Antonio Vivaldi came into the world as early as March 4, 1678 after Gianbattista married Camilla Calicchio, the daughter of a Venetian tailor, On August 6, 1677. As a premature child he had such a weak constitution that on account of the risk of death, as the baptismal register has it, he had to be baptised by the midwife, and that only two months later could he be taken to the church of San Giovanni in Bragora for formal baptism. According to the records, Antonio had three sisters (Margherita Gabriela, Cecilia Maria and Zanetta Anna) and two brothers (Bonaventura Tomaso and Francesco Gaetano). These brothers were not professional musicians, but remained true to their father’s traditional trade.
His father’s occupation as a Cathedral musician naturally brought the young Antonio into contact with the clerical orders, and so his decision to enter the clergy is understandable, particularly since in seventeenth and eighteenth century Italy it was not unusual for such an occupation to be combined with a career in music. On September 18, 1693 – that is, at the age of fifteen and a half – he received the tonsure from the Venetian patriarch, and the following day he became an Ostario: in other words, he received the first of the so-called minor orders.
Vivaldi’s virtuoso playing of the violin as well as many stylistic echoes of Corelli, particularly in the early sonatas, have given rise to conjectures that he was actually a pupil of that master in Rome, where Somis studied with him in 1703. However, no evidence has been found for any period of study with Corelli, although it would explain the strikingly long interval of three years that elapsed between his deacon-ship and his priesthood – one year being the minimum time prescribed by the Church. Besides, Corelli’s works, came out in print in Venice immediately after their appearance in Rome, and were thus well known there. No proof could be given either for a period of study with Somis in Turin, such as has likewise been suggested. Conversely there is also no support for the supposition that in addition to his stay in Rome Somis studied composition with Vivaldi in Venice. However Vivaldi’s father, whose name appeared together with his son’s in a ‘visitors’ guide to Venice’ of 1713 as one of 1713 as one of the city’s best violinists, must have been more than a capable orchestral violinist, and was evidently very well equipped to guide his pupil through to the highest grades of violin-playing.
In 1704 the composer’s name appears for the first time on the accounts of the ‘Ospedale della Pieta’; in fact, he received 30 ducats for the preceding term as ‘Maestro di Violino’. From this we learn that in September 1703, thus a few months after his ordination as a priest, he had taken the post which caused him to be referred to occasionally in older publications as a ‘conservatoire director’. However, this modern title is an apt description neither of the kind of institution in question nor of Vivaldi’s occupation.
At first, Vivaldi was only a teacher of the violin, but doubtless he soon began to contribute to the performances with his compositions, and would also conduct them occasionally as ‘Maestro del Coro’ or ‘Maestro de’ Concerti’. This was all the more probable when the director of the music course, Francesco Gasparini, an important composer and the author of a widely used textbook on the figured bass, became very ill . The fact that soon the Ospedale della Pieta outshone the other institutions with its outstanding orchestra can doubtless be ascribed to the particular merits of Vivaldi.
A short time after enrolling on the course’s teaching staff Vivaldi no longer celebrated mass. An angina pectoris from which he had suffered from birth must have sometimes manifested itself so violently that several times he had to leave the altar in the middle of mass.
For his first years as violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta we must imagine him as having been industrious in his activity as a pedagogue and composer; the institution’s administrators soon acknowledged his successes: in 1708 he was given a pay rise, and in 1711 Vivaldi stepped into a vacated position which held a secure yearly wage. At that time the young master’s reputation began to be firmly established in his home town, and was gradually spreading abroad too, fostered by foreign visitors to Venice. In fact, the city was at that time a centre of international tourist traffic at least as important as it is today, and the many princely personages, great and small, from Northern and Western Europe, bringing their entourages to visit the city of lagoons, never failed to hear Vivaldi’s concerts. Thus in 1709 Frederick I V of Denmark was in Venice and attended the performance of an oratorio at the Ospedale della Pieta. On this occasion Vivaldi was probably presented to the guest, to whom he dedicated his twelve violin sonatas, Op. II.
