Vivaldi for Beginners: Twelve Pieces to Make You Love Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Venice. Over the course of his career, he became one of the most popular and influential composers of the Baroque era.

Here are a few background facts to get you started:

Antonio Vivaldi, 1723

Antonio Vivaldi, 1723

  • He began studying for the priesthood at fifteen, and he was ordained at 25. He was nicknamed “the red priest” because of his reddish hair.
  • In 1703, when he was 24, he began working as the master of violin at an orphanage called the Ospedale della Pietà: a unique institution in music history.
    For generations, the Ospedale provided first-rate musical training to girls who had been abandoned as infants. Their performances helped to bring in revenue to support the other orphans in the program. Eventually, even musically talented non-orphans sought out training there. If they wished, these women were allowed to stay at the Ospedale and become professional musicians, just as long as they didn’t marry.
    The artistry of these women was a major inspiration for Vivaldi. For a long time, he was writing two concertos a month for them!
  • Being a priest, Vivaldi wrote his fair share of sacred music…but he also loved writing operas, too.
    While at the Ospedale, he began working with a singer named Anna Girò, who had been born around 1710. In 1724, she and her half-sister moved in with Vivaldi. We will likely never know the exact nature of their relationship, but Vivaldi himself always insisted that it was platonic.
  • Vivaldi grew to have an international reputation. His music was distributed widely across Europe and influenced countless composers. Bach even rearranged some of his works for new combinations of instruments.

Antonio Vivaldi monument on Rooseveltplatz in Vienna

Antonio Vivaldi monument on Rooseveltplatz in Vienna

Sounds intriguing? Then check out these twelve Vivaldi favorites to get you started:

L’estro armonico, No. 6 for a-minor, RV 356 (1711)

We’ll start with the work that modern violinists call the “Vivaldi a-minor.”

This concerto appears in the fourth book of the famous Suzuki violin method, and so it is one of the first major pieces that many violinists learn.

The concerto comes from a famous set of twelve violin concertos known as “L’estro armonico”, or “The Harmonic Inspiration.”

Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot has described this set of concertos as “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.”

These concertos, like so many of Vivaldi’s works, were likely written for the virtuoso women players of the Ospedale della Pietà.

They are full of fire and irresistible rhythmic drive.

Concerto for 4 violins in B minor, RV 580 (1711)

This concerto is also part of “L’estro armonico.”

Listen to its unusual texture featuring four solo violins playing against each other, commenting on and responding to what the others are saying, all on top of a driving beat in the bass.

This concerto gained international renown. Bach was so inspired by it that he rewrote it for four harpsichords. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all!

Gloria, RV 589 (1715)

Over the course of his career, Vivaldi wrote three Glorias. This particular Gloria for chorus and orchestra was also written for the women at the Ospedale. It is elegant and exuberant in equal measure.

The Gloria sets a text often used in various Christian traditions: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“glory to God in the highest”). These are the words that the Bible recounts angels singing to shepherds when they announced the birth of Christ.

Spring from the Four Seasons, RV 269 (1716-1725)

Of course, we had to include four of Vivaldi’s most famous works: his Four Seasons!

This collection of four violin concertos was one of the earliest well-known pieces of program music – i.e., instrumental music that tells an extra-musical story.

To help musicians picture what he had in mind, Vivaldi wrote sonnets and inserted them into the score.

Spring’s sonnet talks about a variety of seasonal milestones:

“Springtime is upon us. The birds celebrate her return with festive song, and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes. Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven. Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.”

Listen and you’ll hear it all!

Summer from The Four Seasons, RV 315 (1716-1725)

Summer, the second concerto from the Four Seasons, has proven especially popular with modern audiences.

It has appeared in a huge variety of TV shows and movies, so chances are, you already know parts of it, even if you don’t think you do!

The sonnet that Vivaldi wrote in this score describes some of the scenes he aimed to portray.

  • “Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering, pines are scorched.”
  • “We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard. Soft breezes stir the air, but threatening north winds sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storms and what may lie ahead.”
  • “His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning’s flash and thunder’s roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.”
  • “Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.”

See if you can pick out these moments while you listen!

Fall from The Four Seasons, RV 293 (1716-1725)

Vivaldi’s sonnet in the score mentions these inspirations:

  • “The peasant celebrates with song and dance for the harvest safely gathered in. The cup of Bacchus flows freely and many find their relief in deep slumber.”
  • “The singing and the dancing die away as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air, inviting all to sleep without a care.”
  • “The hunters emerge at dawn, ready for the chase, with horns and dogs and cries. Their quarry flees while they give chase. Terrified and wounded, the prey struggles on, but, harried, dies.”

