After 300-Year Delay, Catholic Church Reverses Stance on Vivaldi Opera

"il farnace" debuts with the vatican's blessing after nearly three centuries

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A three-century standoff between the Catholic Church and Antonio Vivaldi has ended. Vivaldi’s opera Il Farnace finally had its premiere in Ferrara, after an initial ban in the 1730s. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the most famous work of the Baroque era.

Closeup of violin
One of the greatest classical composers, Antonio Vivaldi composed Baroque music for more than 50 operas and for many instrumental concertos, for instruments such as violin, harpsichord, and organ. Photo by frank_peters / Shutterstock

Antonio Vivaldi may be one of the most famous composers of classical music, but he died in exile and in poverty after Ferrara’s archbishop canceled the staging of one of his operas. Some 290 years later, the Catholic Church seems to have made a mea culpa when Ferrara Archbishop Giancarlo Perego himself attended an opening of Vivaldi’s Il Farnace. His predecessor, Ferrara Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo banned Vivaldi from the city because of the composer’s relationship with a singer.

In the 21st century, Vivaldi is best known for his work Four Seasons. In his video series The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances, details Vivaldi’s life and oeuvre leading up to his acclaimed masterpiece.

A Colorful Biography

“Antonio Vivaldi was an egomaniacal, opportunistic, thin-skinned, greedy, often outrageously dishonest wheeler-dealer,” Dr. Greenberg said. “Thankfully, we don’t have to live with him, just listen to his music.”

Dr. Greenberg offered up a colorful biography of the composer by scholar John Talbot, who claimed that Vivaldi was at once a vain and unconventional braggart who incessantly boasted about his fame and his talents, claiming that he could compose a concerto in all its parts “more quickly than it could be copied.” Vivaldi was also incredibly sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with money to a fault.

“Antonio studied violin with his father and displayed remarkable precocity as both a violinist and a composer,” Dr. Greenberg said. “However, as the oldest son of a poor household, it was expected that he would join the priesthood, and this he did, receiving the first of the so-called minor orders, that of Ostario (“Porter”) at the age of 15. Vivaldi was ordained a priest 10 years later, in March of 1703.”

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Greenberg said, Vivaldi joined the faculty of the Ospedale della Pietà as maestro di violino, or master of the violin.

The Road to Four Seasons

“About a year after Vivaldi took up his position at the Pietà, the Venetian publishing house of Sala issued his op. 1, a set of trio sonatas: works for two violins, cello, and continuo,” Dr. Greenberg said. “A series of major publications followed. Vivaldi’s set of 12 concerti published as op. 3 in 1711 is generally considered to be the most influential music publication of the first half of the 18th century.”

Dr. Greenberg is quick to point out that this is not an overstatement. More than 300 miles north, Johann Sebastian Bach read Vivaldi’s op. 3 concerti and was so stricken by it that he arranged two of them for solo harpsichord, three for solo organ, and one for four harpsichord and orchestra.

“By doing so, Bach absorbed Vivaldi’s musical voice the way the ‘blob’ absorbed all those people in the movie theater, and made it his own,” he said.

With his career taking off, it was only a matter of time before Vivaldi cemented himself as one of the greatest classical composers.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily