Antonio Vivaldi is the first composer on this list whose name and music are likely familiar to everyone.
That was not always the case. Despite his profound influence on Bach and many others, Vivaldi’s compositions fell out of a favor (his virtuosity as a violinist was his primary calling card, not his compositions) and were pretty much lost to history—so much so that their rediscovery in the 1920s was a major event in music history. And what a treasure trove they discovered: More than 500 concertos, nearly 100 sonatas, 46 operas, tons of assorted choral and other chamber music, and much more. New works continue to be discovered seemingly every year. Prolific does not even begin to describe the man.
Vivaldi was born into poverty and given over to the clergy where he was to be ordained as a priest. My recollection is that he squirmed out of actually being ordained, but whether or not he formally took his vows is irrelevant—he is known to history as the Red Priest. He is also most closely associated with the city of Venice, then in decline from its heights as a maritime power. Today, you cannot go 100 yards anywhere in Venice without seeing some flyer for a Vivaldi concert. If Canaletto is our vision of Venice, Vivaldi is its soundtrack.
Bonus movie pick: If you have not watched the film The Red Violin, you should do so. If only to see Samuel L. Jackson play a violin appraiser. There is a bit of science fiction about the film, which I will not get into here, but will say that it takes the concept of the Conversation to new heights. One of the characters in the story is a child prodigy violinist, whose story is, quite clearly, based primarily on Vivaldi. That was not lost on John Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score. Highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUCjCn9HDyc. One of my Top 10 films ever.
After Lully and Corelli, Vivaldi is the third major violinist-composer and, more than the others, his works are firmly associated with that instrument. Vivaldi’s singular contribution to music is the solo concerto, which he invented and perfected, and which has remained more or less standard in construction until the 20th century. Solo instrument set against an orchestra over three movements: fast; slow; fast. This is the way.
As with most virtuosi, Vivaldi wowed his audiences with shredding—you cannot play Vivaldi too fast. Vivaldi’s innovations also included heightening of harmonic contrasts, as well as an undeniable gift for composing melodic tunes. For me, and this is perhaps because I played so many of his works growing up, his music exists almost out of time and place. While I generally prefer historically informed performances, Vivaldi’s works benefit from speed, ferocity, and modern interpretation like none other of the period.
Vivaldi’s most important composition, the 12 violin concertos collectively entitled L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was deemed so vulgar and profane that he was fired from his job. Needless to say, these concerti proved to be his ticket to fame—Bach translated no fewer than half of them.
We’ve seen pop stars before in this history. Vivaldi was music’s first rock star. Just hook up an electric guitar and play his stuff:
Fitting, then, that he died tragically, poor and in ill-health, his music all but forgotten.
L’Estro Armonico upends Purcell by disposing of the melody altogether, relying solely on harmonic progressions to push the music along. Push being the key word. The harmonic progressions in L’Estro Armonico were the musical equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica—our understanding of the physics of music would never be the same. The entire series is worth a listen. Several have been grouped together by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which is available on most streaming services. Here is one of my favorites:
Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 2 in G Minor: