If you have ever been in a shopping mall then chances are pretty good that you have heard the music of Antonio Vivaldi. His violin concerto, which he called The Four Seasons, is one of the most popular baroque pieces in our time and has become a standard in background music everywhere.
Vivaldi was born on March 4, 1678, in Venice. His father was a violinist who saw to it that young Antonio received proper training on that instrument. Vivaldi also trained to become a priest and was ordained in 1703. However, shortly after his ordination he stopped saying Mass and also stopped carrying out his duties as a priest. One possible reason for his lack of commitment to the priesthood was his health — it is believed that he had asthma. Another possible reason is that he was more fascinated with “worldly” things — he apparently had a rather “unpriestly” interest in women.
From 1704 through 1740, Vivaldi was violinist, teacher, conductor, and composer at a school for orphaned girls in Venice. He was responsible for writing new music on a regular basis for church services and concerts. His situation at the school provided him with a built-in orchestra and chorus and therefore made composing a rewarding task — everything that he wrote was guaranteed to be performed.
Vivaldi wrote a tremendous amount of vocal music including operas, cantatas, and oratorios. In his lifetime, his operas were performed more than those of any other composer. Today, however, Vivaldi is best known for his orchestral music, especially his concertos. He was extremely prolific in all genres of composition, but no one came close to matching his output of concertos — he completed nearly 500, two thirds of which were solo concertos and the rest of which were concerto grosso.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is notable not only for its popularity, but also because it is a very early example of program music — music that imitates or represents things, feelings, or ideas without the use of words. The fact that Vivaldi wrote in this style is unique because program music did not become standard practice in Western music until more than 100 years after the completion of the Four Seasons.
As a violinist Vivaldi was one of the best of his era, and he set new standards of technique on his instrument. As a composer he established a modern style that was extremely influential. He was very popular and financially successful, giving him the opportunity to travel extensively to other parts of Europe. His music had a strong impact on Bach for one, who studied his concertos carefully, learning much about the Italian baroque style.