(Re)discovering Vivaldi 1

It seems that we owe the treasure that is the Vivaldi Gloria, not only to the 18th century ‘Red Priest’ who composed it during his time as music director at the Ospedale della Pieta, but also to a cash strapped monastery, the keen eyed director of a university library and a tenacious prof.  Not forgetting an American poet with fascist leanings and two deceased infants. Indeed it is surprising that, in spite of centuries of neglect and a World War which interrupted its revival, we are in a position to offer the audience of our approaching concert, this favourite of the choral repertoire.

Although he had enjoyed considerable success during his lifetime in Venice, Antonio Vivaldi’s career had hit the rocks.   With what proved to be rather unfortunate timing, he moved to Vienna in 1740 to seek the patronage of Emperor Charles VI and to rejuvenate his career in opera. No sooner had he arrived in the Austrian capital than Charles VI died – bad enough – but worse, royal mourning meant that the performance of opera was banned for a year. Antonio did not survive that year, and in 1741 he died at the age of 63.  Unlike today when the passing of a popular musician often results in them reaching the top of the recording charts, Vivaldi’s music sunk quickly into obscurity and for centuries so it remained.

Gloria manuscript autograph. Photo by Miles Dayton Fish

Gloria manuscript autograph. Photo by Miles Dayton Fish

While a few of his published works were held by private collectors, it was thought that the bulk of his work had been lost. It was not until more than a century after his death that a coffer full of his works was found behind the organ in Dresden Cathedral. Still though, performances of Vivaldi were rare. Then in 1926, a Salesian Monastery near Turin sought the assistance of Luigi Torre, Director of Turin National University Library in valuing a cache of manuscripts which had lain in its stores for some time. Torre turned to the expertise of Alberto Gentili, professor of music history at Turin University, who, on opening the crates discovered, in bound volumes,  hundreds of concertos, operas, sonatas and sacred choral works, all by Vivaldi, together with works by other composers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Torre and Gentili, desperate to keep this treasure in Turin, had no faith in the new Mussolini led government and were worried that antique dealers would try to make a deal with the monastery. Gentili sought a benefactor and found Turin banker Roberto Foa who purchased the collection in memory of his dead infant son. It was only then that Gentili realised that there was a major problem: most of the autographs were incomplete. Another three years of detective work tracked the missing parts from their sale by Vivaldi’s family soon after his death, through the hands of various aristocratic Italian families until the late nineteenth century, when the volumes suffered the fate of many family inheritances.  While in some families that might mean that a pair of vases is split to allow two heirs to inherit, or in others, one son inherits the table and the other the matching chairs, the last two members of the Durazzo family had split, at random, the volumes of Vivaldi’s works. Eventually, in 1930, the last Durazzo agreed to sell his share to the Turin library.  Another benefactor was required and again Gentili secured backing in memory of a deceased infant, this time that of textile manufacturer Filippo Giordano.

Even now there was no immediate rush to perform Vivaldi’s work. The effects of legal restrictions imposed on the sale by that last Durazzo and of the rise of fascism: Gentili, Foa and Giordani were Jews and Gentili lost his job at the university, hindered any flourishing of the newly recovered masterpieces.

Enter Ezra Pound, American poet and fascist, and his lover violinist Olga Rudge. Rudge worked at the academy of music in Siena and, together with composer and conductor Alfredo Casella, championed the Turin Collection.

Also around 1935, Ezra Pound, a composer as well as a poet, had obtained microfilm copies of the Vivaldi held in Dresden Cathedral* and had some of the works performed at Rapallo in 1938. Meanwhile, Casella was preparing ‘Vivaldi Week’ in Siena with a programme which included the Credo, Stabat Mater and the Gloria as well as the complete opera L’Olimpiade.  It was September 1939, one week after the festival, Warsaw surrendered to Germany and once more Antonio Vivaldi was forgotten.

Having suffered from the foibles of the Italian aristocracy and the fickleness of musical fashion, Vivaldi’s reputation was now in danger of being obliterated by the RAF. Turin’s factories were targets for allied bombing raids but fortunately the manuscripts were moved to safety out of the city.  The Dresden manuscripts were to be less fortunate and thus it is fortuitous that Pound had obtained, and kept safe, the microfilms.

In 1947, the Vivaldi Institute was founded in Venice to promote his work and clearly has met with considerable success.  The genius of Vivaldi is now widely recognised, his instrumental work often performed, broadcast and recorded as of course, is his sacred choral work, particularly the Gloria.

See you on the 8th May.


The main source of this post is ‘Discovering the rediscovery of Antonio Vivaldi’ by Miles Fish from the CHORAL JOURNAL Volume 55 Number 10

*How Vivaldi manuscripts ended up in Dresden is whole other story.






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