Vivaldi: The Lost Pharaoh of the Baroque

Almost two-hundred and seventy years have passed since Antonio Vivaldi was buried in a pauper’s grave in Vienna.  Yet still today his music is alive as it was when the first few notes of Spring were ever performed back in 1725.  His Baroque-era melodies perforate our lives in ways that most of us are not aware.

Vivaldi’s contributions to the cinema are nearly as vast as those of a John Williams or a Hans Zimmer.  Movies like Superman Returns, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Being John Malkovich, Bride Wars, White Chicks, Little Man, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa use pieces from Vivaldi in their scores.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Television is not immune to the effects of his genius, either.  Series such as The Sopranos, Gossip Girl, The Simpsons, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Doogie Howser, M.D., and The Ren & Stimpy Show all have gleaned sections from his catalog.  Even during the breaks from programming, his compositions are employed to sell us merchandise in commercials.  Shadows by Karl Jenkins, clearly influenced by Vivaldi’s Winter, Movement 1, Allegro non Molto, is used by DeBeers to make us believe that “Diamonds are Forever”.

For all of Vivaldi’s permeation in to the culture of today, he just as easily could have been forgotten as a single breath from the lungs of a ninety year old man.  If not for fate, Divine intervention, or sheer dumb luck, then the mastery of this once great artist could have been lost for eternity; the pages of his opuses decaying  in a moldy, old cardboard box.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Republic of Venice on March 4, 1671, the first child of Giovanni Battista and Camilla Calicchio Vivaldi. From birth, health issues seemed to plague Antonio.  He was baptized immediately after he was born because of what church baptismal records say was per pericolo di morte (“on account of the risk of death”).  Historians also believe that he probably suffered from asthma because he was not able to play any wind instrument.

Giovanni was a barber by trade, but was also a talented violinist.  Eventually, his expertise led him to abandon his shop and pursue a life as a professional violinist.  It was a talent that he would pass on to young Antonio, who showed a real aptitude for the instrument and was playing in the cathedral orchestra by the age of 10.

Although Antonio was blessed with an abundance of musical gifts, he decided to dedicate his life to the priesthood.  In 1693, at the age of 15, he began his candidacy and ten years later he was ordained as a priest.  The priesthood would not give him a long career path as his asthmatic condition would not allow him to conduct a full Mass.  But, what it did give him was the nickname that would stick with him until his death, il prete rosso (The Red Priest).  Vivaldi decided, or was forced, to stop conducting mass.  Soon after, he was assigned a position of maestro di vilino (violin teacher) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a kind of orphanage that specialized in the musical training of girls.  The position gave him what Jim Whiting referred to in his book, The Life and Times of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, as “what was practically a personal orchestra to work with.  He could try out his musical ideas with a talented group of dedicated musicians”.

The Pietà, along with the three other ospedali in Venice, would regularly hold public concerts to raise money for operation expenses.  The quality of these concerts drew many Venetians and visitors from abroad.  Vivaldi used this platform to vault into fame as a premier composer across Europe.  His acclaim grew steadily from the early 1710’s to mid-1720’s.  He held performances for dignitaries across the continent including French King Louis XV, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and Pope Innocent XIII.

Vivaldi was writing various styles of music during this time such as oratorios and operas, but what he was most renowned for were his concertos (a musical form in which a solo instrument alternates with the orchestra).  Due to his prodigious ability with the violin, this form probably appealed to Vivaldi.  Never was his flair for writing concertos more evident than in 1725 when he first performed Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention), a combination of 12 concertos.  The first four concertos of this work (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) make up the piece for which Antonio Vivaldi is most famous – The Four Seasons.

After this piece was published, Vivaldi’s notoriety grew to levels never known before by a composer.  At age 47, he was at the height of his career and on top of the music world.  But, as celebrity has a way of doing, it fades over time.  By 1740, Vivaldi was near destitute.  He accepted a position with Emperor Charles VI in Vienna in his court.  He sold off many of his works in attempt to raise money to take his entourage with him to Vienna.  But, in a bizarre twist of fate, Charles VI died in October 1740 of food poisoning.  Vivaldi died, insolvent, in Vienna on July 28, 1741 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

This very well could have been the end of Vivaldi’s legacy if not for the providence of a few men.  The first of these was Count Giacomo Durazzo of Genoa.  He was a admirer of Vivaldi’s work and during his time as the Austrian ambassador to Vienna he built a grand collection of Vivaldi’s pieces, but after his death in 1794, the collection disappeared.

By the 1820’s, Vivaldi was all but forgotten.   His next bit of serendipity came because of another admirer of his talents, his Baroque period counterpart Johann Sebastian Bach.  Bach had passed away just 10 years after Vivaldi, but unlike him, Bach’s pieces were still relatively well known.  It was in the early 1820’s that a young Felix Mendelssohn, a future great composer in his own right, stumbled across a piece of J.S. Bach’s work entitled St.  Matthew Passion.  When Mendelssohn finally got permission to publically perform the piece in 1829, its beauty and grace caused an almost instantaneous rush to uncover more of J.S. Bach’s opuses across Europe.

During this search, a piece entitled XII Concerti di Vivaldi elaborati di J.S. Bach (12 Concertos of Vivaldi transcribed by J.S. Bach) was uncovered.  Marc Pincherle mentions the event in his book, Vivaldi:  Genius of the Baroque.  “We are reminded of the Egyptologists who, digging in the Valley of the Kings in search of a certain pharaoh’s burial place, uncover an older, hitherto unsuspected tomb,” he states as a correlation.  This discovery brought around a reemergence of Vivaldi’s reputation, but only a few of his published works were found so the effect was not near the level his genius deserved.

It wasn’t until almost 100 years later that the final pieces of the Vivaldi puzzle fell into place.  In 1926, a group of monks were in need of money to repair their dilapidated monastery.  To finance the repairs, the monks decided to part with pieces of Vivaldi’s work that were in their possession.  They contacted a music professor at the University of Turin in Italy, Alberto Gentili, to assess the value of the works and facilitate the sale of them.  Gentili did so, but as he studied the pieces, he was positive that there were still missing works out there to complete the collection.

He finally tracked down Count Durazzo’s descendent, Marchese Giuseppe Durazzo.  Marchese was opposed to Gentili searching his family’s library, but finally relented.  Gentili’s perseverance was rewarded as he discovered the rest of the collection.  A buyer was again found for these works, but Marchese was steadfast that these works never be performed in public.  After a lengthy struggle involving the courts, Vivaldi music was finally performed again in 1939.

The Vivaldi Renaissance had begun.  In 1950, the first recording of The Four Seasons became a best-selling album.  A 1990 poll of the readers of The Radio Times, a British magazine, named The Four Seasons their favorite piece of classical music of all-time and in that same year, a new compact disc recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s most-famous work was a top the charts again.

Later this year, Vivaldi’s story will make its way on to the big screen as Joseph Fiennes portraits the Baroque genius.  Its affect can only push the Vivaldi revival forward.  His music, in its rightful place, shall give pleasure to music aficionados for generations to come.   It is apropos that Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s music influenced the music from the DeBeers’ commercial because like diamonds, Vivaldi is forever.


About Richard Howk

Fiction author with my first novel, Pariah, available December 2nd.
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