Vivaldi’s influence in the development of descriptive or programme music is easily observed in the works of composers such as Haydn and Beethoven. There is something of an apologetic tone in discussions about programme music today as if it is somehow less worthy than abstract or ‘pure’ music. In The Four Seasons Vivaldi was concerned to depict the seasons as accurately as possible and does so with extraordinary skill and ingenuity. At the same time, the music does more than express the physical world: the buzzing of flies, the barking of dogs. It expresses the spirit of the seasons, the lassitude of heavy summer; the nervy, trembling arrival of spring.
It was not until the dramatic discoveries of Alberto Gentili in Turin in the 1920s that Vivaldi’s significance as a composer of vocal music was appreciated. His compositions in this area were on the usual scale: 48 operas, 39 cantatas, more than 60 sacred works. As is often the case with Vivaldi, contemporary opinion was not always completely favourable. We have heard Quantz’s view that Vivaldi’s operatic interests led to a falling off in his concertos and Vivaldi’s fellow violinist and composer, Tartini, is not an admirer of his vocal music. ‘ I have been urged to work for the Venetian theatres,’ he told Charles de Brosses, ‘and I have never been willing to do it , well knowing that a gullet is not the neck of a violin. Vivaldi, who wanted to practise in both areas, always failed in one, whereas in the other he succeeded very well.’
Vivaldi’s record as a leading composer of operas for some twenty-five years hardly supports the charge of failure. The sacred music which he composed for the Pieta during his long association with that establishment exhibits the familiar elements of Vivaldi’s style: richness of harmony, dramatic presentation, vigour and melodic invention.
Vivaldi’s place in musical history is now established. His influence is recognised in a long line of composers from Haydn and Beethoven to Sir Michael Tippet whose 2nd Symphony with its ‘pounding Cs’ is a tribute to Vivaldi who showed a strong partiality for the key of C. Perhaps more important is that his music has not lost its common touch and is as popular with listeners today as it was when the Venetians clamoured for more in the 18th century.
The Venice of his time has gone; banished with the arrival of Napoleon I, who looked at the city and said: ‘ I want no more inquisitors, no more Senate: I will be an Attila for the Venetian state.’ His troops entered Venice in 1797 and met no opposition, the first time the city had been occupied in its long history.
Venice and Vivaldi, the two words are closely linked in the mind but Venice is a curiosity, magical but ghostly, a jewelled and fantastic relic, while Vivaldi’s music is vibrant, surging with life and energy, as passionate and compelling as when it first echoed in the city of the sea.
His personal story is remarkable, full of mystery and drama, and has a particular fascination because it is likely to go on. It is quite possible that more works by Vivaldi will be discovered, perhaps the missing operas, and answers provided for some of the many puzzles that occur in the story of Il Prete Rosso.