As I type these words, the weather around my Cobourg, Ontario home has grown colder. The winds are whistling through the trees that surround my house. The sky has turned a shade of dull grey. Snow is scheduled in the forecast and should it fall, it will dance with the wind, eventually falling in horizontal sheets that will paint the world outside of my window completely white. Winter time is coming to the part of Canada where I live, just as it does every year at this time since I was born. As Canadians, we know it is coming because our world changes its look, its sounds and how the air feels upon our skin (which, increasingly, we cover up in layer upon layer of protective gear). I can use my words to describe these changes as best I can. I could even take photographs that would provide visual evidence for you. But, how could I convey the change in the seasons with a violin? It would almost be impossible for me to do so without raising a caterwauling ruckus that nobody needs to hear. However, for composer Antonio Vivaldi, the impossible became real. Over three hundred years ago, this violin prodigy created a series of concertos for violin in which he performed a magician’s feat by creating living, breathing worlds out of nothing but the notes from his violin. These concertos have become famously known as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. In these four seasonal-themed concertos, Vivaldi used his mastery of the violin to create the sound of babbling brooks in spring time, barking dogs in the summer, chirping birds in autumn and the teeth-chattering cold of a winter’s blizzard. No one before Vivaldi had used a musical instrument to speak so directly as a storyteller would or to create whole worlds that audiences could feel and see, simply from musical notes being played well. He was a man ahead of his time. This is his story, which I will tell with a focus on Winter.
There are many parallels between the life story of Antonio Vivaldi and that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As children, both showed signs of musical giftedness (Vivaldi on the violin and Mozart on the piano). Both were raised by fathers who were musicians. As a consequence of this, both boys were made to spend their childhood touring the country with their father, putting on concerts and exhibitions wherever they went. As young adults, both Mozart and Vivaldi found themselves viewed as outsiders by the inner circles of the various Royal Courts in which they sought to gain entrance. Both Vivaldi and Mozart exhibited a sense of creativity, originality and a willingness to experiment that made other, more structured composers nervous and wary. In the end, both composers died in poverty, buried in pauper’s graves, their genius only acknowledged centuries after their deaths. But, make no mistake, Antonio Vivaldi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, along with the likes of Ludwig Van Beethoven, changed the way that classical music could be played, raising it up from the mundane to the spectacular. That they were all viewed as being showy in their day does nothing to diminish the enormous impact that each composer had on his craft.
Antonio Vivaldi grew up under the care of his father, who was a shoemaker turned musician. Vivaldi’s father was also a strict disciplinarian. As a result, young Antonio lived a rather sheltered life of practice and performance, practice and performance, day after day, village after village. In addition to his music, Vivaldi was immersed in the world of religion and theology, so much so that he was directed by his father to prepare for a life of service in a seminary or some such place when adulthood beckoned. So it was that a teenaged Antonio Vivaldi was sent to work in an orphanage in Venice, Italy called Ospedale della Pieta or the Devout Hospital of Mercy. By this time, Vivaldi had been ordained for the priesthood and became known as il Prete Rosso, or the Red Priest, due to the flaming red colour of his hair. The Ospedale della Pieta was an orphanage that was geared toward rescuing street kids and providing for them a safe place to grow up and to learn a vocation. For the boys at the orphanage, they would be cared for until the age of fifteen and then sent out to apprentice with craftsmen in the real world. When a girl at the orphanage turned age fifteen, she would be made to focus on attaining a thorough education in the Arts. It became the responsibility of Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest, to see to this instruction. Consequently, many of Vivaldi’s earliest works were choral compositions for the female voice. During his time at the orphanage, Antonio Vivaldi composed over two hundred concertos. However, despite the high quality of the instruction he provided, he was only contracted to the orphanage on a year-by-year basis. This meant that, at the end of each school term, Vivaldi would have the renewal of his contract debated by a Board of Governors who often cared more about the financial state of the orphanage than they did about the importance of The Arts. For many years, Vivaldi was forced to argue his worth before the Board who, in turn, would renew his contract with the barest of majority votes. One term, the tide finally turned and the renewal of his contract was voted down for financial reasons, and just like that, the esteemed composer was cast out into the street by an institution whose mission was to rescue others from those very same streets.
Like many composers at that time, Vivaldi was completely aware of the patronage system that existed among those in positions of nobility. So, Vivaldi spent the next few decades of his life in the employ of one Royal Court or another. It was while in the role of Capellmeister, or Chapel Master, in the Royal Court at Mantua that Vivaldi created the series of concertos that became known as the Four Seasons. While the genius inherent in these compositions wasn’t recognized during his lifetime, later examination by music scholars declared that his Four Seasons concertos should be viewed as one of the most fundamentally important and innovative moments in all of classical music. In the 1600s, classical music was mainly used to entertain the upper class and/or to glorify the role of God in the lives of His subjects on earth. Rarely were classical compositions used as vehicles to tell stories about everyday life. So, when Antonio Vivaldi created his four concertos (one to represent each of the four seasons) he constructed his music in such a way that the sounds emanating from his violin (and those of the other violins present) sounded like sounds that one would associate with each season. It was as if the audience members were being transported into a fully-realized aural reproduction of their world as it would have existed during the spring, summer, autumn or winter time. In addition to this, Vivaldi created a completely realized set of sonnets to accompany each performance. In doing so, he ushered in the practice of providing audiences with a libretto, or a book that explained the emotions and actions that were being conveyed by the composer through his music. Centuries later, as Vivaldi’s career was being re-examined by music scholars, they all pointed to his Four Seasons as being the birth of a form of classical music known as programme music. Programme music is a form of music expression that is quite common today. It involves using musical compositions as storytelling vehicles, complete with a handbook for the audience to follow along with so as to better understand what they are experiencing.
