For such an outstanding composer, relatively little is known about Vivaldi's life beyond the fact that he was born and raised in Venice. This is ironic, considering this great Baroque composer's close association in the public's mind with everything Venetian – an association only bettered by Canaletto.
Vivaldi's father was a violinist at St. Mark's, and there are indications that Antonio received his early musical schooling from within the family. He is understood to have trained as a priest, and was ordained in 1703. With this achieved, Vivaldi gave up any pretence to a life of the cloth and instead concentrated on his musical career. The same year he was appointed as maestro di violino by the Ospedale della Pieta, a charitable religious foundation for the education and upbringing of female orphans. His relationship with the Pieta was to last for the rest of his life, a central pivot around which his musical activities could revolve.
Thus began the career of the man known to all as "Il Prete Rosso" (the Red Priest) on account of his extraordinary shock of red hair. It is worth conjecturing that Vivaldi's decision to join the priesthood solved the problem of earning a living while he practiced the art which obsessed him. It is clear that his family was not well-to-do, unable to support him in the manner of Albinoni who remained a dilettante composer until well into his thirties. That Vivaldi's appointment was made – in part at least – because of his composing abilities seems assured by the fact that his superior at the Pieta was Francesco Gasparini who had been a pupil of Corelli and was a capable operatic composer.
Vivaldi's skill as a violinist and his organizational abilities made him an ideal man for the role. The instrumental ensembles of the Pieta – already acknowledged as unusually high in achievement – eventually became a source of public admiration, their Sunday concerts often attended by capacity crowds. Vivaldi's role enabled him to experiment with his compositional ideas and techniques, and by 1705 he had earned enough of a reputation to publish his Opus 1, a series of Trio Sonatas. Three years later his Opus 2, a set of Violin Sonatas, appeared. It is clear, however, that some of his concertos were already in private circulation, and that the publication of L'Estro Armonico, Op. 3 publicly confirmed what a number of Venetians had begun to grasp: that here was a genius who was bringing the Baroque concerto form to a peak of perfection while simultaneously initiating a new approach to the idea of instrumental musical expression.
What Vivaldi achieved with this vastly important collection was the definitive organization of musical material into a unified and highly expressive form which allowed for a hitherto unimagined freedom of invention, as well as enormous scope for drama and surprise. He aimed at simplicity and clarity at all times, avoiding the bombastic and portentous and concentrating on the telling phrase and the expressive sweep of a single melody perfectly accompanied by flawless harmony transparently scored. L'Estro Armonico was a revelation to his contemporaries, rendering obsolete all that came before it in the genre. After this there was nothing more for other Italian composers to do but try to beat Vivaldi at his own game. Few came close, for Vivaldi had such a wonderful combination of passion and imagination, elegance and poise. It is no accident that the young Johann Sebastian Bach came to know and revere this set of concerti, using it as his model for composing. As his early biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel commented: "He listened to them often, with great attention, and finally conceived the idea of transcribing them for his own keyboard. It was in this way that he learned the logic of musical ideas, their sequence, the correct succession for modulations, and many other things…he learned to think in music…(and)…borrow his musical ideas not from his fingers, but from his imagination".
Vivaldi, however, did not rest on his laurels; he was intensely interested in opera, and 1713 saw his debut with Ottone in Villa. This heralded a new stage in his compositional life; increasing amounts of time were spent either composing, sourcing, overseeing or producing his (and other composers') operas. Another important watershed in his professional life occurred with the departure in 1714 of Gasparini, his superior at the Pieta, for Rome. Vivaldi now had to supply regular musical material for the Pieta's choir, in addition to his usual outpouring of instrumental and operatic music. By the end of the following year, Vivaldi was being praised by the Pieta's governors for already delivering a Mass, an oratorio, more than 30 motets, and a Vespers. In 1714 Vivaldi published his Op. 4, La Stravaganza, which made further advances in the evolution of the concerto genre. Time and again he excites the anticipation of the audience through his clever musical constructions, only to overturn it by the most imaginative and capricious means at his disposal. This, however, should not give the impression that these concertos were any less rigorously organized than the former series; they are every bit as formally perfect, and the underlying musical forms which Vivaldi took for new development point, in part, to concerti grossi models as well as to the solo concerto in which he specialized.
After this series of artistic triumphs, Vivaldi increasingly applied for leave of absence to travel extensively in Italy and further abroad. There was a period of time (estimated to be about four years, although the actual dates vary from between 1707 to 1721) when he was in the service of Philip von Hessen (of Hesse-Darmstadt), the Governor of Mantua. While in Mantua he met a singer, Anna Giraud, who later appeared as the soprano lead in many of his operas. Their relationship remained close and Anna, together with her sister; often acted as his traveling companions.
