Composers Arts Classical Music

The Red Priest

Legend has it that composer Antonio Vivaldi was born during an earthquake. For an Italian, he was also remarkable in that he possessed a head of flaming red hair. This rock star of the baroque era, known as the “Red Priest,” would enjoy a meteoric rise, and then fade into obscurity. But this Venetian, a contemporary of Bach and Handel, would eventually go on to surpass their fame—and double their record sales.

While Vivaldi would die in poverty in 1741, he achieved great fame and success during his lifetime. Just like the pop stars of today, those flames seldom burn for very long, and there were no recordings or radio stations back then to carry his name forward. More often than not, there would be just one handwritten manuscript for each work of the great composers, and we are very lucky any survived at all.

Vivaldi wrote some of the most beautiful, passionate, dramatic, and some even said “dangerous” music of the era. He was a virtuoso violinist who played with an almost pyrotechnical fervor.  One tourist pamphlet from that time actually listed him as “one of the great things to see while in Venice.”

In his time, he was a cult figure who lived in a mansion overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal, which is pretty swanky for a musician. In the end, those who could recall his name, a handful of music historians, remembered him as a somewhat eccentric cleric and a freakishly good violinist who, along with his exquisite music—almost 800 works of incomparable beauty—had somehow vanished into the mists of time. This was the baroque era, and who knows what else was lost to that interminable mist. But such it was for the Red Priest, and for almost 200 years, no one spoke his name.

In the autumn of 1926, Alberto Gentili, a music professor at the University of Turin, was sent to the Salesian College of San Carlo to evaluate a collection of music. In a basement vault, Gentili was presented with an enormous library of little-known musical texts. There, the professor discovered 14 volumes of dust-covered compositions bearing the name of Antonio Vivaldi—the Red Priest.

It is almost impossible to imagine today, given Vivaldi’s fame and enormous popularity, that until as late as Gentili’s discovery in 1926, Vivaldi and his incredible work had virtually vanished from history. Gentili was able to deduce, by the numbering conventions on the manuscripts, that there must be more of Vivaldi’s work to be found. Vivaldi had divided his inheritance, but, after much work, Alberto Gentili was able to secure Vivaldi’s remaining works from his various heirs. There are now 27 volumes kept at the National Museum of Turin.

In 1948, we saw the arrival of the LP, or long-playing record. Louis Kaufman, an American violinist who had played on many movie hits, including “Gone With the Wind,” was the first to record Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” in 1947, and it went straight to the top of the classical music charts. Vivaldi had been reborn, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” thus became one of the first-ever “concept” albums, and he actually made notes on the sheet music to indicate his intent, such as, “Summer, chirping birds, including cuckoos and turtle doves and … barking dogs.” Yes, barking dogs. Then come the tempestuous winds of summer storms, all duly notated with heart-stirring arpeggios of such intricate, flurrying beauty that you can almost feel the hot wind on your cheek. And then winter, complete with chattering teeth, stamping feet, and a pizzicato (plucked strings) of falling rain.

Vivaldi is thought to have suffered with asthma; he depicts not only the beauty of summer, but the oppressive heat and the air filled with annoying insects. Those too, are named on the score in detail: bluebottles, mosquitos, and gnats. He wrote a series of sonnets to accompany the musical works, and while the imagery is palpable, it is often somewhat bleak. But his glittering musical technique, stunning harmonic melodies, and pure passion are at once beguiling and intoxicating, often blistering, and absolutely astonishing.

“The Four Seasons” is one of the most played pieces of classical music in the world; it has featured in countless movies and commercials, and thus could be so familiar that one might easily pass it by. But I would implore you to take the time to give it your full attention.

I always recommend finding performances by quintets or small orchestras. It is always so much easier to feel the emotion and hear the detailed ornamentation of the work, and this is maybe truer for Vivaldi. Without the passionate attack of the violins, which is so often lost among a full orchestra, the melodies of the main themes can seem a little sweet; perhaps that’s why they became so popular.

Vivaldi was a virtuoso violinist and composer of uncanny skill who undoubtedly wanted every detail of his expression to be heard, and it is entirely worth letting your ear catch every note. Who would want to miss a single barking dog or annoying bluebottle fly?

“The Four Seasons,” truly an iconic masterpiece, is thrilling and dramatic, and the world is so much richer for its resurgence. It is difficult to fathom that it was written as early as it was, and that it almost faded into oblivion. There is some irony in the fact that it was so ahead of its time.

Vivaldi’s story highlights the somewhat precarious nature of life. That idea, however, exists alongside the notion that great mysteries are actually very real, and that sparkling jewels are still out there in the great hidden treasure trove of our existence, waiting to be discovered.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.


Arts Classical Music Composers

Brahms, the Humble

The three B’s of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, lived in the baroque, classical, and romantic eras of music, respectively. While Ludwig van Beethoven’s music saw success during his life, he couldn’t fully enjoy that success, since by the end of his career, he was completely deaf. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was neglected for years after his death until fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn brought it back to life. Johannes Brahms’s music wasn’t always accepted, but toward the end of his life, he was a celebrity in Vienna, and could walk down the street and be recognized by his fans.

Brahms’s Early Education

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), the oldest of three children, grew up in a simple family. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a struggling musician, and his mother was a seamstress.

