A few years ago I read a book by Barbara Quick called “Vivaldi’s Virgins” a historical novel set in 18h century Venice and more specifically at the Ospedale della Pieta with its music director Antonio Vivaldi. The Ospedale was more than a hospital, convent and orphanage. It was a charitable institution that took in abandoned children, especially girls and educated them. Illegitimate or unwanted babies were deposited in a sort of revolving drawer and the mother would ring a bell to insure their quick acceptance. Secrecy was observed. The children were schooled and at age 10 apprenticed and taught a trade that suited their abilities. Girls who showed unusual musical talent were trained either as instrumentalists or singers. Vivaldi, a priest, was their music master. The chorus and orchestra were renowned around the world and the Ospedale della Pieta was the highest ranking school of music in the 18th century. What an enlightened treatment of the poor and disadvantaged that was!
When I was growing up, in the intermission between the two World Wars, playing the piano was one of a girl’s accomplishments. I performed the usual staples of classical music: Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, and Schuman. We also listened to classical music on the radio and were familiar with the baroque masters: Bach, Handel, Corelli and Telemann. But we had never heard of Vivaldi. Nobody knew Vivaldi. He had not been discovered yet. Although Vivaldi was famous and very influential in his day, a great many of his compositions were lost subsequently and he slid into obscurity. It was not until 1926 that many manuscripts and volumes of compositions were discovered in another religious institution.
It took many years to appraise and gather all the works and they ended up in the Turin library. A sponsor was found to finance the reissue of Vivaldi’s works but by then the war had started.
It was not until the Festival of Britain in 1951 that the public rediscovered this Baroque master and Vivaldi was elevated to his present status. The Baroque era without Vivaldi would look like a temple without one of its pillars. What a fortuitous accident that discovery was.
Everybody knows the Four Seasons, that exuberant and ebullient work. I have heard it many times, but until recently had trouble telling which season was which except for Autumn with its recognizable beginning. Then one day I saw a presentation on PBS that made me realize that although this music was so familiar I had never really listened to it properly. The Four Seasons is programmatic music as opposed to Bach’s abstract music. It is onomatopoetic (a fancy word for imitative).
In Spring you can hear finches, cuckoos and turtledoves as well as rain and thunder. Summer suggests languorous heat, cattle peacefully grazing, as well as a summer storm. Winter provides, shivering, feet stamping, slipping on the ice and contentment by the fire. Autumn features a hunt with the violins imitating a horn. This is one thing I wish I had not known because I have a strong aversion to hounding animals to their death. It is a barbaric custom.
Vivaldi was not only an exceptional composer and teacher. He was also a virtuoso, a brilliant bravura violinist. Viva Vivaldi!