Vivaldi, the toast of Britain?

Vivaldi may never have crossed the English Channel himself but, as Simon Heighes explains, rich clients and the postal service ensured his popularity far from home

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Vivaldi, the toast of Britain?
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Vivaldi and Venice – together one of the most potent symbols of the Baroque. But this sacred bond between composer and city has overshadowed a more remarkable relationship between Vivaldi and a much wider public which proved yet more lucrative and influential for the composer.

Without travelling far beyond Italy, Vivaldi saw his music penetrate to the cultural heart of Europe: transforming the works of no less a composer than Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany; thrilling the French all year round with The Four Seasons; and giving the British a run for their money all the way to the Music Hall.

• Read more about Antonio Vivaldi

Venice attracted a stream of English nobility and gentry on the Grand Tour and on the hunt for cultural enrichment. Edward Wright, a visitor to Venice in 1720, was particularly fond of the theatre, recommending the Venetian operatic experience to his fellow countrymen in all its exotic eccentricity: ‘Tis very usual to see Priests playing in the [opera] orchestra: the famous Vivaldi, whom they call the “Prete rosso” [red-haired priest], very well known among us by his Concertoes, was a topping man among them.’

As tourists do, Venice’s well-heeled visitors liked to take home souvenirs with them. On one of his many visits to the city, the classical scholar Edward Holdsworth popped in to see Vivaldi himself, hoping to pick up something for his friend Charles Jennens (the librettist of Handel’s Messiah). On 13 February 1733 Holdsworth wrote excitedly to Jennens: ‘I had this day some discourse with your friend Vivaldi who told me that he had resolved not to publish any more concertos, because he says it prevents his selling his compositions in manuscript which he thinks will turn more to account; as certainly it would if he finds a good market for he expects a guinea for every piece. Perhaps you might deal with him if you were here to choose what you like, but I am sure I shall not venture to choose for you at that price.’

Vivaldi was known to drive a hard bargain, but by keeping his prices high he created an air of exclusivity which attracted only the most rewarding customers. He was particularly proud to have on his books those members of the nobility and minor royalty who didn’t just require music lessons while resident in Venice, but wanted Vivaldi to keep them supplied with his latest music after they had returned home. Via the postal system, Vivaldi managed to work as a virtual maestro di cappella to a wealthy line-up of patrons right across Europe. The Venice-based merchant Joseph Smith acted as the go-between for Vivaldi’s British operations. Among his richest clients was William Capel, Third Earl of Essex, to whom Smith wrote in 1733 confirming that ‘I sent [your] letter immediately to Vivaldi; and he returns me this Pacquet for your Lord[ship]’. The contents of this packet remain a mystery but it must surely have contained plenty of instrumental music, since Capel himself was a keen violinist.

So, Vivaldi may never actually have made the trip across the Channel himself, but his music did: packed in the luggage of British travellers, purchased directly from the composer by those with taste and means, and posted to favoured clients. Vivaldi’s music was also published in England, though the reservations he expressed to Edward Holdsworth on the subject proved well founded. Once his music had been committed to print and he’d received a fee from his publishers in Amsterdam, his concertos ceased to make money – at least for him.

With no European copyright laws to protect his work, pirate publishers had a field day. In England, John Walsh, the country’s main music publisher, began issuing the 12 concertos of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico Op. 3 in 1714, followed by an abridged edition of La Stravaganza Op. 4 in 1728, and finally a mixed bag of concertos in 1730. But despite weeding out the most difficult concertos of Op. 4 to increase its appeal, only Op. 3 sold in sufficient bulk to return a healthy profit. A number of individually published concertos, like the Violin Concerto in A major (RV335), also did well. Known as The Cuckoo, it tickled Georgian ears with its extraordinarily high-lying solo part and witty bird imitations. Such was its fame that it was still being played in the mid-19th century when, back in Venice itself, Vivaldi had long-since been forgotten.

This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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