"Gladness to be alive": Susan Orlando talks about the music of Vivaldi

by Gwendolyn Hoberg, Special to MPR
March 18, 2014

Since the early 2000s, Susan Orlando has been working with the manuscripts of Antonio Vivaldi and advocating for deeper public awareness of the 18th-century composer through the Naive record label's Vivaldi Edition project.

Orlando lives in Turin, Italy, where more than 450 Vivaldi manuscripts are housed at the National University Library. She's currently visiting the United States to complete the creation of a Vivaldi Foundation, a new organization founded to promote this prolific but perhaps underappreciated composer. She spoke with me by phone from New York City.

What have you learned about Vivaldi through this project that has surprised you — whether relating to his career or to his life in general?

I think it's interesting that he established something of a cottage industry with his family. Vivaldi always lived at home, and his mother and two sisters who never married were in the household, as well as his father and occasional proteges who were copyists. This allowed what was a simple family to move up in life. Vivaldi with his incredible talent could just churn out the music, but he wouldn't have been able to do it as well without this family set-up.

Another thing people don't realize is that Vivaldi was a bit handicapped. He suffered from chronic asthma or bronchitis. He said he needed people with him whenever he travelled because he couldn't walk very far. But he did have the perfect job at home in Venice because he could walk to work in only about three minutes, even though Venice didn't have as many bridges at the time as it does now.

It's been said about the Vivaldi Edition project that its musicians "thoroughly capture the Italian spirit." How do you describe this "Italian spirit," and how did Vivaldi possess it?

I think the Vivaldi spirit is joie de vivre — that is the underlying trait in this music. It's hard to put into words, but even his slow movements — and when I'm asked to pick my favorite Vivaldi pieces, I almost always choose these slow arias — have some kind of gladness to be alive. It almost is beyond words. That's what comes out in this music. In fact, someone once wrote in to the Naive record company to say, "That music of Vivaldi is more effective than Prozac and all those other anti-depressants."

Do you think Vivaldi's physical ailments might have prompted him to convey this spirit in his music even more than he might have otherwise?

He worked on and off all his life, and had this orchestra of fabulous young women [students at the Ospedale della Pieta orphanage and music school] playing his music. My own personal theory is that Vivaldi wanted to give these young girls in the orphanage a reason to live. I think that's a big part of how he developed his personal style.

Is there enough material for a good Vivaldi biopic, along the lines of Ray or La Vie en Rose?

We don't know a lot about Vivaldi's life, and these historical films often end up being a little stilted. What I would rather see is a film that's very avant-garde and modern — perhaps with a plot unrelated to his life or with him tangentially in the film — with a lot of Vivaldi music behind it. Every time I look at scripts people have showed me, I think it's never going to work. They have many stereotypes. For example, they usually include a portrayal of him as a lecherous old man, which doesn't add up based on what we know. So why speculate about that when there's this wonderful music and this huge cultural heritage? I don't think there's one other 18th-century composer of whom we can boast having his private collection in autographed manuscripts, and to me that is what is remarkable.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.

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