Antonio Lucio Vivaldi – the Venetian composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher and one-time catholic priest – is one of the defining figures of Baroque classical music.
Nicknamed Il Prete Rosso, or ‘The Red Priest’, thanks to his brilliant red hair, Vivaldi was ordained at the age of 25, and almost immediately began work as a violin teacher at an orphanage called the Ospedale della Pietà. It was here that he composed most of his major works.
Although his music was influential across Europe during his lifetime, Vivaldi, in his pursuit of royal patronage from Emperor Charles VI of Vienna, eventually died in poverty in a house owned by the widow of a Viennese saddle maker.
Here are six of his most compelling works:
The Four Seasons
Written during his time as maestro di cappella at the court of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua, and now a staple of the concert repertoire worldwide, Vivaldi’s seminal collection of four violin concertos was revolutionary for its programmatic depiction of the seasons.
Vivaldi depicts a wide variety of scenes and sounds, from birdsong to rustic dances. ‘Each concerto captures the feel of that particular season so well,’ says violinist Ray Chen. ‘It’s such a famous and approachable piece in the repertoire. It has showing-off virtuosity for the violinist, which was quite forward-thinking. That alone has allowed the Four Seasons to withstand the test of time.’
Vivaldi‘s first setting of Psalm 127 for solo voice and strings is an often overlooked gem from his huge sacred output. Verse IV, ‘Cum dederit’, is especially suspenseful thanks to its use of hushed, static string writing, with long, melismatic vocal lines.
Violin Concerto in E flat
It is easy to forget, with the continuing popularity of The Four Seasons, that Vivaldi wrote hundreds more concertos for violin, some of which contain wonderful musical invention and programmatic writing to rival his most popular work.
The Violin Concerto in E flat major, otherwise known as ‘La tempesta di mare’ (The Sea Storm), for instance, captures the crashing waves and thundering skies of its title with a driving continuo part.
Gloria in D
Vivaldi wrote three choral settings of the Gloria, although only two of them survive. It’s the D major RV 589, from around 1715, that’s best known today. Rediscovered in the 20th century, along with much of the Baroque composer’s sacred music, it’s Vivaldi’s most popular sacred piece, dramatic, uplifting and joyful.
O qui coeli terraeque serenitas
Probably composed during Vivaldi’s travels through Rome, this work is one of only three surviving solo motets. The Latin text is a prayer ‘for the deliverance of the believer from earthly delights and for the espousal of heavenly ones’.
It’s another vividly written work. Listen, for instance, to the second aria ‘Rosa quae moritur’ in C minor, with a descending lamento bass that represents the wilting of a rose.
Trio Sonata in C
This trio sonata, written for violin, lute and continuo, is an eloquent, simple expression of joy, and perhaps an antidote to the sometimes overwhelming complexity of Baroque music. The second movement is particularly serene, with a lilting violin line.
Often, the violin part of the sonata is replaced by a mandolin. Vivaldi was fond of this instrument, much neglected today in classical music, which here adds a radiant quality.
Words by Will Thomson.