only to send two concertos per month to Venice (transport costs were to the account of the client) for which he received a ducat per concerto. His presence was never required. He also remained director of the Teatro Sant’ Angelo, as he did in the 1726, 27 and 28 seasons. Between 1725 and 1728 some eight operas were premiered in Venice and Florence. Abbot Conti wrote of his contemporary, Vivaldi: “In less than three months Vivaldi has composed three operas, two for Venice and a third for Florence; the last has given something of a boost to the name of the theater of that city and he has earned a great deal of money.” During these years Vivaldi was also extremely active in the field of concertos. In 1725 the publication Il Cimento dell’ Armenia e dell’invenzione (The trial of harmony and invention), opus 8, appeared in Amsterdam. This consisted of twelve concertos, seven of which were descriptive: The Four Seasons, Storm at Sea, Pleasure and The Hunt. Vivaldi transformed the tradition of descriptive music into a typically Italian musical style with its unmistakable timbre in which the strings play a major role. These concertos were enormously successful, particularly in France. In the second half of the 18th century there even appeared some remarkable adaptations of the Spring concerto: Michel Corrette (1709-1795) based his motet Laudate Dominum de coelis of 1765 on this concerto and, in 1775, Jean-Jacques Rousseau reworked it into a version for solo flute. “Spring” was also a firm favorite of King Louis XV, who would order it to be performed at the most unexpected moments, and Vivaldi received various commissions for further compositions from the court at Versailles.
In 1730 Vivaldi, his father, and Anna Giraud traveled to Prague. In this music-loving city (half a century later Mozart would celebrate his first operatic triumphs there) Vivaldi met a Venetian opera company which between 1724 and 1734 staged some sixty operas in the theater of Count Franz Anton von Sporck (for whom incidentally, Bach produced his Four Shorter Masses). In the 1730-1731 season, two new operas by Vivaldi were premiered there after the previous season had closed with his opera Farnace, a work the composer often used as his showpiece. At the end of 1731 Vivaldi returned to Venice, but at the beginning of 1732 he left again for Mantua and Verona. In Mantua, Vivaldi’s opera Semimmide was performed and in Verona, on the occasion of the opening of the new Teatro Filarmonico, La fida Ninfa, with a libretto by the Veronese poet and man of letters, Scipione Maffei, was staged.
After his stay in Prague, Vivaldi concentrated mainly on operas. No further collections of instrumental music were published. However Vivaldi continued to write instrumental music, although it was only to sell the manuscripts to private persons or to the Ospedale della Pietà, which after 1735 paid him a fixed honorarium of 100 ducats a year. In 1733 he met the English traveler, Edward Holdsworth, who had been commissioned to purchase a few of Vivaldi’s compositions for the man of letters, Charles Jennens, author of texts for oratorios by Handel. Holdsworth wrote to Jennens: “I spoke with your friend Vivaldi today. He told me that he had decided to publish no more concertos because otherwise he can no longer sell his handwritten compositions. He earns more with these, he said, and since he charges one guinea per piece, that must be true if he finds a goodly number of buyers.” In 1738 Vivaldi was in Amsterdam where he conducted a festive opening concert for the 100th Anniversary of the Schouwburg Theater. Returning to Venice, which was at that time suffering a severe economic downturn, he resigned from the Ospedale in 1740, planning to move to Vienna under the patronage of his admirer Charles VI. His stay in Vienna was to be shortlived however, for he died on July 28th 1741 “of internal fire” (probably the asthmatic bronchitis from which he suffered all his life) and, like Mozart fifty years later, received a modest burial. Anna Giraud returned to Venice, where she died in 1750..