Winter from The Four Seasons, RV 297 (1716-1725)

Winter is a fitting finale to this set of four concertos. It is arguably the most dramatic of them all. It’s impossible to listen to without feeling the frost in the air!

Here’s what inspired Vivaldi, according to his sonnets in the score:

  • “Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds; running to and from to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.”
  • “To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.”
  • “We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling. Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up. We feel the chill north winds course through the home despite the locked and bolted doors. This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.”

Sinfonia in C Major, RV 112 (1720s)

This brief work for orchestra is very operatic. It transitions from mood to mood with ease and tells an entire story.

The chipper work takes a turn halfway through, when Vivaldi inserts a Ciaccona, known in English as a “chaconne.”

A chaconne is a form that features a repeating line in the lower notes, with higher notes changing around it. See if you can hear it.

This particular Chaconne feels quite tragic.

However, it’s not long before the sinfonia takes flight again for a cheerful, albeit slight, finale.

Serenata from Gloria e Imeneo (RV 687) – 1725

Vivaldi’s international reputation extended to European royalty.

One anecdote noted that Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor from 1711 to 1740, and Marie Antoinette’s grandfather, once met Vivaldi. He was so charmed that in one sitting, he spoke with Vivaldi more than he had spoken to his advisors in two whole years!

This work was commissioned by the French ambassador to Venice to celebrate the wedding of Louis XV to Maria Leszczynska. It featured two singers going back and forth, tripping over each other to praise the newlywed royal couple in song.

It is just one example of how music of this era was not just pleasant background music. It could also play a vital role in politics or diplomacy.

This work is no exception, and it was premiered in the garden of the French ambassador to Venice.

Flute Concerto No. 1, RV 433 (1728)

Vivaldi didn’t stop writing extra-musical music with The Four Seasons! He also tried his hand at portraying a storm at sea in this flute concerto, the first of a set of six.

You can hear the wind and waves in the outer two movements, while the central slow movement features more peaceful maritime musings.

Vivaldi was on the cutting edge of musical developments when he wrote these six concertos, as the flute was just beginning to come into vogue. Before the flute, the recorder had enjoyed supremacy.

Lute Concerto, RV 93 (1730s)

This lute concerto’s solo part has been rearranged for mandolin and guitar. It is the only lute concerto that Vivaldi wrote.

The magical slow movement is the heart and soul of this concerto: stately, restrained, and unexpectedly poignant.

Listen at 6:33 in the video above, when the score briefly slips into a melancholy minor key. It’s easy to see why it’s one of Vivaldi’s most famous pieces.

Motezuma, RV 723 (1733)

Motezuma is one of Vivaldi’s most interesting works, and his fortieth (!) opera.

Its story was based on a fictionalized episode from the life of Aztec ruler Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, and marked one of the first times that an American story was used in European art music.

Interestingly, its portrayal of Moctezuma was somewhat sympathetic…although Vivaldi and the writer he worked with opted not to mention the fact that Moctezuma was killed during the Spanish Conquest.

Vivaldi’s protegee Anna Girò sang the lead female role of Moctezuma’s wife.

The music to this opera was lost for nearly three centuries, and was only discovered in 2002, reminding us that sometimes even very old music can still be new.


As Vivaldi grew older, musical tastes shifted, and he had trouble writing in fashionable new styles.

He eventually decided to move to Vienna, possibly to be nearer to Emperor Charles VI, since they’d gotten along so well.

Unfortunately, the emperor died in 1740 soon after Vivaldi’s arrival, leaving him aging and without many professional connections.

Vivaldi’s health deteriorated. He died in July 1741 at the age of 63.

Although he’d been very influential during his lifetime, without any heirs to champion his legacy, he receded into obscurity for generations. It took the work of Ezra Pound’s mistress Olga Rudge and her colleagues to restore him to modern prominence. Nowadays, though, he’s one of the most beloved Baroque Era composers.

We hope that this introduction to Vivaldi’s life makes you excited to seek out more of his works, including his violin concertos, choral works, operas, and more.

There are literally hundreds of pieces to check out, and we can promise that you’ll never get bored!

For more information and inspiration, browse our Vivaldi tag.

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