Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest of Venice

Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4, 1678, the eldest child of a violinist who was also, by trade, a barber. At the age of 15, young Antonio began his training for the priesthood, despite—or perhaps because of—his extraordinary aptitude as a violinist. (Then, as now, it was difficult for professional musicians to get by without a day job!) In 1703, at the age of 25, Vivaldi was anointed as a priest and, later that same year, appointed violin master to the foundling girl musicians at the Ospedale della Pietà.

Because of his flaming red hair, Vivaldi came to be known as il Prete Rosso (the Red Priest). His association with the Pietà lasted, with various ups and downs, for 37 years. He was the lead teacher for violin and viola all’inglese for the famed orchestra of the Pietà, teaching the best performers—among them, Anna Maria—who would, in their turn, teach others according to his methods. In 1716, he was given the title of Maestro de’ Concerti and resident composer, producing a prodigious body of both choral and instrumental works that kept the foundling home—through its highly touted public performances—financially afloat. On the side, Vivaldi wrote and produced operas, winning riches and accolades but always walking along the edge of a financial precipice.

When he was 46, the Red Priest sponsored the operatic debut of a young contralto of questionable virtuosity named Anna Girò. She became his favorite prima donna and, along with her older sister, traveled with Vivaldi throughout the rest of his stormy career as an opera impresario. Many people in high places—especially the Red Priest’s fellow clerics—were very unhappy with this arrangement. 

In large part because of the scandals that dogged his name, Vivaldi was effectively exiled from Venice, the city he loved so well. He died at the age of 63 in July 1741 in Vienna, where he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Vivaldi immediately fell into utter obscurity for nearly two hundred years (if he is even mentioned in musical histories of Venice published before the 1960s, it is as an eccentric priest and violinist!). His rehabilitation as a composer only began when scholars recognized the direct and profound influence of Vivaldi’s compositions on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Little by little, and sometimes by great leaps, the Red Priest’s large body of both secular and sacred music is being brought to life again.  

New scores by Vivaldi are still being discovered, and much of his music remains to be recorded. Many of the exquisite choral works he composed for the Pietà, from around 1713 until 1739, have recently become available on compact disc from Hyperion Records Limited of London, England.

Since the explosion of his popularity in the 1960s, Vivaldi’s resurrection has been nothing short of spectacular. His Four Seasons is now the most widely played and most recognizable piece in the classical music canon. His operas and oratorios are being revived on concert stages all over the world, and there are three films about Vivaldi currently in production.

Go to the Discography for links to buying or listening to the music of Vivaldi’s Virgins.