Despite the importance to classical music of the Four Seasons, and despite the innovative way in which Vivaldi used musical notes to create multi-dimensional worlds for his audiences, his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime. In fact, after the death of one of his royal benefactors, Vivaldi found himself out on the street for the second time in his life. However, at this stage of his life, he was a much older man. His health was in decline and he was viewed as being out of step with “modern” advances in music. As such, he was forced to sell most of his now-priceless manuscripts for pennies just to survive. Eventually, Antonio Vivaldi passed away in relative obscurity. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. His funeral service was perfunctory. At the time, his absence was not grieved or considered noteworthy.
But, as with many such individuals who were far ahead of their time, it has only been recently that his career has been re-evaluated and that he has been given his due as one of the most creative and influential composers in history. In fact, his personal renaissance happened by fluke when several hundred of his manuscripts were discovered in a German monastery after WWII. As you may know, after the War, teams of researchers from the allied countries descended upon Germany in the hope of finding looted treasure that the Nazis had stolen. These researchers became known as The Monuments Men. Whenever they came across stolen goods, their job was to catalogue the findings and create a database through which as many of these objects as possible could be returned to their rightful owners (if the owners were still alive) or to their families/heirs. In one mountaintop monastery, these researchers came across boxes of manuscripts that were all original copies of compositions written in Antonio Vivaldi’s own hand. It had previously been thought that these compositions had been lost forever when he sold them off in exchange for food and lodging in his dying days. But the truth is that original Vivaldi-penned manuscripts continue to turn up, here and there around the world, to this very day.
I will close with a modern day twist to this story that I only discovered when I went searching for videos to attach to this post. When I conduct my research into the stories behind any of the songs or compositions that I write about, I have a selection of websites that I usually turn to in order to find the facts I need to tell a story properly. One of the final checks that I do for information comes from the comments section of the videos I often use. More than once, I have read through the first dozen or so comments only to discover some useful bit of information that helped me add a layer of detail to my post on behalf of the artist in question that day. Well, as I was choosing a video that showed a live performance of Vivaldi’s Winter concerto, I noticed that many of the comments were written only days ago. That there should be so many fresh comments on a video for a classical music performance was unusual. Upon further investigation, I learned that Vivaldi’s Winter concerto, specifically, had just been showcased in a new television show appearing on Netflix called Wednesday. There has been a trend recently whereby television shows for teens have been created that are built around supernatural themes. The producers of these shows are using their access to a new generation of younger viewers to introduce them to influential pieces of music from the near or distant past. The best example of this was this past summer when the song “Running Up That Hill” by English singer extraordinaire, Kate Bush, was highlighted in a suspenseful scene from the series, Stranger Things.*(You can watch that scene here). The success of the Kate Bush song, which was forty years old, being elevated all the way back to the top of the charts has inspired other producers to try the same thing. Thus, in Episode #3 of the Tim Burton-directed series, Wednesday, which features the daughter made famous by the original series, The Addams Family, decades ago, actor Jenna Ortega uses a cello to play Antonio Vivaldi’s epic Winter concerto, while a statue in a public square bursts into flames behind her and audience members run for their lives. I will include a clip of this performance below. You don’t have to have watched the series to appreciate how the music is being used. Vivaldi’s Winter was composed to recreate the sensation of fighting against a coming winter storm of blizzard-like proportions. Ortega’s performance from the TV show definitely conveys the impression that a storm, of sorts, is coming soon.
While Vivaldi originally wrote his Winter concerto for violin, I have watched several performances of it where the lead instrument being used is a cello instead of a violin, and I have to say that I prefer the cello in the lead role. The richer, deeper sound that it produces adds a layer of menace and foreboding that seems to perfectly suit Vivaldi’s attempt to create a blizzard out of musical notes. I would go one step further and say that the cello-led performances of Winter are the most rock n’ roll-like classical compositions I have ever heard. So, I will end by saying that, not only was Antonio Vivaldi a composer who was ahead of his time when it came to the genius of his creativity, but, in fact, as composers go, he was the original rock star! Bundle up, my friends. Winter is coming.
The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter by Antonio Vivaldi as played on violin can be found here. ***This video provides Vivaldi’s sonnet for Winter in lyric form at the bottom of the screen.
The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter by Antonio Vivaldi as played on a cello can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter as used in the television programme Wednesday can be found here. ***Because of this video, thousands of teens are finding out who Antonio Vivaldi was and are discovering the beauty of classical music.
The link to the official website for Antonio Vivaldi can be found here.
The link to my favourite classical music station…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.
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