Portrait of a violinist and composer wearing a white wig, believed to be Vivaldi

How did this musical genius go from superstar to has-been to icon?

Composer of The Four Seasons, Vivaldi was little more than a footnote for 200 years after his death, until a 20th-century innovation restored his worldwide fame.

Minister of music

An anonymous portrait of a composer, believed to depict Antonio Vivaldi, does little to signal that he was a priest. The wig and clothes are those of a Venetian gentleman, leading some commentators to suggest it is not Vivaldi at all. There is, however, evidence that throughout his life, Vivaldi’s priestly role played second fiddle to his true calling as a musician. The priesthood enabled low-born young men like Vivaldi to get a start in life. His 1703 appointment as both priest and music master gave him a salary of 60 ducats and the chance to begin to build his career as a composer and opera impresario.
Scala, Florence

The Four Seasons is about as popular as a piece of classical music can be. The timeless collection of four concertos—each representing a different season—sounds as dynamic and exciting today as when Italian Antonio Vivaldi published it in 1725. The work is among the best-loved pieces of classical music ever composed, but before World War II, only a few music specialists had heard of it. Even Vivaldi’s name was an obscure footnote in musical history at the time.

It wasn’t always this way. Vivaldi was famous, lionized across Italy, Germany, France, and England as a virtuoso violinist and composer. His restless genius produced more than 40 operas and hundreds of concertos performed throughout Europe. Like his contemporaries Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, Vivaldi was a shining light of baroque music.

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Derived from the Portuguese word for “flawed pearl,” the term baroque was, at first, an insult for this new style of music before it became popular. Written for instruments like the harpsichord and violin, baroque sound is characterized by complex harmonies and passionate melodies that allow soloists the chance to fully display the range of their talents. Before he died in 1741, Vivaldi’s music had fallen out of favor, and he descended into poverty. He died a pauper, and his name and his music slipped into obscurity—only to be resurrected centuries later.

The Red Priest

Born in Venice in 1678, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s life was marked from the outset by poor health. From the cradle, he suffered from a lung ailment, “a tight chest,” as he described it, likely to have been bronchial asthma. He grew up a social outsider; his mother was a tailor’s daughter, and his father, while recognized as an eminent violinist in the orchestra of St. Mark’s Basilica, had once been a barber.

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In his teens, Antonio began preparing for the priesthood, one of the few career options open to him. It had not escaped his father’s attention, however, that Antonio was a sensationally gifted violinist. Vivaldi senior was almost certainly his son’s first teacher; using his own contacts in the Venetian music world, he may well have secured Antonio lessons with some of the city’s best musicians.

At the same time, young Vivaldi proceeded with his theology studies and took Holy Orders in his early 20s. His red hair and sacred role earned him the nickname il prete rosso (the red priest), a name that suggests a colorful personality and quick temper. He may well have stayed an amateur musician-priest all his life had it not been for a serendipitous job offer from the city’s Ospedaledella Pietà in 1703.

Founded in the 14th century, the Pietà was a convent school for orphaned or abandoned girls. Wards with musical talent were selected and trained to perform in the school’s choir and orchestra. In Vivaldi’s day, their performances had become famous across Europe. Vivaldi was appointed to a post that combined his two roles as a priest and musician.

Accounts suggest he was more motivated by music than faith. He claimed that poor health prevented him from too much priestly exertion, and on several occasions he was forced to leave the Eucharist halfway through. His affliction did not seem to affect his activities as a composer, teacher, and performer, which, by his early 20s, were prodigious.

The Pietà’s musical performances were a lucrative source of income for the institution. It was known for producing lute, cello, and harpsichord virtuosos. Lasting off and on for much of Vivaldi’s life, his relationship with the Pietà was mutually beneficial: Vivaldi’s brilliant compositions allowed his students to shine and brought yet more fame to the school. More audiences flocked to see the young performers and filled the Pietà’s coffers. Vivaldi’s teaching duties also called on him to produce compositions for the young performers, and in return for his talents, Vivaldi was given the financial security to write some of the most innovative baroque compositions.

Concertos and operas

Vivaldi became a master of a musical form closely associated with the baroque: the concerto. In 1711 his first set of concertos for violin and string orchestra was published. While he was careful to comply with his duties at the Pietà, Vivaldi’s long, parallel career as an impresario began in 1713, when he and his father took on the management of the Venetian theater of Sant’Angelo, staging Antonio’s second opera, Orlando Finto Pazzo.

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In 1718 Vivaldi took a leave of absence from the Pietà to assume a post as the director of music at Mantua, where he wrote the opera Tito Manlio in just five days. Situated in what is now northern Italy, Mantua was then under the control of Habsburg Austria. Vivaldi’s time there opened doors for him across the German-speaking world, including at the court of the Bohemian nobleman and music lover Wenzel von Morzin, who appointed him master of music.

Vivaldi had become drawn to programmatic music, compositions that tell a story often accompanied with guiding program notes. Among the music that Vivaldi presented von Morzin was a quartet of concertos with an arresting title: Le Quattro StagioniThe Four Seasons. When he published this work in 1725, Vivaldi included poems that accompanied each concerto. The narrative sense of the concertos was heightened by these verses that illuminated what Vivaldi’s music was trying to evoke.

Death and rebirth

Vivaldi was at his peak in the 1720s, but by the late 1730s, storm clouds were gathering over him. Musical trends and tastes were shifting, and work became scarcer. A profligate spender, Vivaldi had accrued debts as his career began to founder. Soon his creditors started circling.

In 1740 he set out for Vienna in the hope that he could secure some kind of patronage from the emperor, Charles VI. He had also hoped to stage an opera there, but after the October death of the emperor, theaters were closed for many months. The timing could not have been worse for Vivaldi. Stranded, poor, and sick, the composer died on July 27, 1741, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Vivaldi’s music was still played at the Pietà, but his reputation suffered. The Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni judged him “an excellent violinist and a mediocre composer.” English musician Charles Avison placed him in “the lowest class of composers,” and William Hayes, professor of music at the University of Oxford, attributed what he saw as Vivaldi’s limitations to the “misapplication of his great talent.”

In the early 1800s, a renewed interest in Bach revealed the German composer’s debt to the Venetian virtuoso. Vivaldi’s legacy slowly began to revive, but even by the early 1900s, his music was rarely performed and known mostly by specialists in baroque music.

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Recorded music would change all that. U.S. violinist Louis Kaufman’s ground-breaking recording of The Four Seasons at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1947 would catapult Vivaldi to worldwide fame almost overnight thanks to the audiences’ ability to enjoy the stirring music on their phonographs at home. Whether on classical radio, TV commercials, or film soundtracks, the sounds of The Four Seasons and the rest of Vivaldi’s known catalog soared in popularity over the rest of the 20th century, restoring the composer’s rightful place at the top ranks of classical music royalty.

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