Antonio Vivaldi

Born: 4 March 1678 in Venice
Died: 27 (or possibly 28) July 1741 in Vienna

{Biography} {Gloria} {Works}


Vivaldi is one of those incredibly important composers whose works remain far too little known, especially the compositions using voice.  The New Grove sums up his significance by describing him as follows: “The most original and influential Italian composer of his generation, he laid the foundations for the mature Baroque concerto.  His contributions to musical style, violin technique and the practice of orchestration were substantial, and he was a pioneer of orchestral programme music.” 

When I was an undergraduate we didn’t even know Vivaldi’s birthdate; now we have a considerable amount about his life and his upbringing.  His father was a violinist at the famous San Marco in Venice (after starting out as a barber); he was probably a composer as well.  He was incredibly supportive of his son, working with him as an impresario in their operatic ventures, travelling with him, and serving as his primary copyist for many years. 

Vivaldi was the second of 10 children.  Three of his siblings died before the age of 5, and he had lifelong health problems himself (possibly bronchial asthma).  Thanks to his father, he became a virtuoso violinist; in addition, he was ordained as a priest in 1703.  In those days, especially in Venice, becoming a priest was an avenue for professional advancement.  Venice especially had a large number of priest-musicians. 

Because he had red hair, Vivaldi became known as “il prete rosso”—the red priest.  Not surprisingly, he was not especially committed to the pastoral responsibilities of priesthood, and one famous anecdote has him stopping in the middle of saying mass to dash into the sacristy and write down a musical idea (some versions of this story have him writing an entire fugue) before returning to the service.  While still in his 20s he stopped saying mass altogether, although expectations for his conduct as a priest remained throughout his life.  For example, his friendship with opera singer Anna Girò, which began in the 1720s and lasted for the remainder of his life, was a cause for scandal even though they always had separate accommodations when travelling, and Girò was always accompanied by her much older half-sister acting as chaperone.  One enterprising historical novelist posits that Girò was actually Vivaldi’s illegitimate daughter, a “solution” that absolves him of unseemly interaction with the singer to replace it with unpriestly behavior with her mother. 

Vivaldi became famous throughout Europe thanks to his publications.  His Op. 3 of 1711, titled “L’estro armonico” (harmonic inspiration), really put him on the map.  Published in Amsterdam, it circulated very widely, made him famous and admired, prompted visitors to Venice, generated commissions, and so on.  It consisted of twelve concertos (twelve was a standard number for publications at the time): four for solo violin, four for two violins, and four for four violins.  Other famous publications included Op. 4 in 1716 (La stravaganza—The Extraordinary), Op. 9 in 1727 (La cetra—The Lyre), and Op. 8 in 1725 (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione—The Contest between Harmony and Invention).  This last contained Vivaldi’s most famous work, the Four Seasons (a little too famous for some of us). 

Mr. Famous Composer spent a fair amount of time in different cities (e.g. Mantua, Vicenza, Brescia, Florence, Rome, Vienna, possibly Prague), typically in connection with opera productions (his stint in Mantua from 1718 to 1720 was as “maestro di cappella da camera” to the Habsburg governor of the city; Vivaldi eventually decided that court life was not his cup of tea).  But Venice was the most important place for him.  For opera, he had ongoing connections from 1713 (as manager, impresario, and composer) with the theater Sant’ Angelo.  The fact that it was one of the less important theaters in Venice gave him scope for the type of total control of an opera production that he preferred.  For other music, it was one specific Venetian institution: the Ospedale della Pietà. 

Venice had four “ospedali grandi”—charitable institutions that looked after various categories of people.  Even in the 18th century they were thought of as music conservatories, since music was an important part of their existence, but music served as a means to earn money rather than as the end goal itself.  Michael Talbot summarizes the ospedali nicely in The Vivaldi Compendium. Each had a maestro di coro to supervise the music and compose new pieces for the major feasts.  Various adjuncts on short-term contracts provided lessons and led the orchestra, but they were not the only ones doing the instructing: older pupils were used to teach the younger ones.  A striking feature about all of the ospedali is that, unlike their conservatory counterparts elsewhere, all the musicians were female.  Of the four ospedali (Incurabili, Mendicanti, Ospedaletto, and Pietà), the Pietà took care of foundlings; they also admitted female boarders from well-to-do families. 

Vivaldi’s association with the Pietà (an institution that still exists today, by the way) was longstanding and in multiple capacities.  He was appointed maestro di violino in September 1703 (he also taught viola da gamba and served as house priest for a while ) and continued until his contract was not renewed in February 1709.  By 1711 he was back as violin master, and in 1716 he switched to being maestro di concerti.  Although he left the Pietà to focus on opera, beginning in July 1723 he was contracted to supply them with two new concertos per month and to rehearse them when he was in Venice.  In 1735 he was reappointed as maestro di concerti; that lasted until 1738, after which they again resorted to purchasing compositions from him. 