At this time changes of personnel came about at the Ospedale which had a favourable effect on Vivaldi’s creative activities. In 1713 Gasparini took a long sick leave, never to return to his post. So Vivaldi became the official house composer, particularly since Dall’Olio, Gasparini’s successor as director of the course, was hardly forthcoming creatively. It is surprising that Vivaldi was not called upon to take up this position. Perhaps it was denied him on account of the precarious state of his health, or maybe an older and more experienced master was preferred for the directorship. But the real reason should be sought in the fact of Vivaldi’s turning to the theatre. For instance in 1713 he had even taken a month’s leave, apparently for the premier of his first opera, Ottone in villa, which took place that year in Vicenza. With the composer’s second opera, Orlando finto pazgo, was begun in 1714 an evidently very successful series of performances of his stage works in Venice; for it comprised no less than eight operas in five years, including two in each of the years 1716 and 1718. In this connection Vivaldi would feel an inner liberation from the relatively strict confines of his activity in the seminary, and besides he apparently very quickly developed a certain skill in the business side of operatic life. Vivaldi’s extensive operatic works—we know of 48 dramatic stage works by him — were certainly born of the urge for wide social recognition. But it may be supposed that Vivaldi was also very conscious of the antithesis between the world of musical theatre and that of musica da chiesa e camera, and he may also perhaps have suffered from this division of his attention. In any case, from 1713 on, a peculiar indecisiveness between his position at the Ospedale and his life as an operatic composer can be felt. After the first leave of one month’s absence, the composer often left the institution for longer or shorter periods, but he invariably returned, even though he must surely have been offered posts that would have been more lucrative and carried more prestige. After many a deplorable artistic, and maybe even personal, experience in the theatre, he was probably drawn again and again to an unusual extent to the quiet atmosphere of the Ospedale which was entirely devoted to the best in music. It can be seen that Vivaldi’s operatic works were also rooted in an inner urge towards mastery of larger forms of musical expression from the fact that he now took up a hitherto neglected genre, namely oratorio.
Since up till 1718, the year when the opera Scanderbegh was performed in Florence, and with the exception of the first opera, all Vivaldi’s stage works were produced in Venice, and the account books of the Ospedale mention the composer regularly, he probably lived in Venice throughout all these years. His fruitful activity in the seminary, which was also very successful in its effects on a wider public, now also brought him the official designation ‘maestro dei concerti’, which appears for the first time in a document of 1716. An important visit brought with it further proof of the esteem in which he was held: in April, 1716, Friedrich August III , the son of August the Strong, and later to be Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, came to Venice and brought with his entourage the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel. The latter, born in Karsburg (Franconia) in 1687, started his musical career as a court choirboy in Ansbach, and was also a pupil there of Torelli. He had been a violinist at Dresden since 1712, and in taking part in this journey he was enabled by his superiors to have a short, but apparently very intensive period of study with Vivaldi. A cordial relationship sprang up between Vivaldi and Pisendel, who was also a gifted composer, and this relationship bore musical fruit. No less than six concertos and three sonatas in the Dresden National Library bear the inscription ‘composed for Mr. Pisendel’. They come from the estate of Vivaldi’s pupil and were bought in 1755 at the instigation of the music-loving Electress Maria Josepha of Saxony, together with the rest of the estate, for the repertoire of the Dresden court chapel. It is interesting, particularly with regard to the great number of uses to which a violin concerto might be put, that Hiller records that at a Venice opera performance of 1717, at the suggestion of the Elector, Pisendel played a violin concerto by his teacher as interval music. The Dresden National Library, whose large collection of Vivaldi is another indication of the Elector’s high opinion of the composer, possesses a Vivaldi concerto in whose Adagio are shown several versions of possible ornamentations. It was Schering’s guess that these were Pisendel’s, and that perhaps he has thus handed down to us something of his teacher’s performing practices.
