In a hospital delivery room the obstetrician could not move the baby until [Dr.] Clements played Vivaldi. The baby then danced free and was born normally….

The Sunday Times (London)
December 11, 1977

In recent years the music of Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 1741) has inundated concert programs and FM stations, outnumbered listings of Handel in record catalogues, and so vastly expanded the repertory of chamber orchestras that new ensembles have been formed to play it. This ubiquity contrasts with the two centuries of eclipse1 following the death of the “red-headed priest.”2 Though a comparatively large portion of his music was published during his lifetime and remained accessible in libraries, not until the nineteenth-century Bach revival and the unearthing of a “Concerto del Sigre Ant. Vivaldi accomodato per l’Organo…del Sigre Giovanni Sebastiano Bach” and of twelve other concertos “elaborati” by Bach did the Venetian’s name arouse any curiosity. But even this endorsement did not lead to reprintings of his music or to its presentation before a wide audience.

The principal event in the annals of Vivaldi’s posthumous works is the Turin National Library’s acquisition in 1927 and 1930 of the manuscripts of some 300 compositions whose existence had not been suspected, a discovery as momentous for lovers of Baroque music as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for students of religion. The story of this retrieval must be reviewed, if only to understand the difficulties for anyone wishing to explore Vivaldi’s instrumental music beyond the popular concerto cycles, L’Estro armonico, La Stravaganza, Il Cimento and La Cetra.

In 1926 the Fathers of a Collegio San Carlo in Piedmont asked Luigi Torri of the Turin Library to appraise a large number of “old volumes” and advise about their sale. He consulted Turin University’s Dr. Alberto Gentili, who found that they contained a prodigious number of autograph Vivaldi manuscripts of vocal works sacred and secular that he was not known to have composed, as well as of operas and instrumental pieces. The matter was kept secret until, on February 15, 1927, a sponsor, Roberto Foa, purchased the music for the Library.

Meanwhile, Gentili had noticed that the scores were haphazardly bound and that in some cases the last pages were missing, which seemed to indicate that the collection was part of a larger one. He learned from the Collegio that its volumes were the bequest of the widow of Marcello Durazzo of Genoa, and, from this well-known family, that the original owner had been Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794), Gluck’s patron and a one-time Austrian ambassador to Venice. His heirs had been responsible for the division, and Marcello’s nephew still possessed the complementary half.

How the ambassador acquired the music is not known. One theory suggests that he bought it directly from Vivaldi, another that it came from the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice,3 the convent, foundling home, and conservatory4 on the Riva degli Schiavone where the composer had been a teacher and “maestro de’ concerti” for almost four decades. But is an institution of the church a likely repository for opera scores and other secular music? And, since Vivaldi died in Vienna in obscurity and poverty when Durazzo’s career had hardly begun, where could the transaction have taken place? It is improbable that the semi-invalid composer, who had only a few months to live, would have transported the equivalent of twentyseven bulky volumes from Venice to Vienna. Furthermore, if he had received even a small sum for the manuscripts, would he have had a poor man’s funeral, “with a small peal of the bells”?

Count Durazzo’s twentieth-century descendant was more demanding than the Fathers of San Carlo. He was also less discreet, and Gentili’s negotiations were threatened by competitive offers from dealers. Luckily, a second Maecenas, Filippo Giordano, came to the rescue, and the government, which had confiscatory powers over art treasures, forced the issue. In October 1930 the Durazzo collection, constituting the largest part of Vivaldi’s total work, was reunited in the Turin Library.

Publication has been dilatory even by Italian standards. The general audience’s recognition of Vivaldi—some cognoscenti have not yet reached this point—was interrupted by the war, after a “Settimana Vivaldiana” in Siena in September 1939.5 But the composer’s phenomenal popularity is due in considerable measure to the long-playing record and the continuing ascendancy of this abundant repertory medium over that of the concert. In the 1940s, Antonio Fanna, with the collaboration of the Edizioni Ricordi and of G. F. Malipiero as artistic director, founded an Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi in the composer’s native city. In 1947 the music began to appear, and orchestra scores are now available of most of the instrumental works, but of only a few choral pieces and none of the operas. These publications are little more than transcriptions, often careless, with some rudimentary editing—the addition of parenthetical dynamics, articulations, bowings, realizations of figured basses, and of footnotes showing notational problems in the manuscripts. But in view of the musicological muddle concerning performance practices in Vivaldi’s time, the absence of commentaries on interpretation is probably fortunate.


