The Contribution of Antonio Vivaldi to Baroque Music

Antonio Vivaldi contribution to Baroque Music
Antonio Vivaldi contribution to Baroque Music

It is consistently a challenge to summarise the life of an individual in around a thousand words. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), was not only a phenomenally productive and progressive composer but also a formidable violinist and teacher. His compositions number over five hundred which will give you some idea of how prolific Vivaldi was.

At the time during which Vivaldi lived, Venice, Italy was a thriving city. It was seen by many as one of the cultural centres of Europe. Four music conservatories were considered to be places of musical excellence with the highest standards and expectations of their cohorts.

Vivaldi, tutored in all probability by his father on violin and possibly composition, began his journey here as a performer. There are not many reliable accounts of the young Vivaldi, but we do know that his father was an excellent violinist and from the music Vivaldi went on to compose, we can safely assume his facility on the instrument must have been impressive.

Vivaldi also dedicated a considerable part of his life to teaching violin at the Ospedale della Pietà and given that many of his students performed his compositions, Vivaldi must have been a highly successful teacher too.

It was at the Ospedale della Pietà that Vivaldi spent most of his working life. You will read some accounts of the Ospedale being referred to as an orphanage or place of refuge for unfortunate young women. The truth is far removed. In reality, this particular establishment was for the daughters, legitimate or otherwise, of noblemen and merchants.

This meant that the Ospedale della Pietà was rarely in short supply of funding. What an incredible position Vivaldi must have been in to have plenty of money, a secure job (eventually as it was initially a year-by-year contract), and extremely talented students.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Contribution to Baroque Music

From “The Four Seasons” to Sacred Vocal Music and Opera

Today, Vivaldi is perhaps best known for his concerto grosso titled The Four Seasons (1718-1720). I think he’d be amazed at the popularity of this work if he were alive now. This work has come to be dominant in the Vivaldi catalogue but is not where Vivaldi gained his foothold as a composer.

It was with his sacred vocal music that Vivaldi came to the attention of the influential and the powerful. Fortunately for Vivaldi, this opportunity presented itself when the current choirmaster at the Ospedale della Pieta became unable to provide new compositions and Vivaldi ably stood in.

While Vivaldi maintained his commitment to the Ospedale Della Pieta, his interest in opera was growing. From 1718 – 1720 Vivaldi was granted leave from his duties at the Ospedale to pursue his operatic ambitions in Mantua. Here Vivaldi took a post under the auspices of the court of Landgrave Philip van Hessen-Darmstadt.

(His first operatic venture was called Ottone in Villa (1713). This three-act opera was produced by the composer in Vicenza and fired his lifelong passion for the genre). Vivaldi was now under contract to provide the court with operas, cantatas and concertos. From this period come five operas including, Tito Manlio and La Candace, o siano Li veri amici.

Continued Commitment to Ospedale Della Pieta

On his return to Venice Vivaldi’s drive to compose opera remained undiminished. Vivaldi claimed (allegedly) that he had composed above eighty operas, but the figure is closer to forty. Not all the manuscripts have survived with the present number around twenty-two.

What is important is that his contribution to the world of opera was significant and attracted considerable praise during his working life. Vivaldi’s operatic style was felt especially by the censors, to be progressive. His choice of subject material often caused controversy and even the banning of certain operas . The public, however, seemed to adore Vivaldi’s operatic works.

During all this time spent on operatic composition, Vivaldi remained loyal to the Ospedale Della Pieta. He continued to compose for the students and for the many formal occasions that occurred during the year.

For the most part, Vivaldi was only required to send two concertos per month to the Ospedale but his dominant source of income was still from his operas and the private commissions he received from nobility across Europe.

Vivaldi is credited with having composed over five hundred concertos. For any composer, this represents a huge amount of dedicated work. These concertos range from solo instruments with a string orchestra to more exotic combinations of three or more instruments.

Over two hundred concertos were composed for solo violin and strings. It stands to reason given Vivaldi’s enduring connection to the Ospedale Della Pieta. Other concertos are for mandolin, bassoon, flute, lute, and recorder.

Vivaldi’s Concerto Legacy

Vivaldi in many respects, became the greatest exponent of the three-movement concerto form (fast-slow-fast). The faster outer movements are often rhythmically striking and virtuosic but not at the expense of musical quality. In the slower more considered movements it seems to me we hear the operatic Vivaldi emerge similarly to the arias in these works.

Many of these concertos fully exploit the dramatic contrast between Ripieno and the soloist. Vivaldi’s uncanny ability to embed passion, power and earnest expression in these concertos has enabled them to remain highly popular. JS Bach was notably influenced by the Concertos of Vivaldi which in itself is a testament to his consummate musical ability.

Some of the violin concertos have been criticised as sounding rather too much like technical exercises, but in some cases, this is probably exactly what they were. Even so, the gifts of Vivaldi the composer shine through in their vitality and sincere emotional expression.

They also give us a window into the capabilities of the students that Vivaldi mentored. It also seems perfectly understandable that if you are composing such a vast quantity of concertos, some are going to be more successful than others.

His Influence and Decline

In the surviving sacred vocal works of which there are reportedly fifty, his command of structure and counterpoint match any of his contemporaries. They are often adventurous in terms of their orchestrations and elaborate in their setting of the text.

There is a strong opinion that these works herald the music of Joseph Haydn and WA Mozart. Many are lost, but as they are rediscovered perhaps the research can broaden and deepen our appreciation of Vivaldi’s mastery.

The sad truth is that towards the end of such an illustrious career, Vivaldi’s popularity began to wane. From around 1730 Vivaldi was becoming unfashionable. It’s hard to fathom but just as trends come and go today, it was the same in European Baroque society.

Vivaldi’s final operatic attempts failed and even as an impresario, he was no longer regarded favourably. In 1740 Vivaldi travelled back to Vienna. He fell ill and died on July 28th, 1741.

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