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The Red Priest

December 15, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

Last week, my family enjoyed what has become a very pleasant tradition: going to see our daughter Wendy sing in a Christmas concert. The program was excellent and directors Norma Klier and Danielle Laird, along with all the very talented members of the Cypress Falls High School choirs and the accompanying musicians, can be very proud of their presentation.

Antonio Vivaldi was the greatest of the Italian composers in the Baroque Period.

I love Christmas music and nothing can equal the magic of a live performance, whether it's carolers on the lawn or a full chorus. All the marvels of the digital age notwithstanding, nothing beats being there.

The choirs performed a variety of traditional and modern songs, including the irreverent "Good King Kong Looked Out" by one of my favorite composers, P.D.Q. Bach (for more about P.D.Q. Bach, visit Peter Schickele's website). Of course, the program closed with Joseph Mohr's beautiful "Silent Night" sung by choir members placed throughout the auditorium. That's surround sound at its very best.

One of the highlights of this year's concert was the performance of the "Gloria," written in 1708 by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Like Joseph Mohr, Vivaldi was a priest. Unlike the dedicated Father Mohr, however, Vivaldi was a composer first and very likely second, as well.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 6, 1678. His father was a barber who had learned to play the violin had become a violinist at St. Mark's Basilica. He also taught his son to play. Since his family was not well-off, young Antonio's educational opportunities were limited. Like many other bright, but poor, young men, he entered training for a career in the ministry, but did not become ordained until 1703, when he was twenty-five. Even then, he was less than diligent in performing his priestly duties. Afflicted with asthma he claimed was aggravated by the incense used in the service, Vivaldi soon quit saying the mass. Even though he received a dispensation in 1704 excusing him from celebrating mass, this refusal would cost him dearly in later years.

The Ospedale della PietÓ in Venice. While it was called an orphanage, it was really a home for the illegitimate female children of well-to-do gentlemen and their mistresses.

Like his father, who was happiest while playing in the orchestra, Vivaldi was far more interested in music than his professional calling and became a violin instructor at the Ospedale della PietÓ (loosely translated, the English would be "Mercy Hospital"), an orphanage for young women in Venice. As a teacher and director, he was quite successful and the girls' orchestra soon became one of the best in Europe. Vivaldi's concerts were very popular, attracting attention from music lovers not just in Italy, but in a number of other European countries, as well.

Nicknamed "Il Prete Rosso" (The Red Priest) because of his red hair, Vivaldi devoted most of his adult life to the Ospedale della PietÓ, composing music for the hospital's orchestra and eventually becoming the maestro de' concerti. He was one of the giants of the Baroque era, best-known for his contributions to the development of the concerto. Vivaldi was a prolific composer and boasted he could write a concerto faster than his copyists could transcribe the various parts. By the time he died, he had composed over five hundred concertos, fifty operas, twenty-three symphonies and more than sixty religious pieces, including the "Gloria," in which he set the Roman Catholic mass to music.

Though he was not popular among his peers, Vivaldi gained notoriety for the many rumored relationships with the girls in his charge, especially a young woman named Anna Giraud. It was said she was not a noteworthy vocal talent, but Vivaldi composed several operas to fit Anna's abilities and they often traveled together. This relationship, coupled with Vivaldi's refusal to perform the mass, brought him into conflict with the church, where he had few allies. In spite of his protests that his relationship with his pupil was strictly proper, one of the Cardinals of the church prohibited him from performing a series of concerts in nearby Ferrara; in fact, he was banned from even entering the city. This was a severe blow to Vivaldi, but it was just the beginning. Tired of the rumors and Vivaldi's frequent absences, the governors of the Ospedale della PietÓ dismissed him in 1740.

In June 1741, Vivaldi moved to Austria, seeking a position with Emperor Charles VI, who was an enthusiastic admirer of the Vivaldi's work. Unfortunately, the monarch died shortly before Vivaldi arrived and the sixty-three-year-old composer soon became ill himself, suffering with a gastric infection from which he never recovered.

Despite all of his success in Venice, the setbacks and travel had depleted Vivaldi's finances. He died a pauper in Vienna on July 28, 1741. Future composer Joseph Haydn sang in the choir at his requiem mass.

Even after his death, fate was not kind to Antonio Vivaldi. Though much of his music had been published, few copies survived and most of his compositions faded into oblivion within a few decades of his passing. It would be almost three hundred years before the vast body of Vivaldi's work would come to light.

Photoshop holiday greetings. The Promotex card (top) features a Mercedes Vito van. Original model picture courtesy of Herpa/Promotex. Santa is driving a Volkswagen T5 in the Wiking card (middle). "Frohe Feiertage" means "Happy Holidays" and "Das Perfecktes Weihnachtsgeschenk" translates as "The Perfect Christmas Gift." Original model picture by Marc Schmidt. The Smart Fortwo with Clevertrailer is the centerpiece of the Busch card (bottom). "Fr÷liche Weihnachten" is German for "Merry Christmas" and the lettering on the trailer means "Model Autos and Toys for Good Boys and Girls." Original model photo courtesy of Busch GmbH & Co. KG.

In 1926, Dr. Alberto Gentili, a professor of music at Turin University, identified a number of Vivaldi's unpublished compositions found at a monastery in Borgo San Martino, in the Piedmont region of Italy. The priests who had discovered the volumes of music thought they were just old books and had called upon Dr. Gentili to assess their value in order to sell them. When he realized what the books contained, Dr. Gentili personally raised the funds to buy them for the Italian National Library in Turin. Upon further examination, Dr. Gentili realized some of the works were incomplete and set about locating the missing sections. These were located in various family libraries and Dr. Gentili went begging for money again. Finally, everything was brought together in Turin and plans were made for a 1939 publication of Vivaldi's complete works.

Unfortunately, by that time, Italy was embroiled in the conflicts that led to World War II and there was no opportunity for publication. It wasn't until well after the end of the war that the world was able to rediscover the lost music of Antonio Vivaldi.

I use Adobe Photoshop for many of the images appearing with my columns. Photoshop allows a tremendous freedom to create exactly the illustration I want to use or retouch a marginal photograph to make it clearer. For the past few years, Photoshop has allowed me to create another personal Christmas tradition that I enjoy: the creation of electronic greeting cards for some of my friends in the model industry. Each year, some "prop" images and scenery create backdrops for retouched pictures of various Herpa, Wiking Busch models that I own. I wanted to share some of this year's "e-cards" with you.

Of course, I promise myself each year that I will turn these concepts into actual dioramas and this year might be the one. Other than the snow, night sky backdrop and driver in the VW van, every element of the pictures is a 1:87 scale model. That Herpa Vito would be an excellent candidate.

This is my last column for the year. I hope you've enjoyed them and will be back in January as we start looking at the new models and new topics. The North American International Auto Show is next month and the big Nuremberg and New York toy fairs are just two months away, and there's some great stuff coming.

Marge, Wendy, Will and I wish a wonderful and safe holiday season for all of you. There's still plenty of time to share your holiday spirit by making a donation to your local food bank, giving a toy or clothing to a charitable organization or adding a little extra to the collection plate at your house of worship.

See you next year!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005