Marc Pincherle’s 1913 Sorbonne thesis and later monograph6 on Vivaldi established the French musicologist as the leading authority on the subject, and his analyses of the music’s stylistic features and his elucidations of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century instrumental forms have remained the basis of all studies of the composer. The recent, handsomely illustrated volume of essays by six younger French writers7 was evidently inspired by the devotion and superior standards of this pioneer. But the numbering of each concerto, sinfonia, and sonata in Pincherle’s “Inventaire thématique,” accompanied by his initial (“P.”), has not been universally adopted. Each subsequent Vivaldian—except Olga Rudge, the violinist and friend of Ezra Pound, who published the first thematic index of the Turin manuscripts8—has introduced his own system, with unfortunate results. (See box on next page.)

Reviewing a recent London concert by a Swiss chamber orchestra, Stanley Sadie of The Times remarked unfavorably on the decision of the group to be heard in an all-Vivaldi program rather than in

first-rate music like Bach or Mozart. [Moreover, by] electing to play mainly slight, major-key works (Vivaldi is almost always at his best in the minor), they [sic] may not have given themselves much of a chance…. [Mr.] Tylor played a mandoline concerto.

The mandoline concerto. And if the ensemble had performed Vivaldi-Bach, would the music have been first or second rate? Mr. Sadie must have an enviable familiarity with this immense body of music if he can generalize about the best of it in terms of key. But does the quality between major and minor really fluctuate this predictably? Approximately 350 of 480 concertos counted by Pincherle are in major keys, though two out of three slow movements are in the minor. Yet major and minor are often less important in characterizing a concerto as a whole than they are internally, where they are a principal element of that contrast which is the essence of Vivaldi in slow tempos as well as fast. The delectable last movement of the Concerto for Strings, T.5, a dialogue between a concertante trio in A minor and ripieni orchestra in A major, is evenly sustained in quality, and this and countless other examples attest that the value judgment is more complex than Mr.Sadie’s statement has allowed.

That Vivaldi lacks the depth, dimensions, intensity, and much else besides, of Bach and Mozart, and must be rated far below them, scarcely needs to be said. Like them, however, he is wholly alive: we do not listen to him “historically”; and he shares with them a strength of personality, even if almost purely physical in his case, his music being of the body, not of the soul. In a Beethoven scherzo, the choreographic impulse is satisfied in the music alone, but a Vivaldi finale is an actual dance, difficult to hear sitting still. And, other considerations aside, how much poorer our musical life would be if it were restricted to Bach and Mozart, and if the second-rate masterpieces of Vivaldi were ostracized.

The anomaly of Vivaldi the composer-priest is that he apparently lacked a religious vocation, and, so the evidence suggests, took the tonsure for material reasons. He was required to compose a minimum of two masses a year, two motets a month, and music for vesper services, funerals, official church occasions. Yet only one complete mass by this most prolific composer has been found, and though his “Gloria,” “Magnificat,” “Domine,” and other sacred pieces have become popular, in forty years of ecclesiastical service he produced a far greater quantity of secular than of sacred music, and, of works imbued with religious profundity, perhaps none. Several of the concertos are named for saints’ days and church festivals, but the spirit of the allegros in these pieces is more “da camera” than “da chiesa,” the ariosos are operatic, and the vivacity is suited more to the carnivals of Venice than to its Lenten pieties. Vivaldi’s one distinct “religious” mood is a lugubriousness, most powerfully conveyed in the “Santo Sepolcro” Concerto, music whose harmonic construction might easily be misattributed to Charles Ives; yet even here the feeling is more theatrical than penitential.

In a 1737 letter to a patron, Count Bentivoglio, Vivaldi revealed that

An ailment has burdened me since birth. When I had barely been ordained a priest I said mass for a year or a little more. Then I discontinued saying it, having on three occasions had to leave the altar…because of this ailment. For this reason I nearly always stay at home, and I only go out in a gondola or a coach…. I can no longer walk on account of this chest ailment, or tightness in the chest…. Knowing of my ailment, no nobleman invites me to his house….