1716 was also the year of the visit to Venice of Daniel Gottlieb Treu, who followed the fashion of the times by italianizing his name to Fedele. He had been sent to Italy by his employer, the Duke of Wurtemberg, for training, and was Vivaldi’s pupil for a short time. We have no evidence as to whether Johann David Heinichen, a composer and the author of a much-used textbook on figured bass, who was in Venice in 1715, and the important Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, who stayed there from 1716 to 1717, were also personal pupils of Vivaldi; but this may well be inferred from the strong influence of Vivaldi shown in their works.
Aside from two operatic performances in Venice, the year 1718 saw the already mentioned production in Florence, proof enough that Vivaldi’s fame as an operatic composer was now spreading outside his native city. From this time on there are no more entries referring to the composer in the books of the Ospedale for several years; his name does not appear again until July 2, 1723. However, in his letter of November 16, 1737, the master himself tells of a stay of several years in Mantua, and on the title page of the libretto for the opera La Verita in Cimento, performed in Venice in 1720. From this it has long been concluded that he was active in Germany, but this ‘Langravio’ was not the Prince resident at Darmstadt, but his brother the Margrave Philipp of Hessen-Darmstadt, who had marched into Mantua in 1707 as the general in command of the imperial troops, and had then been in command of the occupation forces in Naples. In 1714 he returned to Mantua as commandant and lived there until the year 1735. Vivaldi’s period of work in the service of this prince, whose family is known for its cultivation of music, must have been in the years 1719-22. A Vivaldi opera performed in 1720 at a carnival at the Teatro Arciducale in Mantua may have marked the beginning of his period of service, though it cannot have been too exacting, for during this time the composer had two operas performed in Venice and two more in Vicenza and Milan.
It was during his stay in Mantua that he met the singer Anna Giraud (Italian style: Giro), the daughter of a French barber and apparently born in Mantua, since she was frequently designated ‘mantovana’ on playbills. In his dealings with Goldoni, Vivaldi referred to her as his pupil, and since a thorough acquaintance with the technique of singing was one of the essential requisites for an Italian opera composer at this time it is quite possible that in Mantua he instructed Anna Giraud in song and dramatic performance, subsequently starting her on a career as an operatic singer. She first appeared in Venice in 1724 in the opera Laodicea by Tomaso Albinoni, and contemporary reports describe her as a skilful and intelligent actress with a pleasant, though rather small voice. From 1726 on she was constantly singing leading roles in Vivaldi operas. This artistic relationship was strengthened by a more personal one, for Paolina, a sister of the singer, became the composer’s nurse, and both the sisters accompanied him on his travels. There was thus quite a broad scope to the rumours circulated about the composer, of whom it was asserted, amongst other things, that he was a eunuch — a report apparently based on a travel journal by Edward Wright, who in 1720 said of the girls in the Ospedale della Pieta: ‘They have a eunuch for their master, and he composes their music’.
It is probable that directly after his work in Mantua Vivaldi performed his opera Ercole sul Termodonte in Rome in January 1723, but he appears then to have felt the need to make Venice his permanent home once more. In a resolution of July 2, 1723, there is an evident attempt to make a fresh agreement with the master, the old one having somewhat fallen apart, and all the more so since it was obviously clear that the reputation of the institute very much depended on his presence there. Nevertheless further absences were tacitly taken into account. An agreement is concluded ‘with the afore-mentioned Vivaldi to deliver, as he proposes to do, two concertos every month for the time when he is himself in Venice, and during the time of his absence to send these by messenger if this can be done without any especial increase in the cost of transmission’. The board named a fee of one sequin for each work with the proviso that the composer should direct three or four rehearsals for each performance if he was in Venice. Assuming that Vivaldi actually abode by this contract, from this time on until his departure from the service of the Ospedale alone, he must have written about 400 concertos just for this institution!
