That the three decades since 1950 have seen a renaissance in the music of Antonio Vivaldi (c. 1675-1741) has been due entirely to modern scholarship and to the recording medium. For, until recently, few of Vivaldi's compositions were at all familiar, and, in fact, relatively few had been published. Even his best-known work. The Four Seasons, was infrequently heard-a peculiar situation, indeed, for this "Genius of the Baroque," the sheer bulk of whose achievement is so impressive (approximately 447 concertos, 73 sonatas, 23 symphonies and over 40 operas)!
Vivaldi was a native of Venice, an ordained priest widely known as "II prete rosso" ("The Red Priest") because of his red hair. In addition to being a prolific composer, he was probably the greatest violinist of his day, much in demand as a performer. (Both he and his father, with whom he studied, were described in the 1713 Visitors' Guide to Venice as "among the best who play the violin")
Although ordained in 1703, Vivaldi the priest seldom said Mass because of a physical weakness (perhaps asthma) that plagued him all his life. However, this infirmity did not prevent Vivaldi the musician from serving from 1704 to 1740 as a teacher at the Conservatorio dell' Ospedale delta Pieta, a much respected Venetian music school for orphan girls.
Actually, little is known of the details of Vivaldi's life. He had a lengthy period of foreign travel during which he almost certainly performed on the violin-this was possibly from 1724-35. It is known that, in 1735, Vivaldi settled into his position in Venice as maestro de' concerti at the Pieta, a situation that he evidently assumed would be permanent.
However, two years later, as he was preparing to leave for Ferrara to oversee a production of one of his operas, a church authority in that city banned the visit of this priest "who did not say Mass"- which seems to have precipitated a decision to leave Venice, and Italy, for good. (Vivaldi wrote in his own defense that he had "not said Mass for twenty-five years nor shall I ever again... because of an illness that I have suffered from birth and that still troubles me. After I was ordained priest, I said Mass for a little over a year, and then gave it up, as three times I had to leave the altar before the end on account of my illness... every one knows about my weakness") In 1741, impoverished, he died in Vienna.
Similar to Johann Sebastian Bach, who served as director of Leipzig's Collegium musicum, Vivaldi became what might be termed a "practical" musician as a result of his long academic commitment, composing for whatever ensembles were available from among the students. This fact goes far to explain the size of his concerto output (he was required to furnish two concertos a month for the school) and also the phenomenal variety to be found in his instrumental compositions (concertos for one, two, three and four violins, for viola d'amore, cello, trumpet, horn, flute, oboe, bassoon and even mandolin). However, despite the Gebrauchsmusik aspect-and it is probable that many of these concertos, particularly certain of the ones for violin, were used by their composer as teaching materials-Vivaldi's solo concertos were highly regarded in the music centers of Europe. And it should be remembered that no less a master than Bach himself transcribed several of them, both for performance and for his own pleasure.
All Music Guide