Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most prolific and influential composers of the Italian Baroque. He received his musical education from his father, then at the age of 15 began his training for the priesthood. In 1703, the year of his ordination , he assumed the position of teacher of violin at the Pietá, a Venetian home for orphaned, illegitimate, and indigent girls. He spent most of the rest of his life in Venice, although productions of his operas took him to Rome, Mantua, Verona, and Prague. At the height of his popularity, his commissions and published works amassed him considerable wealth, but at the time of his death, in Vienna, he had become impoverished and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The list of Vivaldi’s compositions is both large and diverse, encompassing orchestral and instrumental chamber works, masses and other sacred music, and operas. Of his over 40 operas, more than half have been lost and none are part of the standard operatic repertory today. On the other hand, his concertos, of which over 500 have been preserved, are firmly established in the instrumental literature. His music has been featured in numerous television commercials and in the scores of such recent films as The Royal Tenenbaums, Sidewalks of New York, Being John Malkovich, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Final Cut, and Shine.
Many of Vivaldi’s concertos were written to be played by the more talented of his students at the Pietá. During one six-year period, from 1723 to 1729, the records of the Pietá show he was paid for 140 concertos, an astonishing twelve per month. These and other of his instrumental and sacred works would have been performed by the girls at concerts that became major events in the social life of the Venetian nobility and foreign visitors.
Vivaldi was a seminal figure in the history of the concerto, especially the violin concerto. About 200 of his 500 extant concertos are for one violin and another 30 or so for two or more violins, or violins with other solo instruments. His writing for the violin explores the instrument’s virtuoso capabilities as well as its capacity to “sing.” He standardized a three-movement design for the concerto as a whole, in which the fast tempo and animated character of the first and third contrast with a more lyrical and expressive slow movement in the middle. Vivaldi also established a formal pattern for the fast movements, called ritornello form, which involves a systematic alternation of solo and tutti forces. He was a pioneer of program music, instrumental music that portrays a story, scene, or other nonmusical subject. The most famous of his programmatic works is The Four Seasons, a collection of four violin concertos, one devoted to each of the four seasons of the year.