His concertos continued to be published in Amsterdam, with Opus 7 appearing in 1716. His crowning glory, Opus 8, appeared in 1725, although the music had probably been composed from 1720 onwards. This set of 8 concerti, entitled Il cimento dell' armonia e dell' inventione, included the now universally acclaimed four concerti called Le quattro stagione (The Four Seasons), which were accompanied by brief poems describing the seasonal pictures Vivaldi wished to echo in his music. The second section included the famous La tempesta di mare (Storm at Sea) and La Caccia (The Hunt), violin concertos which were every bit as pictorial as the former four works. These works were all dedicated to the Bohemian Count Wenzel von Morzin, a Habsburg potentate with whom Vivaldi was regularly associated.
The composer, meanwhile, had been to Rome in 1723-4, where he was given the opportunity to impress the Pope, playing before him to sustained applause. By 1727 he was ready to publish his last great set of concerti, La Cetra (The Lyre), Op. 9. This was dedicated to the Austrian Emperor, Charles VI, with whom Vivaldi seems to have become acquainted in Vienna during the mid-1720s. The Emperor, a great music enthusiast, a keen amateur composer and keyboard player, could not have failed to be impressed by Vivaldi. This is born out by a report of their later meeting in Trieste in 1728: "The Emperor conversed for a long time with Vivaldi about music; they say that he talked longer to him in private in 15 days than he talks to his ministers in two years". It is interesting to note that there exists a second set of 12 concertos entitled La Cetra and dedicated to the Emperor which contains just one work common to both sets and remained in manuscript during Vivaldi's lifetime. The music in this later set is every bit as compelling and inventive as earlier collections, with the quality of the writing uniformly high.
With this work and the corresponding operas of the late 1720s and early 1730s, Vivaldi passed from the peak of his profession into a long decline. New composers and new styles of Italian opera and chamber music were pressing for the public's attention, especially those from Naples. Vivaldi, now in his mid-fifties, was beginning to be taken for granted by his audience. His absences from Venice and the Pieta also told against him as the tide of public fashion turned, and when his great patron Philip von Hessen died in 1736 the church authorities lost little time making him feel uncomfortable in Venice. In 1737 his operas were banned on the pretext that he was to be regarded as a lapsed priest due to his association with Anna Giraud, and the following year the governors of the Pieta used similar reasoning in their decision not to renew his contract. By 1740, tired and increasingly isolated, Vivaldi left Venice once more and traveled to Vienna, perhaps in the hope of gaining a position there. Like Wolfgang Mozart 40 years later, he was disappointed; his great friend, Emperor Charles VI, had died just prior to his arrival and the new rulers were already plunged into what became the War of Austrian Succession. Vivaldi spent the winter in Vienna hoping for an upturn in his fortunes but nothing transpired. By the spring he was weak and ailing, and in July, at the height of summer; he died, He was buried – again like Mozart – in a pauper's grave.
With a catalogue of works which include nearly 500 concertos alone, and considering that Vivaldi himself only published – in the collections detailed above – close to 100 concertos, there is a vast amount which is not in any way conveniently collected and are only identifiable by instruments, keys employed and RV numbers. The most famous sets of concertos – Opus 3 and Opus 8, the latter including the Four Seasons – contain the richness and freshness of Vivaldi's invention at its early and middle peaks. The Opus 3 L'Estro Armonico concertos are greatly varied in terms of the combination of solo instrumentation (there are also a number in the concerti grossi style), while Opus 8 reflects a peak in terms of Vivaldi's marvelous ear for the sounds of nature, as well as his ability to convert what he sees around him into musical phrases. Apart from concertos written for one, two or three violins, there are over 20 cello concertos, close to 50 bassoon concertos, 20 for the relatively new instrument, the oboe, plus concertos for what was then a very new instrument, the clarinet, concertos for mandolins, and the ravishing Opus 10 flute concertos.
As with the concertos, Vivaldi's sacred music is usually represented by his Glorias, RV 589 and 588, but there is a great deal more very beautiful and often moving music written for religious settings, including a Stabat Mater RV 621 and over 20 cantatas. There is no doubt that Vivaldi set great store by his stage works, claiming to have produced close to 100 of them in the 28 years between his first and last operas. This can no longer be authenticated, although nearly 50 can be accounted for. Unfortunately, only a few scores have been located, and only a handful of the operas that have survived have received professional productions in modern times. Vivaldi wrote in the opera seria style, as well as completing a number of the more opera buffo-type intermezzi before the end of his career. The latter is well represented by La Senna Festeggiante (1728), while his operatic style can be accurately surmised from the 1735 production, Catone in Utica.