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.