In this lesson, we'll explore the life and music of two of the Baroque period's greatest stars: the English composer Henry Purcell and the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Then, test yourself with the brief quiz.
Music was a hot commodity in Europe from 1600-1750 CE, the period music historians call The Baroque. It all started in 1600, when a group of Italian musicians and writers combined music and theater to invent the art form we call opera.
Opera became insanely popular, drawing audiences with its glamorous stars, spectacular sets and glorious music. Just think of the way people flock to the newest song-filled Disney films, and you'll understand the appeal of Baroque opera!
Musicians all over Europe composed operas, as well as emotionally exuberant music influenced by opera's sound. Today, we call this dramatic style 'Baroque.' In this lesson, we're going to look at two composers who mastered both opera and the Baroque style: the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and the English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
Antonio Vivaldi spent nearly his whole life in Venice, a major musical center during the Baroque. His father had played the violin at St. Mark's Cathedral, one of the most musical churches in Europe. Vivaldi followed his dad's footsteps, learning to play the violin and also to work in churches. He was ordained as a priest in 1703.
Vivaldi wasn't able to celebrate mass as a priest because his asthma made it hard for him to project his voice. No microphones then, you see. Instead, he found a different vocation: he worked as a composer and music teacher at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (the Pious Hospital of Mercy), a girls' orphanage in Venice. These girls received an excellent education in music, and they put on regular public concerts.
Vivaldi spent much of his life on staff at the Pio Ospedale, and he composed a huge amount of music for his students, including both instrumental and vocal works. His most famous works are his concertos, which are pieces for orchestra and featured a solo instrument.
The concerto format worked beautifully for Vivaldi's students: older girls appeared as soloists, playing challenging music, and younger girls played easier parts in the orchestra. Vivaldi wrote approximately 500 concertos. The most famous are his violin concertos called The Four Seasons. These four concertos use imaginative musical effects to paint pictures of spring, summer, fall and winter.
In addition to his work for the Pio Ospedale, Vivaldi enjoyed success as a composer of operas. He wrote around 50 operas that were staged throughout Italy, including many in his hometown of Venice. Vivaldi must have been a recognizable sight there: he was nicknamed 'The Red Priest' because of his red hair. We even have this fun caricature of him from his lifetime.
Caricature of Vivaldi
Vivaldi ran into a bit of trouble in 1737, when his public began to suspect he was having an affair with a singer named Anna Girò. But regardless of his personal reputation, by the time he passed away in 1741, Vivaldi's music had influenced important composers throughout Europe: most famously, the German Baroque master J.S. Bach.
Now let's look at Henry Purcell, a composer who worked far away from Vivaldi, in England. Coincidentally, Purcell also made a contribution to music education at a Baroque girls' school. His most famous work is a tragic opera based on Virgil's Aeneid called Dido and Aeneas. This show had one of its first performances at a girls' school in London! This might be the reason why Aeneas is basically the only male character in the show!
Like Vivaldi, Purcell's life was connected to the church. He was born in 1659, and during his childhood, he was a choirboy in the Chapel Royal, a group of clerics and musicians who created private worship services for English royalty. As an adult, Purcell worked for King Charles II as a composer and an organist. He also became the organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679.
Not surprisingly, Purcell wrote many pieces for Anglican worship services. He also wrote solo songs to be sung by amateurs at home. Purcell's vocal music is prized because he had an uncanny knack for translating the natural rhythm of the English language into music. His vocal melodies are expressive and written to emphasize the text's most important words.
When he wasn't writing for the church or the home, Purcell was often writing for the stage. Besides his famous opera Dido and Aeneas, he wrote background music for many stage plays. He also wrote masques and semi-operas, which are works that combine spoken dialogue and singing, like a modern musical.
We don't know a whole lot about Purcell's personal life, but we do know that he was married and had several children. We also know that when he died in 1695, his country honored him with a stately burial at Westminster Abbey.
The Baroque Period (1600-1750 CE) was an era of exuberant, dramatic music that began with the invention of opera. Two composers who mastered opera and its musical styles were Antonio Vivaldi and Henry Purcell. The Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi, worked in Venice and achieved fame in his native Italy and beyond. He composed concertos like The Four Seasons for Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian girls' orphanage. He also composed many operas.
The most famous Baroque composer from England was Henry Purcell. Purcell grew up singing as a choirboy in the Chapel Royal. He was an organist who wrote Anglican sacred music, as well as stage music like his opera Dido and Aeneas.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Recall when the Baroque Period occurred and describe the era's music
- Discuss the work of Antonio Vivaldi and what he was most known for
- Summarize the musical career of Henry Purcell and what types of music he produced