This disability is usually thought to have been asthma, since the other complaints that fit the description, such as angina or a congenital heart condition, would have killed so active a man at an earlier age. But if he were too short of breath to walk, or to say mass, how was he able to lead such a strenuous life in music, playing the violin during lengthy concerts, conducting his operas and supervising productions of them, traveling frequently and extensively? The conclusion seems inevitable that he resorted to poor health to avoid the routine duties of a priest, and to devote himself to music. If this hypothesis is true, he undoubtedly developed an aversion to saying mass, and the asthmatic seizures would have had a psychological component. Indeed, the whole charade, with the simulated inability to walk and the necessary acting out of the affliction for others, even to the self-exclusion from the homes of the nobility, sounds like a case history from Georg Groddeck. This would also explain the discrepancy between the apparently invalid and neurotic composer and the health and high spirits of his music. Vivaldi had to save his energies for his art.


Vivaldi is a better and more resourceful composer than he is held to be by those whose received opinion of him was formed during the 1950s by Luigi Dallapiccola and others. Thus the music is said to be harmonic and not at all contrapuntal, though the development of themes—and even the repetitions of them, in chaconnes—is not infrequently canonic and fugal. Thus, too, the bon mot that Vivaldi did not compose 600 concertos but a single one 600 times is quickly refuted by exploring beyond the dozen or so of the best known. In fact each is unique, if only by virtue of an unexpected change of key, phrase extension, instrumental novelty. Obviously the creation of so many pieces depends on formulas, but the freedom of construction is far greater than is generally believed, and the chord progressions, enharmonic modulations, dissonances (Pincherle compares one passage to Petrushka), are often startling, as are the distributions of large ternary rhythms within meters of four, the overriding of bar-lines and their accentuation, and the use of syncopation. Vivaldi experimented with the principle of thematic unity, with constructing melodies on single pitches, and, at another extreme, extending ritornellos almost indefinitely. He follows prescriptions, to be sure, and slavishly, but no less often obeys the original instincts of his genius. In a few instances he concluded pieces in a different key from the one in which he began, not out of capriciousness, it is said, but from “forgetfulness” attributable to the high speed at which he composed. But is it not more likely that Vivaldi, like Bach (in the fughetta “Was furcht’st du, Feind Herodes, sehr“), deliberately ignored the rule?

Vivaldi was inspired by programmatic ideas, and his imagination was freed by them to the extent that he could transcend his historical period and its conventions to create music similar in feeling to Mozart’s (in the middle movement of the bassoon concerto, T.28), Schumann’s (the Largo of the opus 11 C minor Concerto), and even Tchaikovsky’s (the andante of the “Favorito” Concerto). But interest in Vivaldi the harbinger of nineteenth-century lyricism is overshadowed by an obsession with his place in musical morphology, the influence of his concertos on the development of the classical sonata, the symphony, and the “new,” virtuoso solo, concerto.

Vivaldi’s sentiment was more modern still. The “Dormienti Ubriachi” (“Intoxicated Slumber”) movement from L’Autunno, for example, anticipates Debussy. The formal outlines are blurred and even the boundaries between harmony, melody, rhythm, texture, and color (muted strings); the elements merge to create an effect of unreality and improvisation. Whether the result was recognized as a musical composition at the time, the composer was probably excused because of his title; but this and his other verbal tags, such as those in L’Inverno purporting to depict a “horrible wind,” or sliding on ice, are irrelevant: very different ones for the same music would make its “imitations” of other events, actions, and situations seem no less apt. What matters concerning Vivaldi’s evocative intentions is that they provoked some of his most astonishing music.

Writers on Vivaldi devote a large part of their space to his use of instruments, solo and in ensembles. But he is so preponderantly a composer for violin and the other strings—only one concerto in four employs winds—that these discussions seem largely superfluous. His pieces for “molti stromenti” are disappointing, especially those with horns, which restrict his harmonic and melodic range to fanfare patterns (cf. “Per la Solennità di S. Lorenzo“), and though the sonorities of flutes and salmos, violins in “tromba marina,” mandolines, lutes, and theorbos are exotic (in the Concerto T.318), the music is dull. The double-orchestra concertos,9 too, are interesting chiefly as examples of the continuing antiphonal tradition of San Marco. In short, Vivaldi’s importance in the development of the orchestra is in having helped to establish its independence by creating such a substantial literature for purely instrumental ensembles. This contributed to the shift away from the predominance of vocal music, elevating the orchestra from accompanist and in some degree forming the path toward the sovereignty that Beethoven achieved for the symphony.

