Tag Archives: Baroque

The Red Priest

The Red Priest

On March 4, 1678, in Venice, Italy, a little red-headed boy was born, and was immediately baptized by his midwife, though the exact reason for the haste is no longer remembered. It could have been because he was such a sickly little infant; or it could have been due to the earthquake that shook Venice that day.

It’s likely that the condition which afflicted him was asthma, but it didn’t prevent him from exercising his gifts, particularly his musical ones. Fortunately for us, he learned to play the violin and to compose music, because he was Antonio Vivaldi.Vivaldi; the Red Priest

He also studied for the priesthood (possibly the result of a deal made by his mother with God during the ordeal of delivering him in the midst of the earthquake) and he was ordained in 1703. He became known as the Red Priest because of his vivid hair, which ran in his family.

Vivaldi was granted a dispensation from saying daily Mass because of his ill health. Instead of parish work, he accepted the position of Master of violin at an orphanage, Ospedale della Pietá (Devout Hospital of Mercy). The boys at the orphanage learned a trade; the girls studied music, and the most talented were invited to perform with the orphanage’s famous orchestra and chorus. Over the years he was assigned additional musical duties at the orphanage. He was devoted to the girls and composed a large body of work for them, including sacred music, such as this Gloria:

His relationship with the board of directors of the orphanage was often contentious. His contract had to be reviewed and renewed every year, and one year the board voted 7 to 6 against him. Vivaldi freelanced for the year, and the next year the board voted unanimously to hire him back, apparently recognizing his valuable contributions to the girls’ education. Again, lucky for us, because he continued to compose beautiful music for them.

Perhaps Vivaldi’s most famous work is The Four Seasons, a group of four violin concertos. Here is Summer, with soloist Mari Silje Samuelsen:

At the height of his career, Vivaldi received commissions from various European royalty. In addition to more than 60 pieces of sacred music, he also wrote over 500 concertos, 46 operas, 90 sonatas, and assorted sinfonias and chamber music.

In his later years, Vivaldi’s work fell out of fashion, and he fell on hard times. In 1740, he relocated to Vienna, hoping to receive financial support from Emperor Charles VI, but the Emperor died before that could happen. Vivaldi died in poverty on July 28, 1741.

“Cessate, omai cessate” performed by countertenor Andreas Scholl:

This is a “Best of Vivaldi” two-hour playlist. I have embedded it to start with his Concerto for Two Horns. (You can also watch it on Youtube navigating from the description below the screen; then you’ll be able to read the names of the selections. Click “Show More.”)

C is for Caravaggio


Self-portrait, Caravaggio

Michelangelo (not that Michelangelo) Caravaggio (29 September 1571–18 July 1610) was a man of contrasts: a master painter and a violent hothead.

He studied under Simone Peterzano in Milan. In 1592 Caravaggio left Milan for Rome, to escape prosecution for “certain quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer.

His first true masterpiece was The Cardsharps, a psychological study of a naïve youth falling victim to card cheats. Its popularity attracted the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, one of the leading connoisseurs in Rome.


The Cardsharps, Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s reputation grew with his paintings on religious themes, and the emergence of remarkable spirituality in his art. But true fame would depend on public commissions, and for these it was necessary to look to the Church.


The Lute Player, Caravaggio

In Rome, there was a demand for paintings to fill the many huge new churches and palazzos being built at the time. The Roman Church was searching for artistic ways to counter the threat of Protestantism. Caravaggio’s innovation was a realism born of close physical observation combined with chiaroscuro, a dramatic technique of highlighting the otherwise deeply shadowed subject with a brilliant shaft of light. He preferred to paint his subjects as the eye sees them, with all their natural flaws and defects. Some denounced him for his deviation from accepted classical idealism of Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo) and for painting from life, without drawings, but for the most part he was hailed as a great artistic visionary.


