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The strange fate of a “red-haired priest”

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Antonio Vivaldi, one of the most popular composer of all times, had a curious fate. The long-lasting darling of Venice, he was vilified in Benedetto Marcello's famous Teatro alla moda and despised as “an excellent violinist but a second-rate composer” by Carlo Goldoni. In 1740, he left the Serenissima for a mysterious destination and died in Vienna the following year ; exactly half a century before Mozart, he was buried without ceremony in the same cemetary for the destitute...


Then, he vanished out of the memory of the generations to be eventually rescued by his most famous arranger : the 19th century Bach Revival induced musicologists to inquire about a musician whose not least than a dozen concertos had been transcribed by the Kantor. Some decades later, in 1913, Marc Pincherle wrote the first thesis about Vivaldi; musical dons became progressively acquainted with what was revealed as the works of one of the greatest composers of his time. Finally the long-playing record was developed and Vivaldi's glory - a well deserved one - was sung by everyone.

Frankly, we know many details but very few important things about Vivaldi. We indeed have improved since the 1920s, when his date of birth was problematical and his date of death mistaken. But, save Giovanni Battista, his own father, a violinist of the Ducal chapel, we still ignore which masters had Antonio. From his nickname we know that he was a “red-haired priest”, ordained on March 23rd, 1703 and suffering a bad health. But, relieved from any ministry - and even from saying mass - what kind of priest was he ? A society cleric surroun


ded by cantatrices, or a priest-cum-composer divided between his breviary and his violin - as he wanted Goldoni to believe ? Was he a cheat or a Candide, was he cheerful or melancholic, fiery or composed ? He has been depicted several times but we can only trust a small Ghezzi's caricature. It is thus feasible to imagine a Vivaldi at one's fantasy from one's fantasies about Vivaldi's time, Vivaldi's Venice or Vivaldi's music.


One thing is sure : his “fury of composing” told by President de Brosses and ascertained by a gigantic catalogue of some 94 sonatas, 17 sinfonie, 483 concertos, more than 30 motets and oratorios, numberless arias and profane cantatas, 60 odd operas, not all recorded or even performed.


THE FOUR SEASONS


The Four Seasons are the first four concertos of twelve in Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (“The match between harmony and invention”), op. 8, published in Amsterdam in 1725 by Le Cene with four sonnets which sections are strictly paralleled with the score. The dedicatee was an amateur, the Earl of Morzin. In the foreword of the edition, it is said that Morzin “was familiar with the concertos before the scores were printed, but had his interest renewed by the sonnets and by a detailed explanation of the episodes”. In fact, it is not established whether Vivaldi was inspired by the sonnets or added the poems to appeal the customers… Such “detailed explanation” will perhaps not appeal the modern listener. We shall merely quote the “Autumn” sonnet, which pictures could have been painted by Pietro Longhi :



A By songs and dances the farmers celebrate

The gay pleasure of a good harvest

B With Bacchus'liquor everyone is so inflamed

C That their joy is consumed into sleep

D The atmosphere is softened by pleasure

And they give up all songs and dances

This is the season which instigates

To the delight of an easy sleep

E Now comes the dawn and the hunters go hunting

With horns blowing, and guns, and hounds

F The game fly, the hunters trail

G Already numb, exhausted with the noise

Of guns and hounds, wounded, bullied,

H The beast runs away but overwhelmed, dies.


The Four Seasons were already very popular in Vivaldi's time and there were countless arrangements. For example, Chedeville made a musette from “The Spring”, Corrette a motet on Ps. 184, Laudate Dominum de cœlis and Jean-Jacques Rousseau a simple setting for flute solo.

For this recording, Franco Gulli had played his wondrous “Maréchal Berthier” Stradivarius which belonged to Ferenc von Vecsey (1893-1935), his master and dedicatee of Sibelius’ violon concerto.



Gerard Gefen







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