Great composers create the character of the instruments that they use, but Vivaldi did little to differentiate his oboe solos (for instance) from those that he wrote for violin, in figuration and in qualities of tone. A comparison of the obbligato parts for these instruments in Bach’s Aus der Tiefe demonstrates this, for the cantata exploits the sustained notes of the double-reed and gives it a dominating role with which Vivaldi never entrusted it. As for his thirty-nine bassoon concertos, it is hardly fair to reproach him because they display none of the characteristics that later composers have associated with the instrument, yet the solo parts are not specially designed for the woodwind as distinguished from the cello. Also, the one good movement in the horn concertos does not use the horn at all but is a cello solo, one that might have come from a nineteenth-century French ballet score. Vivaldi is more successful imitating wind-instrument music in the strings, as in the hunting horns in the solo violin part in L’Autunno.

The exceptions are the brilliant concerti à cinque that mix violin and winds, the concerto for flautino, T.105, whose 12-8 movement reveals the potential pathos of the instrument, and the concerto for two mandolines. That this last has become one of the composer’s most popular pieces is largely owing to the sound of the instrument, its sparkle in the allegros, tenderness in the serenade, resonant lower notes (and facility in playing wide intervals); tremolo, Eliot’s “pleasant whining of a mandoline,” is not indicated but was surely used. The finale is a breathtaking acrobatic display, the players saving their most spectacular somersaults for the very end.

Oddly, Vivaldi’s vast corpus of concertos does not include a single one for cembalo. Possibly he did not like it, since he substitutes string arpeggios and pizzicatos for keyboard elaboration (cf. the concerto for three violins, T.88, and the concerto for flute, violin, and bassoon, T.144), and the treble parts in his two organ concertos are violinistic. Certainly the cembalo, or continuo, is absent from a surprising number of his slow movements as well as during long stretches of fast ones. C.P.E. Bach censured him for this heretical practice, but Vivaldi obtained striking effects of contrast and relief with it, as did J.S. Bach, in the interlude for unaccompanied flutes and gambas between the fugal expositions in “Und der du Vorbild grosser Frauen.” Vivaldi favored accompaniments in the alto register by a single, unharmonized line, and this suspension of the conventional bass is another similarity with Petrushka. Finally, his neglect of the keyboard is as comprehensible as François Couperin’s or Domenico Scarlatti’s neglect of the violin.

For the most part, Vivaldi on records is still played “as written,” while the few attempts to observe semblances of Baroque styles are rarely successful. The conflicting instructions of musicologists can scarcely be blamed, since musicians do not read them, yet the obliviousness of the world’s most eminent conductors to even the most elementary interpretative necessities of this music is something of a phenomenon. Karajan, for instance, performs Le Stagioni much as he does Verklaerte Nacht, with great refinement of tone, the perfect graduation of dynamics, the smoothest articulation—which is virtuosity of a kind, but not Vivaldi’s.

No doubt Karajan would answer that since the string instruments in his orchestra are modern, the revival of a style suited to those of two and a half centuries ago is unjustified, that bariolage, brisure, and other devices are different with curved bows. This is true; but the character of the music is more altered by such essentials as the lengths of notes, which, when too long, for example, can transform dances into songs.

Many star instrumentalists are equally unenlightened, perhaps the worst offender being the celebrated flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who, to begin with, simply plays everything at the fastest possible speed in order to exhibit his technique and without regard for the music. Unlike him, Heinz Hollinger, the oboist, embellishes the music intelligently, but sometimes fails to recognize Lombardian rhythmic figures and hence does not play their first two notes fast enough. George Malcolm, harpsichordist, and Julian Bream, lutanist, are exceptions, ornamenting the music expertly, and, what is more, delineating the diagrammatic version of a line before embroidering it. Vivaldi was obviously fond of the lute, as he was of the mandoline, and it could be used as a continuo instrument in many of the slow movements.

No statement about the performance of Baroque music has engendered so much debate as that of Vivaldi’s friend J.J. Quantz to the effect that “notes of equal value are more pleasing when played unequally.” But instead of digressing on this subject, the present reviewer invites the reader, and all lovers of Vivaldi, of Bach, of Handel, to listen to a performance that uses “notes inégales” in the most spontaneous and convincing way. Frans Brüggens’s recording of Handel’s Sonata in C for recorder and cembalo (ABA Classics, 1976) does this in the Gavotte, though the ornamentation, articulation, phrasing, and messa di voce (the natural crescendo and decrescendo on long notes) in all of his playing is no less accomplished. Hearing this, the listener will surely recognize for himself that the Baroque performance of Baroque music is incomparably the most expressive kind.

This Issue

March 23, 1978