On The Trail Of The Vivaldi Manuscripts

Classic FM visits Turin to examine Vivaldi’s original handwritten scores, and discovers a project that reveals another side to this prolific composer.

The early morning sun is beginning to break through the clouds as Classic FM arrives at Turin’s Biblioteca Nazionale, the oldest national library in Italy. Shafts of filtered sunlight reveal the elaborate 19th-century façade in all its glory, highlighting the gleaming white stone walls and the green bronze roof, settling on the sculpted crest above the entrance, and casting an ethereal glow across the Piazza Carlo Alberto, over which this building grandly presides. 

But despite such a magnificent exterior, it’s what Classic FM discovers inside that leaves a lasting impression. In a small room, volume upon volume of immaculately preserved manuscripts are piled up on a table. As Classic FM leafs through the pages of parchment paper, allowing our finger to travel the outline of each beautifully written note, our eyes rest on an insignia – the insignia of Antonio Vivaldi. 

There are 27 volumes here altogether, containing 92 per cent of Vivaldi’s autograph manuscripts – 450 in total – all found at the composer’s home in Vienna when he died. The works represented include nearly 300 concertos and 20 operas, 14 of which are complete. With one exception, no complete Vivaldi opera has been found in any other library or collection. But how did the manuscripts turn up here, in a city that, by all accounts, Vivaldi never even visited? 

The story goes that, upon Vivaldi’s death in 1741, the manuscripts were inherited by his brother, Francesco – a barber and wig-maker in Venice – who then sold them to a Venetian senator, Count Jacopo Soranzo. From him, the manuscripts passed to Count Giacomo Durazzo, who kept them in his palace on the Grand Canal. Upon his death, they were transported to Genoa, where they remained at the family villa for a century. 

In 1893, the volumes were divided equally between two brothers from the Durazzo family. When one, Marcello, died, he left his part of the collection to a monastery near Alessandria, an hour east of Turin. In 1926, the monastery needed to raise money for repair work and contacted the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for an evaluation of the manuscripts’ worth. 

Realising their value, the library approached a wealthy businessman, who purchased the volumes in memory of his son who had died. But the remaining manuscripts were still in Genoa, and it was only after lengthy negotiations that, in 1930, the last heirs of the Durazzo family agreed to sell them. By strange coincidence, these, too, were bought for the library by a businessman in memory of a deceased son. 

With the manuscripts reunited, it was only a matter of time before word spread as to their existence. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the American poet Ezra Pound made an early attempt to catalogue the music. Then, in 1947, the Ricordi publishing house in Milan began editing and publishing modern editions, focusing purely on the instrumental music. 

But where was Turin in all of this? Recognising the need for the city that housed the manuscripts to get involved, chief musicologist for the region Alberto Basso – who had already spent some time cataloguing the collection – came up with the idea of recording the manuscripts in their entirety. He approached the French record label Naïve and, in 2000, the Vivaldi Edition project was born. So far, 25 titles have been released, including six operas. With every opera, because no printed editions exist, Vivaldi scholars must study the manuscripts and prepare a critical edition before it can be performed. The musicians, too, study the original manuscripts – or photocopies of them – in order to create performances that are definitive and authentic. 

Which brings us back to why Classic FM is here in this historic city. We’ve been invited to the first performance in Turin of Vivaldi’s opera Orlando Furioso, a recently released world premiere recording on Naïve. During my visit, Classic FM meets the Vivaldi Edition’s director Susan Orlando, who explains the importance of the project. 

“It has been especially instrumental in bringing to light Vivaldi’s importance as a vocal composer,” she says. “The operas have been a real revelation.” 

Orlando is pleased that Vivaldi’s music is being given the recognition it deserves. “His music imparts a joie de vivre, though it can also be very profound. It speaks to you on the first listening – a phenomenon that’s not true for most composers. With Vivaldi, the first time you hear his music, it will move you.” 

The many fine period musicians involved with the Vivaldi Edition agree. When Classic FM meets up with dynamic French conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who is conducting his Ensemble Matheus in Orlando Furioso later that evening, his comments about Vivaldi are all in the superlative. 

“With Vivaldi’s music I can express everything,” he enthuses. “In his operas, Vivaldi understands human passions and translates those into his music. It’s direct from the note to the heart.” 

Spinosi is particularly excited because he has just seen the manuscripts in the flesh for the first time. “To see the originals was very impressive,” he says, looking like a small boy at Christmas. 

His enthusiasm is infectious, particularly during the concert itself. At one point, his baton flies out of his hands and into the back row of the strings, but the audience doesn’t care – they’re transfixed by the energy, the excitement and the beauty of what they’re hearing, and with the spine-tingling knowledge that every note being performed is handwritten by the composer himself on bound parchment paper, preserved in a building just a few streets away.