In the following years Vivaldi’s activities in great musical centres both in Italy and abroad covered a considerable area. In the 1724 carnival he performed two operas in Rome, one of which was heard by Quantz, who tells of the enormous impression the new experience of the composer’s style made on the audience. On the occasion of his stay in Rome he also played before the Pope — probably Innocent XIII — and was most graciously received by him. A commission of 1725 to write a Gloria for the wedding of Louis XV of France is evidence of the master’s far-reaching fame.
For the years 1725-35 there are again no references to Vivaldi entered in the records of the Ospedale. Only a few of the stops he made on these travels are known, but Vivaldi himself recounted that he was in Vienna. The Emperor Charles VI, who in 1725 had the famous contrapuntal textbook Grains ad Parnassum by his composition teacher, Johann Joseph Fux, printed at his own cost, was not simply a music lover, but a real connoisseur of the art; indeed he himself directed operatic performances from the harpsichord. He apparently got to know Vivaldi in 1728 in Trieste, on an Italian journey. Despite the tremendous diplomatic tensions at the time, the upshot of which was the Treaty of Seville (1729) followed by the Second Treaty of Vienna (1731), the Emperor found time for lengthy conversations about music with the composer. It was even said in a letter by a contemporary that he spoke more with Vivaldi in two weeks than he did with his ministers in two years. On this occasion the master is said to have been given a large sum of money, a chain and a gold medal and to have been honoured with a knighthood, for which he then expressed his gratitude in the dedication of the twelve violin concertos, Op. IX. The journey to Vienna must have taken place in the following year, for on September 30, 1729, Vivaldi’s father, then seventy four years old, submitted to the procurators of St. Mark’s Cathedral an application for leave.
It is possible that on one occasion Vivaldi was also in Munich. The Bavarian Elector Charles Albert must certainly have been an especial admirer of Italian music. During three days in January 1725 he heard no less than four operas in Venice, on a further Italian journey he was present on March 26, 1737, at a performance in Verona of Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica, and in June of the same year he attended a concert at the Ospedale della Pieta.
Entries in orchestral part books to be found in Naples point to a stay in this city too, perhaps in the years 1727-8. After his period in Mantua, Vivaldi must also have obtained other stable positions of service inside Italy from time to time.
It is not clear what his relationship was to Count Venceslav Morzin, the heir of the Prince of Hohenelbe, and the dedicatee of Op. VIII. The work appeared in print at the end of 1725. Perhaps during his stay in Italy Count Morzin was Vivaldi’s pupil, but it is also possible that, following a custom of the time, as his maestro di cappella in absentia, Vivaldi was furnishing him with compositions. In any case the Morzins were a very musical family, for another branch of it produced the Karl Josef Franz von Morzin who in 1759 appointed the young Haydn as his Kapellmeister.
However, that Vivaldi was meanwhile repeatedly in his native city is shown by the performances of no less than eleven operas in the years 1725 to 1735, four of them in the year 1726 alone.
From 1735 on Vivaldi was again active at the Ospedale, and again the administrators tried to come to a workable arrangement. However, the tone of the documents changes and it appears that Vivaldi had not only caused much dissatisfaction but also no longer met with the same respect as he had commanded in a similar situation twelve years before. He was required to supply concertos and compositions for all sorts of instruments, but also to be present with due frequency in order to ensure a good performance of his works. He was reproachfully reminded of his many journeys during the previous years.
