Antonio Vivaldi: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Antonio Vivaldi was one of the prominent composers of the Italian Baroque. He was particularly famous for his concerti. In this lesson we will discuss his life and music.

Il Prete Rosso

It's a busy day at the Ospedale, a girls' orphanage in Venice. Girls are learning their lessons and attending mass. Potential donors are wandering the halls and courtyards, hoping to make a beneficial contribution. But the biggest hubbub is in the gallery, where chairs, a stage, and music stands are being arranged. It's concert night, and all of Venice wants to hear the new concerto by the composer with the wildest shock of red hair any Venetian has ever seen, The Red Priest, Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi's Early Years

Antonio Vivaldi
Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi was born on March 4, 1678 to a poor family in Venice, Italy. His father, Giovanni Battista, was a violinist at the Basilica of St. Mark and was most likely Antonio's primary music teacher. Antonio trained to be a priest and was ordained in 1703. However, complaining of an illness that prevented him from celebrating mass, Antonio ceased serving as a priest within a year of his ordination. This proved to be fortunate for the rest of us, as he then turned his full attention to composing beautiful music.

At the Ospedale

In 1703, Vivaldi received the position of violin master at the Ospedale della Pieta. The Ospedale was a charitable orphanage for girls. The girls gave concerts that were very popular with the general public. Vivaldi would remain associated with the Ospedale until the last year of his life, fulfilling many duties there.

A painting, circa 1720, of a choral concert at the Ospedale
Painting of the Ospedale

In addition to teaching violin to the young women, Vivaldi conducted their instrumental ensembles and composed pieces for the girls to play. The Ospedale had very talented and accomplished musicians. Vivaldi was able to compose impressive, difficult pieces for them, and it was in this position that he developed his popular concerto form.

Vivaldi's Concerti

Vivaldi composed hundreds of concerti (the plural term for a concerto). Nearly 500 have survived. A concerto is a work for orchestra and soloist, with the orchestra playing accompaniment to the soloist's melodies. The solo can be any instrument. Vivaldi wrote concerti for keyboard, flute, oboe, bassoon, violin, cello, and mandolin solos, among others. The concerto was a popular way for a talented musician to show off their skills.

A violinist playing a concerto.
Photo of violinist playing a concerto

Vivaldi became the concerto king. His skills as a violinist and composer gave him the tools to refine and develop the concerto form. Under Vivaldi's influence, the concerto obtained the three movement 'fast-slow-fast' structure it still retains today. He also perfected the use of the ritornello, or a refrain played by the full orchestra that alternates with solo sections.

Other composers studied these concerti to learn Vivaldi's innovations and techniques. Johann Sebastian Bach transcribed ten concerti for keyboard so that he could play and learn from them. Vivaldi's concerti are still studied today. Among the most popular are The Four Seasons. These four concerti, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, feature a violin solo and are played by violinists all over the world.

Vivaldi's Operas

In 1713 Vivaldi debuted his first opera, Ottone in Villa. At this time he became more interested in operas and not only composed them, but also produced them and assisted other composers with their operas. He also traveled a great deal over the next few years, producing operas in Verona, Mantua, Florence, and even Prague with great success.

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