|Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Another day, another vindication. I had been asked to do this post because it's true that these pieces are everywhere. The first of these is featured in almost every lazy film where people are meant to look snooty while sipping tea out in their formal gardens while being served by extravagantly mustachioed butlers. The second has been hardly spared, either, though I will say that it was the first one that was most recently featured in a commercial touting colon health. What "Spring" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons has to do with the lower intestine is beyond me, but I suppose any publicity is good 250 years post-mortem.
Antonio Vivaldi was born during an earthquake in Venice in the year 1678. Well, perhaps not during the earthquake itself, but there was certainly one in the city that day. He was the contemporary of both Handel and Bach, and I suppose one could say he represents Italy in terms of great Baroque composers. His father was a violinist and perhaps a composer, and though not much is known for certain about Antonio's childhood, one can safely assume that he was taught much of what he knew by his father. Antonio was a student of the violin as well as composition - childhood respiratory illnesses kept him away from woodwinds, as well as other childhood activities, I'm sure. He began studying for the priesthood at 15 and was ordained at 25. His nickname, "The Red Priest," is the fusing of his original vocation as well as a nod to his red hair. That's right. Antonio Vivaldi was a ginger.
At 25, he also began a long working relationship with the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an orphanage that was oddly forward-thinking. There were five of these orphanages in Venice at the time, and while the boys were eventually trained for a trade, the girls were educated in music - and this was a HUGE deal, as women were generally not allowed to see music as anything more than a hobby. The Pietà featured a choir and orchestra entirely comprised of women and girls, and they were, by all accounts, incredible. Vivaldi began there as a violin teacher and spent many years working up the ranks at the orphanage until, in 1716, he was named the music director of the entire organization.
In 1705, when Vivaldi was 27, his first collection of compositions was published. These were mostly sonatas and other smaller forms of music, though he was about to embark on a long and decidedly fruitful career as an opera composer. Italy (both at the time, and, arguably, for about two hundred years afterward) was the center of opera - still a somewhat new art form at the time - and in 1713, Vivaldi jumped on the bandwagon with Ottone in villa. In his lifetime, he composed at least 50 and as many as 95 operas, and the fact that attention hasn't been paid to them is really quite surprising. Between the late 1710s and 1725, he moved around Italy, living in Mantua, Rome, and Milan, but by 1725 - the year The Four Seasons was premiered - he was back in Venice. He was wildly successful for a time, but by his middle age, he was considered out of style and moved to Vienna to try and make a fresh start. It didn't work out, unfortunately, and he died there at the age of 63, all but penniless. To rub salt in that indignity, Vivaldi was never given the 19th-century renaissance that Handel and Bach both (posthumously, of course) enjoyed. It wasn't until the 1920s that interest in Vivaldi was rekindled - and even now, he is really only known for one work, though his catalog is gigantic. But yes - enough lamenting his lack of acknowledgment. On to The Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concertos composed in 1723 and published in 1725 as the first third of a set of twelve. The concert itself is an interesting genre of music. Older than the symphony, it first appeared in the 17th century. The word "concerto" is thought to come from Italian words meaning "together" and "competition," which makes sense - in the concerto (and its slightly earlier counterpart, the concerto grosso, which simply translates to "big concerto"), musical material is passed between a large ensemble and a small ensemble (in the grosso) or a soloist. It is usually in three movements (opposed to the generally four-movement symphony), and by Vivaldi's time and afterward, it was used to highlight a solo instrument. Vivaldi was one of the early masters of the concerto, and it was his work that dictated the form of the style for many years after his time.
Beyond being a set of four elegant concertos, The Four Seasons may be one of the earliest examples of program music. Composers have tried for hundreds of years to evoke specific emotions or even concrete images with music. In vocal pieces, this is called word painting - an example being a rising melody line on words that imply height, such as 'mountain' or 'sky.' Program music takes this idea further by giving an entire narrative to instrumental music. The Four Seasons was written to accompany four sonnets that may have been written by Vivaldi himself, and if they were, then they are some of the earliest examples of programs being prescribed to instrumental pieces. Vivaldi liked the music he composed for the set so much that he transplanted the opening of the "Spring" concerto to the beginning of his pastoral opera Dorilla in Tempe. And today, well... it's been transplanted to people trying to make colon health fancy. Not exactly the highest of praise, I suppose, but at least it's something.