A short time afterwards Vivaldi encountered a fateful blow. While he was busy with preparations for the staging of an opera in Ferrara, he was called before the Papal Nuncio on November 16, 1737, and by order of Cardinal Ruffo was forbidden to be artistically active in Ferrara, which at that time was in Papal territory, ‘and this because I am a priest who does not say mass, and because I have the friendship of the singer Giraud’. In the first place, the ban hit Vivaldi hard in respect of his finances, for as an impresario he was bound by his signed contracts; but he must frankly have found this decree a crushing blow in a personal sense, quite irrespective of the nature of his connection with Anna Giraud. It is possible that it was a case of one of those professional intrigues so common in theatrical life having taken on a guise of moral concern and having somehow come to the attention of high ecclesiastical dignitaries. In any case the ban was an eloquent witness to Vivaldi’s declining repute as a musician, for he was now no longer excused for certain peculiarities of his way of life which, even according to the notions of the eighteenth century, were hardly compatible with holy orders. On the same day Vivaldi wrote from Venice to his patron in Ferrara, described his plight, explained himself eloquently and asked him to use his influence in getting the ban lifted. However, since the performance did not take place, the Church authorities must have stood firm by their decision, though without subjecting Vivaldi to an investigation and without in any way restricting his future activities; for shortly afterwards he travelled to Amsterdam, his publisher’s city, where he had been invited to direct theatrical performances when the Stadtschouwburg celebrated the centenary of its existence. On this occasion Vivaldi conducted a festival programme on January 7, 1738, with an opera and a cantata of homage by other composers. Again in the year 1738 there were two performances of Vivaldi’s operas in Venice; and it is probable that in 1739 Ferdinand of Bavaria, a brother of the Elector, heard in Venice the scenic cantata Mopso, described in the sub-title as ‘fisherman’s idyll’. On this occasion the brilliant playing of the orchestra was admired and Vivaldi was fittingly honoured.
In the years 1738-40 there was also the visit of the Elector Friedrich Christian of Saxony to Venice, where on March 21, 1740, he graced the Ospedale della Pieta with his presence. A volume in the Saxon National Library in Dresden, containing three concertos and a sinfonia, bears witness to this event. However, his relationship with the institution seems to have gradually become so poor that it did not appear desirable to remain there any longer. In addition to the master’s frequent absences, stylistic considerations must also have played their part in the decision. Charles de Brasses, who in 1739 became a close friend of Vivaldi, wrote from Venice about him on August 29: ‘To my great surprise I found that he is not so highly regarded as he deserves to be in this country, where everything follows the fashions, where his works have been heard for too long a time, and where last year’s music is no longer box-office.’ In the Ospedale the works of more recent masters were cultivated too, and Vivaldi was constantly held up for comparison with the younger generation in his own house, as it were, which is shown by entries in the account books: one dated January 16, 1735, concerns a payment made to Tartini for his sonatas, Op. I, and on October 10, 1741, 72 lire were paid to one Alfonso di Franza ‘for music from Paris’.
At any rate, Vivaldi took his leave of the Ospedale in 1740, and his name appears for the last time in the notatorio on August 29. His financial situation must have already been in a sorry state at this time, for on leaving he sold a series of concertos, receiving 15 ducats and 13 lire for 3 concertos and 1 sinfonia on April 27, 70 ducats and 23 lire for 20 concertos on May 12 and 1 ducat per concerto on selling ‘a great number of concertos’ on August 29.
These were really mean prices in view of the fact that the terms of the 1723 agreement had stipulated he should receive 1 sequin per concerto. If he had not urgently needed the money for his travel preparations he would surely never have agreed to such a fee.
It is not known when Vivaldi left Venice or what route he took. It is probable that he turned immediately to Vienna, where his old patron Charles VI lived. But circumstances were clearly not propitious. The Emperor’s death in October led to the War of Austrian Succession, which immediately claimed all the country’s forces. There was not the remotest possibility of developing any kind of lucrative artistic activity, nor even of a post. Then Vivaldi was probably prevented by illness from possibly making another journey to Dresden and trying his luck at the court of Saxony. Only since 1938 has it been known that the composer died in Vienna in 1741. The following passage is from the manuscript Memoirs of Gradenigo: ‘The ablate D. Antonio Vivaldi, the incomparable violinist, known as the red-haired priest, highly esteemed for his concertos and other compositions, earned at one time more than 50,000 ducats, but because of his immoderate prodigality died a pauper in Vienna’.