Vivaldi & Venice


In the early 1700s, few European cities were more stimulating to live in than Venice, Italy – especially for music lovers. Opera and ballet were being invented, along with new and exciting possibilities for orchestra and chamber groups – glorious music by such inspiring composers as Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Marcello, Tomaso Albinoni and, above all, Antonio Vivaldi. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample their work and marvel at their brilliance.


We tend to think of Germany and Austria as the most important centers of classical music in Europe – and in many ways, that's true. Think of the composers who hailed from those two countries: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, etc. And, for decades, Vienna was the music capital of the continent. But let's move to the sunny south during the early 1700s and discover a hugely important country and another cultural capital that gave birth to instrumental and vocal genres that have all but defined music through the last 400 years. Italy in the age of the Baroque (mid-1600s to the middle-1700s) was a hotbed for art of all kinds – painting, sculpture, theater, dance, poetry and, of course, music. Early on, several popes helped shape an approach to sacred music that clarified the continent's trend toward busy polyphony (multiple lines of music heard simultaneously). Over in Cremona, Stradivari and Guarneri competed to see who could built the finest string instruments – resulting in masterworks that have never been equaled. Though cities such as Rome, Milan and Florence produced fine musicians and great music, none could compare with Venice as the Baroque Era reached its pinnacle. The spacious St. Mark's Cathedral inspired resident composers to write antiphonal music, setting multiple groups of players and singers echoing each others' melodies and harmonies. Just as competition among instrument-builders resulted in major improvements in their product, competition from Venice's wealthy dukes led to the evolution and popularization of musical and theatrical entertainment. As in other opulent European courts, private amusements for royalty became a source of pride and braggadocio, as emperors and dukes had personal theaters built in their palaces and hired the best players, singers, dancers, poets and set designers to create lavish productions that would become the envy of their rivals.  Stages were equipped with equipment that allowed performers to soar above like angels (supported by wires), while instrumental ensembles were placed in front to accompany singers and dancers cavorting through various sagas of Greek gods and earthly heroes. Thus, opera and ballet began – but it wouldn't remain the private plaything of royalty for long. Though the first operas were staged in Florence (in 1598), Venice saw the opening of the first public opera house in 1637. The city became home to several great composers, such as Marcello, Albinoni and, most famously, Antonio Vivaldi, known as “The Red Priest.” These men (along with Arcangelo Corelli earlier) developed the concept of the chamber sonata, which called for a “continuo” of keyboard and gamba (an early version of the cello), accompanying a pair of instruments in alternating fast and slow movements. As the virtuoso emerged, so too did the concerto, which placed talented soloists in front of a small instrumental contingent. Thus, music's first flamboyant stars were born (Vivaldi was known more as a brilliant violinist than composer). These music-makers also wrote sacred works and operas that reflected the public's passion for these new, exciting sounds. Word of Venice's musical explosion spread through Europe, followed by home-grown stars touring through the continent. Vivaldi spent time in Vienna (where he died in 1741), Amsterdam and Prague, attracting enthusiastic audiences and curious composers. Up in Germany, Bach secured some of “The Red Priest's” scores, methodically copying them out or arranging them for other instruments. Back home, Vivaldi spent more than a decade leading an orchestra of the young abandoned girls at the Ospedale della Pietà (Hospital of Peace). These talented girls, secretly dropped off at the Ospedale at birth, were raised and trained to become cultivated young ladies who might attract a husband. The ensemble gave concerts of Vivaldi's music, often performing behind screens so as not to embarrass themselves.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and what role did they play in Venice's musical history?
  • Why was Cremona a center for instrument-building?
  • Which of Vivaldi's works did Bach transcribe for other instruments?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you prefer the fast, note-heavy concerto movements of Vivaldi, or the slow, lyrical ones?
  • Why do you think Vivaldi's “The Four Seasons” has remained so popular?
  • Why did Vivaldi fell into obscurity during the 19th and early 20th Century?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Arnold, Grout, et al. The New Grove Italian Baroque Masters: Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Cavalli, Corelli, A. Scarlatti, Vivaldi, D. Scarlatti. (paperback) W. W. Norton & Co, 1997. 376 pages. Excellent biography of Vivaldi as well as other important musical figures.
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