Just about every Baroque composer tried his hand at sacred music, but for Antonio Vivaldi the laborious work of drawing melodies onto musical bars was part of his vocation. In an interview with Catholic.org, Micky White, the premier expert on Vivaldi’s life and works, pointed out that the influential composer was also a priest.
Known in his time as “the red priest,” a name referring to his auburn hair, Vivaldi was born in 1678, in Venice. His father, a professional violinist, shared his trade with his son and Vivaldi’s early life was spent touring Italy with his father as a duo. After a few years of performing, Vivaldi achieved a mastery of the instrument.
At the age of 15, Vivaldi began studying for the priesthood, and was ordained 10 years later. Shortly after ordination, he was assigned a post as chaplain and violin master at a local orphanage called the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, or the Devout Hospital of Mercy.
Unfortunately, due to illness, Vivaldi requested a dispensation from celebrating Mass. The exact nature of his medical condition is unknown, but from his description of the symptoms as “tightness of the chest” and trouble breathing, it is theorized that he had asthma.
According to White, “It would have been very hard for Vivaldi to give up saying Mass. It would have been his own decision, a decision of nobody but himself, and he also gave up a good salary.”
While the dispensation meant that he was taken away from many of the routine duties of a priest, White believes that his role as a priest remained an essential element of his compositions.
“Once a priest always a priest.” White commented, “He was ordained, he was a priest his whole life (and) his spirituality comes out in his music, all you have to do is listen and you’ll hear it.”
Despite his poor health, he continued to travel around Europe to spread his music, and he was a prolific composer. His secular works, like the composition “Four Seasons” and his operas, are what rocketed him to fame, but White believes the lasting value of his efforts is found in his sacred works.
White says, the “sacred music is on another plane compared all the other compositions. It’s the empire of composition itself that comes from faith.”
Much of Vivaldi’s sacred music is still performed today and recognized as important pieces that influenced the evolution of music. While he penned countless tunes, some that stand out are the Gloria (video below), the Credo, the Stabat Mater, the Magnificat, Dixit Dominus, and Laetatus sum — the last of which he wrote when he was just 13 years old.
White believes that there are more of Vivaldi’s works that have been lost to time. For example, she is sure that Vivaldi composed at least one full Mass, but its whereabouts are unknown.
Towards the end of his life, Vivaldi took a position in the court of Emperor Charles VI of Austria. Not long after, the Emperor died and Vivaldi lost favor in the court, leading to his death in poverty. His music has remained his greatest legacy.
For anyone interested in hearing the spirituality of his music, this is a fine rendition of Vivaldi’s Gloria.