In the summer of 1740 Vivaldi headed off to Vienna for more opera direction, but the unexpected death of the emperor that October, with the consequent closing of all theaters, left Vivaldi without income and in poor health.  He died the following July; one story has Haydn as a pallbearer for the funeral.  While it is true that Haydn was in Vienna in 1741, he was unlikely to be toting any coffins around, given that he was all of nine years old.

Gloria, RV 589

As with almost all Baroque composers, Vivaldi fell out of fashion after his death (styles were already changing before he died).  He owes his initial resurgence to the fact that Bach transcribed some of Vivaldi’s music (a fact recognized as early as 1802), and the Bach revival eventually generated interest in those who interested Bach.  Bach’s transcriptions were as follows:

Concertos for harpsichord

  • BWV 972 = RV 230 (Violin Concerto in D, Op. 3 #9)
  • BWV 973 = RV 299 (Violin Concerto in G, Op. 7 #8)
  • BWV 975 = RV 316 (Violin Concerto in gm, Op.4 #6)
  • BWV 976 = RV 265 (Violin Concerto in E, Op. 3 #12)
  • BWV 978 = RV 310 (Violin Concerto in G, Op. 3 #3)
  • BWV 979 = RV 813 (Violin Concerto in dm, previously considered as Torelli’s)
  • BWV 980 = RV 381 (Violin Concerto in Bb, Op. 4 #1)

Pieces for organ

  • BWV 594 = RV 208a (Violin Concerto in D, Op. 7 #11)
  • BWV 593 = RV 522 (Concerto for Two Violins in am, Op. 3 #8)
  • BWV 596 = RV 565 (Concerto for Two Violins in dm, Op. 3 #11)

Concerto for 4 harpsichords

  • BWV 1065 = RV 580 (Concerto for Four Violins in bm, Op. 3 #10)

Fast forward to 1939.  By this date, interest in Vivaldi had progressed sufficiently so that an entire Vivaldi Festival was held in Siena.  It was at this festival that the Gloria was heard for the first time since Vivaldi’s day.  The piece is, hands down, the best known of all his choral works, and its frequent performances are not only because it is a very nice piece, but also because it is not at all demanding chorally.  It’s much easier than Handel, who is himself much easier than Bach.  Given its popularity, I’m a little surprised that this year (2022) was the first time I had a chance to sing the work, at a special Palm Sunday concert (with a small orchestra of professionals—excellent!)

The Gloria is likely one of Vivaldi’s earlier sacred music works.  Duties at the Pietà were determined by position, and sacred vocal works were the domain of the maestro di coro.  But in 1713 Francesco Gasparini, who held that post, went on sick leave, leaving the field open for Vivaldi.  The Gloria seems to be one of the fruits of that new opportunity; Michael Talbot suggests a date of around 1716.  Vivaldi ended up being responsible for sacred vocal composition at the Pietà until around 1718, despite being a violinist and an instrumental composer.  An additional Gloria, RV 588 (fated to be known as “the other Gloria,” thanks to the popularity of RV 589) is almost identical to 589; Vivaldi was a big self-borrower.  The “Cum sancto spiritu” movement of RV 589 was itself adapted from a Gloria by Giovanni Maria Ruggiero. 

Performing forces for the Gloria are SSA soloists, SATB chorus, trumpet, oboes, strings, and continuo.  So how did the women of the Pietà sing those tenor and bass parts?  Well, the tenor part almost never goes below the F below middle C—a pitch that plenty of altos (myself included) have in their range.  Twice it goes to the E a half step below—still in my range and those of others.  And just once there’s a low C that can easily be sung up an octave without damage to the melodic line.  Of the hundreds of women who lived at the Pietà, some were listed as “tenor” for their voice part.  And some choirs today have women ringers on the tenor parts, since there are never enough tenors around.  In my next life, I’m coming back as a first tenor.

Bass parts are trickier, although occasionally there’s a “bass” listed among the Pietà women.  If you’ve ever sung with a Sweet Adelines group, you’ve probably encountered women with very low voices.  But bass parts could also be (and were) sung up an octave by the altos, although that does generate voice-leading infelicities.  In other words, Vivaldi wrote the piece for women, both singers and instrumentalists.  So it’s amusing today to hear all male choirs perform it (e.g. the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on one recording I have).

