Today is the birthday (1678) of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, and cleric. He was born in Venice and is generally considered one of the greatest Baroque composers whose influence during his lifetime was widespread across Europe. He composed a number of instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. Here I want to focus on his best-known work(s), the violin concertos known as The Four Seasons, because they were composed in Mantua where I live now. In particular I want to pay special attention to La Primavera (Spring) because Spring is just starting here. The Four Seasons are very early examples of what has become to be known as program music, that is, music with some kind of narrative underpinning it as opposed to “pure” music, that is, music for its own sake. General opinion is that Vivaldi was inspired by the countryside around Mantua as it journeyed through the seasons.
Vivaldi was born in Venice and was baptized immediately after his birth at his home by the midwife, which led to a belief that his life was somehow in danger. Though not known for certain, the child’s immediate baptism was most likely due either to his poor health or to an earthquake that shook the city that day. In the trauma of the earthquake, Vivaldi’s mother may have dedicated him to the priesthood. Vivaldi’s official church baptism took place two months later.
Vivaldi’s, father, Giovanni Battista, who was a barber before becoming a professional violinist, taught his son to play the violin at an early age and then toured Venice playing the violin with his young son. Vivaldi’s health was problematic. His symptoms, strettezza di petto (“tightness of the chest”), have been interpreted as a form of asthma. In 1693, at the age of fifteen, he began studying to become a priest. He was ordained in 1703, aged 25, and was soon nicknamed il Prete Rosso, “The Red Priest” which probably referred to the color of his hair, a family trait. Not long after his ordination, in 1704, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass because of his ill health. Vivaldi said Mass as a priest only a few times and appears to have withdrawn from priestly duties in general, though he remained a priest.
In September 1703, Vivaldi became maestro di violino (master of violin) at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy), an orphange in Venice. Vivaldi was only 25 when he started working at the Ospedale della Pietà. Over the next thirty years he composed most of his major works while working there. There were four similar institutions in Venice; their purpose was to give shelter and education to children who were abandoned or orphaned, or whose families could not support them. They were financed by funds provided by the Republic. The boys learned a trade and had to leave when they reached 15. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir. Vivaldi composed over 60 pieces for the singers and musicians of the orphanage.
In 1717 or 1718, Vivaldi was offered a prestigious position as Maestro di Cappella of the court of prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, governor of Mantua. He moved there for three years and produced several operas, among which was Tito Manlio (RV 738). During this period Vivaldi wrote the Four Seasons. Three of the concertos are of original conception, while the first, “Spring,” borrows motifs from a Sinfonia in the first act of his contemporaneous opera Il Giustino. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires. Each concerto is associated with a sonnet, possibly by Vivaldi, describing the scenes depicted in the music.
Here’s is Spring’s sonnet:
Giunt’ è la Primavera e festosetti
La Salutan gl’ Augei con lieto canto,
E i fonti allo Spirar de’ Zeffiretti
Con dolce mormorio Scorrono intanto:
Vengon’ coprendo l’ aer di nero amanto
E Lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti
Indi tacendo questi, gl’ Augelletti;
Tornan’ di nuovo al lor canoro incanto:Largo
E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante
Dorme ‘l Caprar col fido can’ à lato.Allegro
Di pastoral Zampogna al suon festante
Danzan Ninfe e Pastor nel tetto amato
Di primavera all’ apparir brillante.
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.Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.
Here is the concerto. The sonnet should guide you through the music. It is not clear whether Vivaldi wrote the sonnets that accompany the concertos nor whether they were written first or later.
A rustic Mantuan dish is suitable for today and I have chosen stracotto d’asino (donkey stew) which is well loved in Mantua. It can be served in two ways: as a first course in which case it is the sauce for pasta such as macaroni, or as a second course where it is the main dish and typically accompanied by polenta. As a first course with pasta you should use very little stracotta as a sauce. You can substitute beef for donkey meat, but, of course, it’s not the same. Donkey is readily available in markets in Mantua and surrounds. It is a tough meat that requires long, slow cooking. In Mantua the recipe calls for lardo di maiale which is prepared pork fat. You can use fatty bacon as a substitute. The wine for marinating is the Lambrusco that originates in the region of Mantua. It is the only Lambrusco produced in Lombardy as opposed to the Emilia Romagna region.
1 kg donkey meat
100 g lardo di maiale, coarsely chopped
200 g onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 g carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
100 g of celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon
1 sprig fresh rosemary
7.5 dL/ 3 cups Lambrusco mantovano (dry red wine)
2 dL/ ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Marinate the donkey meat for at least one day in the wine, then remove it and dry it.
Melt the lardo in a Dutch oven with the oil and butter. When completely melted, add the vegetables, bay leaf, rosemary and cloves of crushed garlic. Salt lightly and cook over high heat, stirring often.
Add the donkey meat and brown it on all sides. Then add the wine marinade along with the peppercorns and cinnamon. Add enough broth so that the meat is covered completely. Bring to a slow simmer, cover the pan, and cook slowly until the meat is in shreds. This may take 3 to 4 hours.
Remove the meat from the liquid. Strain the liquid and keep it warm. Shred the meat and add it back to the liquid. Heat through, making sure the meat and sauce are thoroughly mixed. Serve with macaroni as a first course, or with polenta as a second course.