Vivaldi and Vienna: The Story of The Red Priest

Vivaldi and Vienna: The Story of The Red Priest

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi is considered to be one of the best Baroque composers of all time, with a great influence that spread throughout Europe over the course of his life. He was born in Venice, Italy on March 4th 1678 and went on to have an incredibly successful career during which he composed numerous violin concertos, sacred choral works and over 40 operas.

Vivaldi’s childhood

Vivaldi showed musical prowess right from the very beginning. His father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi taught his son how to play the violin and the pair toured Venice together. Although we can’t say for sure at what age Vivaldi began to learn how to play or compose, the extensive musical knowledge he’d obtained by the time he was 24 and being the son of the founder of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia (an association of musicians) suggests he must have been very young.

The president of Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia was Giovanni Legrenzi, an early Baroque composer and the maestro di cappella at St Mark's Basilica. It’s possible that he gave young Vivaldi his first composition lessons — Luxembourg scholar Walter Kolneder claims there’s evidence of Legrenzi’s style in Vivaldi’s early liturgical piece Laetatus sum (RV Anh 31) which he wrote when he was just 13 in 1691. However, it’s also likely that his father passed on his composition knowledge, since he composed the opera La Fedeltà sfortunata in 1689.

Health problems

Vivaldi suffered from bad health his whole life. One of his many problems was a constant tightness of the chest. Although this didn’t prevent him from playing the violin or composing music, it did make playing wind instruments impossible. By the time he was 15, Vivaldi moved away from music and began studying to become a priest. He was ordained at age 25, but just one year later was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass due to ill health. Within the church, he was given the nickname il Prete Rosso, meaning The Red Priest, which referred to the colour of his hair.  

The Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà

Although he is most highly regarded for being a remarkable composer, Vivaldi was also an exceptional technical violinist. In the same year he was ordained, Vivaldi also became maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà orphanage in Venice.

The orphanage was one of five places in Vienna which gave abandoned and orphaned children shelter and an education. The boys learned a trade and left when they were 15, while the girls received a musical education and the most talented stayed on to become members of the orphanage’s highly-regarded choir and orchestra.

Vivaldi wrote the majority of his major works during the 30 years he worked at the orphanage. He also composed over 60 concertos, cantatas and sacred vocal music for the orphanage’s orchestra to play. This quickly resulted in the orphans gaining a great appreciation and esteem not only in Venice, but across Europe.

Each year the board of directors voted on which teachers to keep within the orphanage. In 1710 when he was 32, Vivaldi was asked to leave. But after just one year as a freelance musician, he was called back to the orphanage following an unanimous vote. In 1716 he was promoted to maestro de' concerti (music director).

Height of his career

In his heyday, Vivaldi was receiving commissions from European royals and nobles. In 1725 when he was 47, the French ambassador to Venice commissioned the serenata (cantata) Gloria e Imeneo (RV 687) to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV. The following year, La Sena festeggiante (RV 694) was also composed for the French embassy, in celebration of the birth of French royal princesses, Henriette and Louise Élisabeth.  

In 1728, when he was 50, Vivaldi met Emperor Charles VI, to whom he had previously dedicated Opus 9, La cetra, in Trieste. The emperor adored Vivaldi’s music and is said to have talked to him more during that one meeting than he’d spoken to his ministers over the past two years. He gifted Vivaldi with the title of knight, as well as a gold medal and an invitation to Vienna.

The Kärntnertorttheater in Vienna

The Kärntnertortheater in Vienna.

Vivaldi in Vienna

Accompanied by his father two years later, Vivaldi travelled to Vienna and Prague. There he presented his opera Farnace (RV 711) which garnered six revivals.

Sadly, like many composers of the time, Vivaldi faced great difficulties in his later life. Changes in music tastes meant his compositions were no longer held in such high esteem. To combat his, he sold off huge numbers of manuscripts at very cheap prices to pay for his move to Vienna. Although it’s not certain why Vivaldi wanted to move from Venice to Vienna, there’s a good chance that after his successful meeting with Emperor Charles VI, he wanted to become a composer in the imperial court.

It’s also possible that Vivaldi travelled to Vienna for the opportunity to stage operas, especially since he chose to live close to the Kärntnertortheater. Not long after Vivaldi arrived in Vienna, Emperor Charles VI died, leaving the composer without any steady income or royal protection.

Following this, Vivaldi became destitute and died in the house of a Viennese saddlemaker from an internal infection in July 1741, aged 63. The next day, a funeral was held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the composer was buried in a basic grave in a burial site owned by the public hospital fund. Contrary to many stories, young Joseph Haydn was not involved with the funeral or the burial, since there was no music performed at all.

Although the house in which he once lived has been been destroyed and built upon, there are memorial plaques where he was buried close to Karlskirche and his old home. You can also see the Vivaldi star in the Viennese Musikmeile and a Vivaldi monument at the Rooseveltplatz.


Vivaldi in Vienna today

You can still experience Vivaldi in Vienna today through the city’s classical concerts. You can witness one of his most famous pieces, Four Seasons, at St. Charles’ Church performed by 40 world-class musicians or at St. Stephen’s Cathedral performed by the Chamber Orchestra Vienna.

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