In true Baroque fashion, the work is divided into 12 separate sections (Renaissance masses more often had three subsections for a Gloria).  The movements are as follows:

Et in terra paxChorusbm3/4Andante
Laudamus teSS duetGM2/4Allegro
Gratias agimus tibiChorusemCAdagio
Propter magnam gloriamChorusem¢Allegro
Domine deusS soloCM12/8Largo
Domine fili unigeniteChorusFM3/4Allegro
Domine deus, agnus deiA solo and ChorusdmCAdagio
Qui tollisChorusemCAdagio
Qui sedes ad dexteramA solobm3/8Allegro
Quoniam tu solus sanctusChorusDMCAllegro
Cum sancto spirituChorusDM¢Allegro

As we might expect, each individual movement is distinguished from the preceding one by changes in performing forces, or key, or meter, or tempo, or some combination of these factors.  The opening Gloria is cheerful, with choral writing consisting almost exclusively of homorhythmic texture, melodic motives of repeated notes or stepwise motion, and syllabic text-setting.  The following “Et in terra pax” contrasts with the opening in almost every possible way, with a slowing of the tempo, switch to triple meter and the minor mode, and overall contrapuntal texture that includes a slowly rising chromatic line appearing in all voices.   Counterpoint does not usually play a large role in Vivaldi’s style, but sacred vocal music has expectations for some use of the texture, and he wrote accordingly.  Overall, the “Et in terra pax” is the longest and most chromatic of the movements, with lots of yearning suspensions. 

“Laudamus te” is a playful duet for the two sopranos, who tease each other imitatively when they aren’t canoodling in parallel thirds.  Then it’s back to the chorus for the very short “gratias agimus tibi,” whose slow tempo and conclusion on the dominant of e minor are a standard Baroque transition to a faster following movement in the same key, in this case the brisk “Propter magnam gloriam” whose melismatic imitative writing has a few chromatic twists thrown in that make it so much fun to sing.  And then it’s back to a lovely soprano aria in a pastoral 12/8 meter and a soothing C major for the “Domine deus,” whose appeal is enhanced by an obbligato oboe line. 

The chorus returns for “Domine fili unigenite,” now in F major, with snappy dotted rhythms, more imitation, sequential writing, suspensions, and hemiola—lots of melodic interest for us!  We continue into the following “Domine deus, agnus dei,” but here the attention is mostly on the alto solo, whom we support with chordal interjections when she pauses between phrases.  There’s also a beautiful obbligato cello line throughout that is especially prominent in the opening and close of the movement. 

The “Qui tollis” is another relatively short movement for chorus alone that begins with three brief phrases, each concluding with a fermata.  The surprise comes immediately after that with a switch to triple meter.  This quickens the pace, and the renewed use of hemiola adds to the intensity that is resolved only by the picardy third cadence at the end. 

The chorus rests again for the fast-paced and substantial alto solo on “Qui sedes ad dexteram.”  When we return, for “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” the music is familiar, for it is a shorted version of the opening “Gloria.”  It serves as a bright introduction to the wonderful closing fugue on “Cum sancto spiritu,” a happy ending for this most cheerful of mass texts. 

Works: Some Comments and Some Lists

Just as Mozart has “K” numbers and Schubert has “D” numbers, Vivaldi has “RV” numbers, generated by Danish scholar Peter Ryom in the 1970s.  However, “RV” does not stand for “Ryom Verzeichnis,” as one might expect, but rather “Répertoire Vivialdien.”  Ryom was not the first scholar to catalogue Vivaldi’s works: Marc Pincherle, Mario Rinaldi, and Antonio Fanna all generated earlier works lists.  But Ryom’s was rapidly recognized as significantly better than any of those, and RV numbers are now the standard way to identify Vivaldi’s works.  Ryom’s list has its own problems, but (this not being a musicological seminar) we won’t go into them here. 

Vivaldi was a fast composer; he claimed he could compose a piece more rapidly than someone could copy it.  He also wrote lots of music.  Lots of music.  We’ll get to the 500 or so concertos shortly.  But it isn’t just that he was prolific; it’s that he purposely tried to master the main genres of his time.  As Vivaldi expert Michael Talbot puts it, “he aspired to the status of a composer active in all significant genres and admired everywhere.”  While that might seem an obvious task for any composer, it was very much not the case for other violinist-composers of the Baroque such as Corelli, Torelli, Locatelli, and Tartini, who wrote little or no vocal music.  Talbot notes how Vivaldi’s wide-ranging compositions “reflected the depth of his ambition and self-regard,” and “ his lifelong policy of hedging his bets.”  Perhaps Vivaldi’s ambition/self-regard annoyed his contemporaries, but we performers and listeners have directly benefited thereby. 

