VIVALDI: Famous Concertos
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Once virtuallyforgotten, Antonio Vivaldi now enjoys a reputation that equals theinternational fame he enjoyed in his heyday. Born in Venice in 1678, the son ofa barber who was himself to win distinction as a violinist in the service ofthe great Gabrielis and Monteverdi at the basilica of San Marco, he studied forthe priesthood and was ordained in 1703. At the same time he establishedhimself as a violinist of remarkable ability. A later visitor to Venice describedhis playing in the opera-house in 1715, his use of high positions so that hisfingers almost touched the bridge of the violin, leaving little room for thebow, and his contrapuntal cadenza, a fugue played at great speed. Theexperience, the observer added, was too artificial to be enjoyable.
Nevertheless Vivaldi was among the most famous virtuosi of the day, as well asbeing a prolific composer of music that won wide favour at home and abroad andexercised a far-reaching influence on the music of others.
For much of his lifeVivaldi was intermittently associated with the Ospedale della Piet?á, one of thefour famous foundations in Venice for the education of orphan, illegitimate orindigent girls, a select group of whom were trained as musicians. Veniceattracted, then as now, many foreign tourists, and the Piet?á and its music longremained a centre of cultural pilgrimage. In 1703, the year of his ordination,Vivaldi, known as il prete rosso, the red priest, from the inheritedcolour of his hair, was appointed violin-?¡master of the pupils of the Piet?á.
The position was subject to annual renewal by the board of goven1ors, whosevoting was not invariably in Vivaldi's favour, particularly as his reputationand consequent obligations outside the orphanage increased. In 1709 he brieflyleft the Piet?á, to be reinstated in 1711. In 1716 he was again removed, to begiven, a month later, the title Maestro de' Concerti, director of instrumentalmusic. A year later he left the Piet?á for a period of three years spent inMantua as Maestro di Cappella da Camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt,the German nobleman appointed by the Emperor in Vienna to govern the city.
By 1720 Vivaldi wasagain in Venice and in 1723 the relationship with the Piet?á was resumed, apparentlyon a less formal basis. Vivaldi was commissioned to write two new concertos amonth, and to rehearse and direct the performance of some of them. Thearrangement allowed him to travel and he spent some time in Rome, andindirectly sought possible appointment in Paris through dedicating compositionsto Louis XV, although there was no practical result. Vienna seemed to offermore, with the good will of Charles VI, whose inopportune death, when Vivaldiattempted in old age to find employment there, must have proved a veryconsiderable disappointment.
In 1730 Vivaldivisited Bohemia; in 1735 he was appointed again to the position of Maestro de'Concerti at the Piet?á and in 1738 he appeared in Amsterdam, where he led theorchestra at the centenary of the Schouwburg Theatre. By 1740, however, Venicehad begun to grow tired of Vivaldi, and shortly after the performance ofconcertos specially written as part of a serenata for the entertainment of theyoung Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony his impending departure wasannounced to the governors of the Piet?á, who were asked, and at first refused,to buy some of his concertos.
The following yearVivaldi travelled to Vienna, where he arrived in June, and had time to sellsome of the scores he had brought with him, before succumbing to some form ofstomach inflammation. He died a month to the day after his arrival and wasburied the same day with as little expense as possible. As was remarked inVenice, he had once been worth 50,000 ducats a year, but through hisextravagance he died in poverty.
Much of Vivaldi'sexpenditure was presumably in the opera-house. He was associated from 1714 withthe management of the San Angelo Theatre, a second-rate house whichnevertheless began to win a name for decent performances, whatever itseconomies in quality and spectacle. Vivaldi is known to have written some 46operas, and possible some 40 more than this; he was also involved as composerand entrepreneur in their production in other houses in Italy. It was his workin the opera-house that led to Benedetto Marcello's satirical attack on him in1720 in Il teatro alla moda, on the frontispiece of which Aldaviva,alias Vivaldi, is seen as an angel with a fiddle, wearing a priest's hat,standing on the tiller with one foot raised, as if to beat time. It has beensuggested that "on the fiddle" had similar connotations in Italian tothose it retains in English. Vivaldi had his enemies.