July 28, 1741 — Italian composer Antonio Lucio Vivaldi died on this day. Lovers of Baroque music came to regard July 28 as a black day because the other master of the form, Johann Sebastian Bach, departed precisely nine years later – on July 28, 1750. By coincidence, both men were born in the month of March.
Born in Venice in 1678, Vivaldi was the son of a professional violinist. He began studying to become a priest at the age of 15 and was ordained ten years later. Because of his red hair he was known locally as "il Prete Rosso," – "the Red Priest." His twin passions of religion and music dominated his life, but health problems impacted both.
Though – thanks to his father’s teaching – Vivaldi was an accomplished violinist, a severe asthmatic condition often left him chronically short of breath and so unable to play wind instruments. It also meant that he could not deliver mass – a problem that caused him to abandon the priesthood shortly after his ordination.
But it did not stop him from becoming, at the age of 25, master of violin at the Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice. This was partly an orphanage where boys were taught a trade and girls learnt music. The most talented of them joined an orchestra that played Vivaldi's compositions, and in 1716 he was promoted to music director. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working at the orphanage.
Vivaldi was aged 48 when a pretty 15-year-old contralto named Anna Girò sang in one of his operas. Her voice was unremarkable but she became part of his entourage and the indispensable prima donna of his subsequent operas. Inevitably, gossip began circulating that she was Vivaldi’s mistress, but it was never proven. After his death she continued to perform successfully in opera until quitting the stage in 1748 to marry a nobleman.
Around 1717 to 1721, Vivaldi wrote his masterpiece, "The Four Seasons", for which he is probably best known. However, in his later years he was eclipsed by younger composers and more modern styles. Changing musical tastes meant that his compositions seemed outmoded and were no longer held in high esteem.
The result was that Vivaldi was engulfed by financial difficulties and died in poverty at Vienna of “internal infection.” Aged 63, he was buried in a simple grave after a funeral service conducted without music.
Vivaldi left some 450 unpublished compositions, a number of which, amazingly, were not performed until the 1990s.
Published: June 18, 2021
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