Antonio Vivaldi is most famous as the composer of The Four Seasons, but there’s much more to him than that. He was a prolific composer, penning around 500 concertos. (“Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos. He wrote the same concerto 500 times,” was the barbed quip usually credited to Igor Stravinsky.) His concertos were written for a variety of instruments and combinations of instruments, many composed for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage in Venice which was also a convent and music school and where Vivaldi was the resident composer and violin teacher. His crop of red hair, inherited from his father, prompted his nickname “Il Prete Rosso” – the Red Priest.

Antonio Vivaldi
© Public domain

Vivaldi was a prolific opera composer too, writing about twice the number of Handel, yet many are lost or unperformed. Any staged Vivaldi opera is still considered a rarity, but the number of recordings available has grown in the past few decades, opening our ears to some great music. Throw in some choral works and one discovers a composer of infinite variety far beyond the narrow lens of The Four Seasons – although, almost inevitably, that’s where we begin our Vivaldi journey. 

1The Four Seasons

The violin concertos known as The Four Seasons are part of a collection of 12 works published under the title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). There’s a reason why this music is so popular and performed by so many violinists: Vivaldi paints his scenes vividly to depict birdsong, thunderstorms, a galloping hunt, slipping on the ice. It’s a score brimming with life and – in a great performance – it can just about make you forget its ubiquity as elevator and telephone hold music.

2Violin Concerto in E minor, RV273

Many of Vivaldi’s concertos are famous simply because they come with a nickname attached, but the others should not be overlooked. Of his 90 or so violin concertos, one of the greatest is the late concerto in E minor, RV273 (RV refers to Ryom-Verzeichnis, the standardised catalogue system created by Peter Ryom). It opens in a sinister atmosphere, reminiscent of the fog that shrouds Venice during the winter months. 

3Bassoon Concerto in D minor, RV481

Incredibly, Vivaldi composed 39 concertos for the bassoon! Rather than its later role as the clown of the orchestra, Vivaldi takes the instrument entirely seriously. In this concerto there is drama and aggression in the outer movements, while the central Larghetto is a sad lament. 

4Lute Concerto in D major, RV93

Only a single Vivaldi concerto for solo lute survives, but it’s a cracker, and a familiar one too as it has often been pinched by guitarists. It opens with zesty energy – especially in this hoe-down of a performance with Italian period band Il Giardino Armonico and Luca Pianca – but the reflective Largo is full of tender beauty. 

5Orlando furioso

Orlando furioso is one of Vivaldi’s operas that has been staged several times in recent years. In a plot familiar from Handel operas, it involves the daring exploits of knight Orlando, as well as the machinations of the sorceress Alcina. Ruggiero’s limpid aria “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” is one of great beauty, featuring a florid flute solo. 


The defeated king Farnace, hoping to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy, commands his wife, Tamiri, to kill their son and then herself. In the aria “Gelido in ogni vena” he feels that his blood is like ice coursing through his veins as he contemplates the death of his son (spoiler alert: Tamiri has kept him alive!). In this chilly aria, Vivaldi employs a wintry accompaniment that you may well recognise… 

7Flute Concerto in G minor, RV439, “La notte”

Things that go bump in the night: this is one of Vivaldi’s more unusual concertos, composed in six movements depicting a very disturbed night’s sleep indeed, including a second movement entitled Phantoms. Hide under the bedcovers during the scary fourth movement too! 

8Violin Concerto in E flat major, RV253, “La tempesta di mare”

This is another of the pictorial concertos from Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione and describing a fierce storm at sea. It is given a rumbustious performance here by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Il Giardino Armonico with some very inauthentic, but lively additional touches. 

9Gloria in D major, RV589

Vivaldi composed at least two Glorias while he was at the Pietà, of which the D major is the most popular. Here it is performed as it would have been in Vivaldi’s time, by an all-female orchestra and choir who would have been stationed behind screens on the balconies of the church so as not to distract the congregation. 

10Stabat Mater in F minor, RV621

Another of Vivaldi’s sacred works is the Stabat Mater, an early work, commissioned from the Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia, to be performed during Holy Week festivities. The text is a meditation on the Virgin Mary’s suffering at her son’s crucifixion.