Entertainment Music

Wednesday 13 November 2019

How an elaborate hoax saved Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' from the dustbin

George Hamilton

It ranks as the world's most familiar concerto. No other piece of music has been recorded as much. From commercials to movie scores, from TV themes to the soundtrack of those interminable waits on the telephone, it pops up just about everywhere.

It's The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. Hard to believe, then, that not much more than a hundred years ago it – and everything else he ever wrote – was well and truly buried in the dustbin of musical history.

Vivaldi, who died at the age of 63 on this day in 1741, came from Venice where his father played in the orchestra at St Mark's. Antonio was good enough on the violin to deputise from time to time.

Alongside his music, he studied for the church, was actually ordained in 1703, though his nickname 'The Red Priest' is only half appropriate. His did inherit ginger hair from his father, but within six months he'd given up his clerical duties to take on a position as a music teacher at a home for orphaned and abandoned children.

The Ospidale della Pietà was where Vivaldi made his reputation, writing music for the choir to sing. They blossomed, and so did he, expanding a repertoire that would become prolific over the years.

He wrote operas for the theatre in Venice, and hundreds of the concertos that spread his fame. The reviews weren't all good. There were critics who didn't rate his music at all. It broke too many conventions, they said.

He left Venice and travelled to Amsterdam and then to Vienna, where he hoped to establish himself, but there was no way in for him there. He died in Vienna, and Venice soon forgot about him.

Antonio Vivaldi slipped into the margins, despite the fact that no less a light than the great Johann Sebastian Bach had arranged several of his organ concertos in his time, and it was well known that Vivaldi's work had had an influence on some of Bach's original pieces too.

It would be well into the 20th Century before much attention was paid to Vivaldi again, and it would be another virtuoso of the violin who'd shine the spotlight on the old Venetian.

Fritz Kreisler would feature what he called lost classics in his concerts, music that he'd unearthed written by composers nobody had ever heard of. So far had Vivaldi fallen that he was one of them. The truth was rather different. Kreisler was beefing up his playlist by creating his own material from scratch, writing it the way Vivaldi – or Stamitz, or von Dittersdorf – would have done. The public loved it, and names long forgotten were out front again.

It was only years later that Kreisler fessed up, but by then nobody really cared, apart from one critic whose nose was severely out of joint. For the hoax had helped bring some of the greatest music back to life and turn The Four Seasons into the most recorded piece of them all.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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