As noted above, Vivaldi’s series of publications made him famous across Europe.  He stopped his series of publications, though, when he decided he could make more money by selling manuscripts copies.  The publications are as follows:

  • Op. 1 (1705): 12 trio sonatas
  • Op. 2 (1709): 12 violin sonatas 
  • Op. 3 (1711): 12 concertos, “L’estro armonico” (Harmonic Inspiration)
  • Op. 4 (1716): 12 violin concertos, “La stravaganza” (The Extraordinary)
  • Op. 5 (1716): 6 sonatas
  • Op. 6 (1719): 6 concertos
  • Op. 7 (1720): 12 concertos
  • Op. 8 (1725): 12 concertos, “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione” (The Contest between Harmony and Invention); the first four concertos are the Four Seasons
  • Op. 9 (1727): 12 concertos, “La cetra” (The Lyre)
    There’s also a manuscript collection called “La cetra” of 12 concertos, only one of which appears in the printed La cetra.
  • Op. 10 (1729): 6 flute concertos (a pathbreaking publication—the first ever printed flute concertos)
  • Op. 11 (1729): 6 concertos
  • Op. 12 (1729): 6 concertos

Vivaldi wrote 500 or so concertos.  Those who don’t like Vivaldi’s music say that he simply wrote the same concerto 500 times, but those of us who appreciate it (fortunately a larger number) recognize that he was actually a master of invention and seemingly endless variation.  Almost half of the concertos are for solo violin, not surprising given Vivaldi’s virtuosity on the instrument, and these make use of the challenging techniques of multiple stops and extremely high positions.  Another opportunity to show off his skill was in cadenzas towards the ends of movements; Vivaldi was also a pioneer in this practice.  He was also a pioneer in his employment of unexpected instruments: solo concertos for (in descending order of frequency) bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d’amore, recorder, and mandolin, as well as concertos for two or more instruments that included lute, clarinet, chalumeaux, theorbo, horn, and timpani. 

Because Vivaldi wrote so many concertos, his formal preferences set the expectations for what a concerto should be.  This meant a three-movement plan following a fast / slow / fast layout, with fast movements normally following a ritornello structure.  That structure was built on a tutti orchestral section whose music kept returning (hence the “ritornello” name).  In between ritornello appearances were sections of free thematic material that featured the soloist(s).  The free/solo sections would modulate; the ritornello sections were harmonically stable but appeared in different keys because of the modulations in the contrasting sections, with the final ritornello back in the home key.  This very basic outline allowed for infinite variation; Vivaldi often drew on ritornello melodic material during the first solo section, for example, or let solo writing sneak into a ritornello section, and he often shortened the ritornello on each return.

Vivaldi was also a leader in programmatic composition, of which the Four Seasons (Quattro stagione) is the most famous example.  La primavera, “Spring,” the first of these, was the best known during his lifetime.  Also wildly popular in his day was The Cuckow (RV 335), a violin concerto especially beloved in England.  A third favorite was the fifth concerto from Op. 3 (curiously, the only Vivaldi piece listed in my mother’s copy of The Concert Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Symphonic Music from 1947 was Op. 3 #11, possibly because it was one of those Bach transcribed).  Other titled and programmatic concertos include “La notte” (three different ones with this name, in fact: RV 104, 439, and 501), “La tempesta di mare,” RV 253 (again, there are others with this title), “Il gardellino” (The Goldfinch, RV 90), and many more. 

Vivaldi is much less well known for his vocal music, and he certainly wrote much less of it.  It was nonetheless important to him, especially his operas (just so you know, an opera in the early eighteenth century was not always by a single composer but could readily consist of different acts written by entirely different composers).  Vivaldi claimed to have written 94 operas, but he was prone to exaggeration, and fewer than 50 can be traced at all.  Only 21 of those traceable survive, and only 17 of these are complete enough for performance today.  As it happens, Vivaldi’s operatic style was edged out during his lifetime by that of the newer Neapolitan school of Porpora, Leo, and Vinci, and the famous playwrite Carlo Goldoni worked with Vivaldi on one opera and described him as an “excellent violinist and a mediocre composer.”  Yet the operas are now touted as being every bit as good as those by his contemporary Handel.  Ones singled out in the literature include:

  • L’incoronazione di Dario (1717)
  • Il Giustino (1724)
  • Farnace (1727)
  • La fida ninfa (1732)
  • L’Olimpiade (1734)

In terms of non-operatic vocal music, Vivaldi wrote more for solo voice than for chorus.  Noteworthy works in the former category include the Stabat mater for alto and strings (RV 621 from 1712, apparently his earliest sacred vocal composition), the psalm setting Nisi dominus (RV 608), the solo motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV 630), and the cantata Amor hai vinto (RV 651).  He has one surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans (RV 644), and various sacred choral works, including his Magnificat RV 610 (surviving in multiple versions).  Very little mass music survives, with the Gloria the only well-known work, as already noted. 

And to conclude: this entry on Lotavio Vandini is brought to you by Nonie O’Emych.


Lotavio Vandini is an anagram of Vivaldi’s name, used once during his lifetime and apparently meant as a joke.  Nonie O’Emych is made in the same spirit.  Enjoy!

May 2022