The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio



For the most part each new painting increased his fame, but a few were rejected by the various bodies for whom they were intended, at least in their original forms, and had to be re-painted or find new buyers. While Caravaggio’s dramatic and emotional intensity was appreciated, his realism was seen by some as unacceptably vulgar.

His first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel, featuring the evangelist as an old, bald peasant whose clumsy hands were directed by a lightly clad boy-angel, was rejected as being disrespectful and inappropriate, and a second version had to be painted as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew.

Saint Matthew and the Angel  was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden during World War II. The image above left is a colorized black and white photo to the original painting.

Caravaggio’s influence on the new Baroque style can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt.

Only about 80 paintings by Caravaggio have survived.

While his artwork increased in skill and in spiritual depth, his behavior became increasingly bizarre, including sleeping fully armed and in his clothes, ripping up a painting at a slight word of criticism, and mocking local painters.


San Gerolamo (Saint Jerome), Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s violent temper caused problems for him all his life. He was notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behavior was commonplace. On 29 May 1606, he killed, possibly unintentionally, a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni under mysterious circumstances. Rumors hint at a quarrel over a gambling debt and a tennis game. Previously his high-placed patrons had protected him from the consequences of his escapades, but this time they could do nothing. Caravaggio, outlawed, fled to Naples, as he had earlier.

In Naples, an attempt was made on his life by persons unknown. At first it was reported in Rome that the “famous artist” Caravaggio was dead, but then it was learned he was alive, but seriously disfigured.

He later fled to Malta, presumably hoping that the patronage of Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, could help him secure a pardon for Tomassoni’s death. De Wignacourt proved so impressed at having the famous artist as official painter to the Order that he inducted him as a knight. Major works from his Malta period include a huge Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (the only painting to which he put his signature) and a Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page, as well as portraits of other leading knights. Yet by late August 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned for yet another brawl, during which the door of a house was battered down and a knight seriously wounded. He managed to escape. By December he had been expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”

He was only 39 when he died. Some scholars claim Caravaggio was murdered by the same “enemies” that had been pursuing him since he fled Malta, possibly Wignacourt and/or knight factions. But another theory is that Caravaggio might have died of lead poisoning. Violent behavior can be caused by too much lead in the body. Paints used at the time contained high amounts of lead salts, and bones with high lead levels were found in a grave likely to be Caravaggio’s.

Wikipedia provided most of the information for this article.


B is for Bach

B is for Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most beloved  composers of all time.

He’s also one of my favorites. And why not? He had great hair.

Born on March 31, 1685 to a family with a long musical heritage, he was prolific in more ways than one. Married twice, he sired twenty children, most of whom did not survive childhood; yet, four of them became respected composers and musicians in their own rights: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, and Johann Christian Bach. (And then there’s his long lost son, P.D.Q. Bach–but he’s a topic for a future post.)

Nearly every classical piano student has worked through the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach (actually, two notebooks–the first containing only works by J.S. Bach, the second also including pieces by other composers), which Bach wrote out as lessons for his second wife.

This prelude (which I can only play at about half this speed) would make a good soundtrack for a movie about a pianist losing his sanity (kind of like the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in the the movie Shine). Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847 no 2 :

And  who doesn’t get goosebumps at the sound of the organ on the first few notes of the Toccata and Fugue in d minor?

The Brandenburg Concertos demonstrate Bach’s flair for chamber music. (Yay for harpsichords!)

A deeply devout Christian, J.S. Bach spent much of his career as a church organist and choir master, writing chorales and cantatas for services. His St. Matthew Passion, a setting of the story of Christ’s late ministry and death for the Lenten season, exemplifies his gift for creating music that engages the emotions and draws the listener into worship.

In this excerpt, Erbarme Dich (Have Mercy), the contralto responds to Matthew 27:26, “Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

Bach died on July 28, 1750, a date which is synonymous with the end of the Baroque period and beginning of the Classical era in music.

For more information about J.S. Bach, watch this mini-bio.

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