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21 April 2021, 13:32
From The Four Seasons to the opera L’Olimpiade, here are some of the Baroque composer’s finest pieces of music.
His iconic set of four violin concertos depicting the weathers of different times of the year, The Four Seasons, seems to have remained as vital and urgent to our ears as when it was composed in 1723. And it still inspires new works three-and-a-half centuries on – like Max Richter’s powerful Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, which, released in 2012, makes regular appearances on film and television soundtracks.
As well as these violin concertos, and numerous other virtuosic instrumental concertos Vivaldi is well known for, the ‘Red Priest’ (more on that nickname in a minute) also wrote sacred and choral music, operas, and numerous instrumental sonatas.
Here are some of his all-time greatest pieces of music.
Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons – a set of four violin concertos, each with three movements that bring to life the feelings and fury of Earth’s different seasons and their weather: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – in 1723.
It still feels fresh to contemporary ears, containing plenty of memorable melodies, and evoking deep emotion in every movement, as dramatic and surprising today as it must have been at the time of writing. Just think of how many spaces outside classical music it continues to light up – from TV adverts and Netflix series soundtracks (Bridgerton and Chef’s Table jump to mind instantly), to telephone hold music, and even club remixes. Like this.
L’estro armonico, meaning ‘The Harmonic Inspiration’ is Vivaldi’s 1711 set of 12 concertos for strings. Each concerto is written in eight parts, for four violins, two violas, cello and continuo, and the collection demonstrates the colour and power of Vivaldi’s music.
L’estro was the first collection of concertos Vivaldi published under a title, and their popularity saw them reprinted 30 times in the just over 30-year period after they were first printed, such was their popularity.
The Four Seasons aren’t Vivaldi’s only violin concertos – and if you love the work, it’s worth checking out his others.
The energetic Violin Concerto in A minor is an enduring favourite, with its instantly recognisable opening that features suspended quavers before a flurry of virtuosic Vivaldi goodness. And the E flat Concerto, dubbed ‘La tempesta di mare’ (‘The Sea Storm’) is evocative of the Seasons in its musical depiction of a furious, frightening ocean storm.
Amidst Vivaldi’s genre-defining violin concertos and concertos for string orchestras, it’s worth taking a minute to talk about the punchy pieces he wrote for the flute in this format.
Under the influence of Vivaldi’s pen, the flute is given muscular, virtuosic solo parts to carry over the orchestra in these ten concertos – and the woodwind instrument is no less treated to multi-lined, arpeggiated melodies than its four-stringed sister, the violin. A rare treat in Baroque flutey goodness.
As well as the secular concertos and instrumental music he is famous for, Vivaldi was a prolific composer of sacred music and choral works for church settings. His Stabat Mater, a slightly shortened example of the standard Stabat Mater, is sublimely moving, set in minor keys with some stirring melodies.
Incidentally, Vivaldi had the nickname ‘Il Prete Rosso’, which means The Red Priest – a nod to his red hair and status as an ordained priest.
Sticking with choral music, Vivaldi’s 1715 Gloria (RV 589), composed for the choir and orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, is a real treat.
Vivaldi was appointed master of the violin at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls, in 1703 and continued to dedicate music to the role, and subsequent music roles he held at the institution. This popular Gloria is uplifting and features an instantly recognisable instrumental interlude, followed by the catchy and masterful ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ setting.
Vivaldi only wrote one concerto for the mandolin, but it was a corker. The concerto comes from a vintage Vivaldi year, 1725, which is the same period in which he produced The Four Seasons (above), and makes tough technical demands of even the most experienced player.
A regular feature in the Classic FM Hall of Fame, the concerto calls on an instrument that descends from the lute family, which usually has the same tuning as the standard violin – four strings, pitched in fifths apart – and which was popular with Baroque composers. The instrument remains a mainstay of countless genres and styles worldwide.
When it comes to opera, Vivaldi might not be a name that jumps to mind – certainly not before Puccini, Verdi or Mozart. But, for your benefit, Vivaldi’s theatrical works for the stage should really be up there.
Orlando furioso was revived by Dallas Opera in 1980, 266 years after it was composed, and is a great place to start when it comes to the – um, 94 operas? – Vivaldi is known to have composed.
Sticking with Vivaldi’s contribution to Baroque opera, try the composer’s 1734 three-act opera, about the Olympic games.
Protagonist Megacles enters the games, which carries a prize of the hand in marriage of Aristaea, the daughter of King Clistene of Sicione. The catch is, he competes in the games under a different name – that of his friend, Lycidas. And – in a plot twist befitting of any opera worth its salt – Lycidas, like Megacles, is already in love with Aristaea. So a love triangle creates some complications for a while, and leads to an assassination, but ultimately love wins through and through, and things sort themselves out eventually.
Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in D major is unfailingly jubilant and infectiously joyful. The bright trumpets play off each other in ‘rounds’ in the cheerful opening passage, before the parts come together in all their glory to punctuate the idiosyncratic fast Vivaldi string writing underneath. A wonderful, uplifting listen.
Hear some of Vivaldi’s greatest works in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2021 playlist, on Global Player.