Vivaldi’s Profoundly Spiritual Life Inspired His Masterpieces
Micky White, leading expert on ‘Red Priest of Venice,’ says sacred sound speaks volumes.
The masterpieces of musical genius Antonio Vivaldi, often referred to as the ‘red priest of Venice’ (for his flaming red hair), did not come about by chance, but were inspired in the true sense of the word.
This is the conviction of British researcher Micky White. After spending more than six years working in the archive of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an orphanage where Vivaldi was a teacher, White decided there was more to discover, not only about the Baroque composer’s works, but about his life.
Antonio Vivaldi: A Life in Documents was the fruit of this research.
The priest, producer, expert violinist and composer (1678-1741) wrote the famous Four Seasons, which is among the most performed and recorded pieces ever written. He composed almost 600 concertos, operas and sonatas. He inspired countless composers, too, from Bach to contemporary artists.
As Viva Vivaldi: The Four Seasons Mystery — a video-mapping indoor show made of immersive HD images, surround sound and scent special effects — was about to open May 13 at the Diocesan Museum, just behind the Basilica di San Marco, in the heart of Venice, the Register interviewed White about her research.
Who was Vivaldi? What has struck you most as you learned more about him? What has impacted you most from the research you have done?
Vivaldi was a priest, composer and violinist, and he was also a person of extreme opposites. While he was profoundly spiritual, at the same time, he was a worldly man. He was very close to his family, especially his father. He was avant-garde in his musical thinking. He lived outside the rules. His Four Seasons goes beyond time, if you will, and this is why it is so popular today.
Something that distinguishes Vivaldi from other Baroque composers is that he was a priest, even if he didn’t quite live up to all the required criteria of a priest. Looking at Vivaldi’s religiosity: What are the dominant elements that we find in his musical repertoire?
Vivaldi was a profoundly spiritual man, which comes out in his sacred music. When you think of the sacred works of Bach, Mozart or Haydn, they are incredible, but Vivaldi had something more than them, in that he was a priest, and his sacred music is on a higher plain than all his other compositions. Any of his sacred works show his spiritual side. They were the most inspired, one could say.
Could you elaborate more on his profound spirituality?
Listen to the music. It’s all in the music [Vivaldi composed a large body of sacred Latin liturgical music, and is renowned for such masterpieces of sacred music as the Gloria, Stabat Mater and Magnifcat].
Another thing worth noting is that when Vivaldi was studying for the priesthood, of all the candidates who took holy orders with him, in all of the seven passages to the priesthood, four minor orders and three major orders, he was the only one to finish in the 10-year period. This also is a sign that he was a very serious and spiritual man who took his faith very seriously at this early age of his life. Later, as we know, he had to give up saying Mass due to his illness [he had what is referred to as a “tightening of the chest”]. What people do not understand is that a priest is not obliged to say Mass daily [Canon 276, §2, 3, Canon 904]. It is a power [Canon law says priests are “earnestly invited to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice daily” (but does not require it)], not an obligation; the only obligation a priest has is to say the Divine Office [Liturgy of the Hours] daily, which he did, as [Carlo Osvoldo] Goldoni attests.
Who was Vivaldi the educator? What and how did he teach?
Vivaldi was a maestro (master) of violin and later maestro of concerts at the Ospedale della Pietà. [The institute was for children who were orphaned or whose parents could not support them. While the boys were taught a trade, the young women were taught musical skills. Those who were skilled participated in the famous orchestra.] There, he taught the Figlie di Coro (“Daughters of Music”) the violin and the viola all’inglese. He wrote music for them, but he had the luxury of being able to be creative, as these women were brilliant as players and singers, and he had many instruments at his disposal, so he could write music for so many different instruments but also combine concertos with strange instruments, that, in fact, I think no other composer has ever done [multiple violins, cello, oboe, flute, bassoon and other instruments; he was known for expanding the accepted forms of interplay between the solo and orchestral sections].
There was a very special musical relationship between him and them and vice versa — one like no other maestro at the Pietà. His star pupil was Anna Maria del Violin, who also played the cello, mandolin, viola d’ amore, lute, theorbo (a large lute with the neck extended to carry several long bass strings, used for accompaniment in 17th- and early 18th-century music) and mandolin. Sources suggest he may have written more music for women than any other composer. What is also unusual is that, at that time, this was a predominantly man’s world, but at the Pietà, the women were the predominant force.
What was your contribution to Viva Vivaldi?
I have contributed information of Vivaldi’s life and the names of all the Figlie di Coro that he taught within his 38-year period at the Pietà; also a list of all Vivaldi’s operas.
Would you say this exposition will help those wishing to better know and understand this musical genius?
There are many reasons to visit Viva Vivaldi. It’s a perfect balance and combination of correct information about Vivaldi and his life, and also there is the creative side, which will be pleasing to the general public. It’s modern, using the technology of today, and brings Vivaldi alive to people. It brings his musical genius to people. Everyone can enjoy it. Classical music today, in a sense, has a very bad reputation, as [some believe] it creates a class barrier, but this breaks down that barrier. Vivaldi is for everyone. This show was badly needed for Vivaldi, and if he were alive today, he would love it.
Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov is based in Rome.
Words of Pope Benedict XVI on Vivaldi during concert offered for the six-year anniversary of his pontificate by the president of Italy: https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2011/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20110505_concerto.pdf