As a child, studying piano with his first teacher, Otto Cossel, he already had the aspiration to compose. Cossel had no skill in teaching composition, so he introduced Brahms to Eduard Marxsen, his own teacher at one time. Marxsen recognized Brahms’s talent, but wanted him to focus on the piano; composing lessons would come in due time. But Brahms continued to prod Marxsen about it until he finally gave in.

Brahms, the Composer

According to “Brahms: A Biography” by Jan Swafford, Brahms was known to put himself at the forefront of his mind when composing. He composed for himself first, his friends second, and lastly for his audience.

He lived in an era when music was changing drastically. The “New German School” of music believed that music should convey a story; they felt that Beethoven was great, but that music should not stop progressing beyond Beethoven. The leading figures of this school were composers Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Some of Liszt’s later works bordered on atonalism, and the New German School paved the way for impressionist composers like Claude Debussy.

Brahms and composer Robert Schumann, the leading figures of “absolute music,” believed that what the listener perceived in music should be up to them, and not determined by the composer—that music should be enjoyed purely for music’s sake. In other words, progressing toward impressionism or, dare they imagine, losing a tonal center, was out of the picture.

Brahms appreciated Liszt’s virtuosity—he knew he could never match Liszt in that regard—but he despised Liszt’s music. He thought it was too emotional and yet still lacked substance; it wasn’t music that made him feel good. He felt that music should convey pure emotions. “Now if things should be going badly with you, music is always the great consolation,” he would say.

When Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853, the couple immediately took a liking to the dashing young lad. The Brahms that we picture today is the older, plumper Johannes Brahms sporting a large beard. In fact, he had trouble growing facial hair in his younger days. He was lithe, boyish, and was a bundle of nerves when he played a piece he composed for the Schumanns.

The Schumanns loved his music, and it wasn’t long before Robert Schumann wrote about Brahms in a music journal, calling him the savior of German music and the successor of Beethoven. Schumann believed that Brahms would be the leader and the protector of the traditions that Beethoven and Mozart had left behind. Brahms adored these two composers.

Many expected Brahms to fill Beethoven’s shoes, and that led him to think and rethink his music. Brahms was compared to Beethoven all his life. His first symphony took him over 20 years from conception to completion, and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to call it “Beethoven’s 10th.” In fact, Brahms took over 20 years to complete a piece not once, but thrice.

Critics of his music often alleged that he was trying to copy Beethoven. One reviewer said, “One of your themes was very similar to one of Beethoven’s.” And Brahms’s famous response was, “Of course it was. Everyone steals; the important thing is to do it brilliantly.”

Brahms, the Man

When Robert Schumann became ill, he developed hallucinations and threw himself into the Rhine River. After being rescued, he was sent to an asylum, where he died a year later. During this time, Brahms spent more and more time with Clara and her children. They fell in love, but never married. Brahms struggled with his feelings for talented women all of his life, but he was unable to devote his life to another.

After Brahms made his name in Vienna, he fully had the means to buy and furnish a comfortable and lavish home for himself. It was almost an expectation for a composer of Brahms’s caliber to live in luxury. Lavish apartments at the time were decked with peacock feathers and made to look exotic; Richard Wagner was said to be a great admirer of that style of decor. Brahms’s apartment however, resembled a student’s apartment, as described by Max Kalbeck, his chosen biographer. His landlady was also his housekeeper. She provided the furniture he used, and most of the furniture was old and shabby.

Brahms wasn’t poor, and could be considered one of the most financially stable composers of that time. He composed when he wanted to, and he didn’t have to bind himself to an employer or patron like many composers before him. It is entirely possible that his economic independence was directly related to his single status all of his life, as he didn’t have a wife or children to provide for.

After Robert Schumann’s death, Clara had to raise their children on her own. She was a spectacular pianist, and was able to support her children, as well as her husband in the asylum, with the money she received performing concerts. After she became ill and the pain in her hands grew too unbearable for her to continue performing, Brahms would sometimes transfer money to her secretly. They were good friends and Clara would have been embarrassed to ask for money, and Brahms’s generosity was undoubtedly appreciated.

Perhaps Brahms’s choice of living space was also connected to his preference for a very private life. After he read biographies about the composers who preceded him, particularly Beethoven, he was acutely aware and perhaps afraid that his name and life would befall the same fate, and that his secrets would literally be an open book for everyone to read. So, starting from his early days of composing, if he wasn’t satisfied with something he wrote, he would destroy it.

When Brahms gave his compositions to friends, on several occasions he asked for them to be returned. He would then destroy those compositions, as well. Near the end of his life, he also destroyed the letters that were sent to him, and wrote to Clara Schumann asking her to destroy his letters. Perhaps Clara refused, or maybe she forgot, as a portion of their correspondence has survived.

Brahms knew his shortcomings well. For instance, he knew he wasn’t strong in writing counterpoint, so he pored over Bach’s music to study the great master. He once famously said, “Study Bach. There you will find everything.”

Johannes Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. And while he had his fair share of imperfections, he had his great virtues, as well. He didn’t flaunt his wealth, lived a simple lifestyle, and was generous: He didn’t only help Clara Schumann in her struggling years, but also a number of young, promising artists. His legacy is the sublime music that he has left the world. As much as he wanted to avoid public speculation, the complexity of Brahms’s music speaks volumes about him.