The “Four Seasons” op. 8

Composer: 

            Concerto No. 1 in E Major, RV 269 “Spring”

            Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, RV 317 “Summer”

            Concerto No. 3 in F Major, RV 293 “Autumn”

            Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297 “Winter”

 

            Antonio Vivaldi was the most important composer of the Italian Baroque period, although appreciation of that fact was slow in coming in later times.  But, during his lifetime he was celebrated all over Europe, and his compositions were highly influential—mostly notably on J. S. Bach.  He wrote almost fifty operas, but is remembered now for his amazing fecundity in composing instrumental works.  He wrote about five hundred concertos (not as one unappreciative wag once said, “the same concerto five hundred times.”)  While many of them feature wind instruments, the majority of them are for strings, and are practically an early eighteenth-century compendium of almost every imaginative passage or technique that one could ask of them.

            Vivaldi early on was ordained into the priesthood, and his probable red hair gave him the moniker, “the red priest.”  He was a teacher on and off for most of his life at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (you can still see the building, today, just down the quay from St. Mark’s Cathedral.)  The institution was basically a girl’s school for children born to the Venetian nobility under awkward circumstances, shall we say?  The school had very high musical standards, and the quality of its student orchestras was legendary.  Vivaldi, however, was a great traveler, moving around Italy working for various patrons, and taking up residencies here and there in opera houses.   His publications swept Europe, and he was influential in establishing many conventions of eighteenth-century musical composition.  His 1725 publication, Il Cimento dell' Armenia e dell'invenzione, contained twelve concertos, seven of which had descriptive titles, including The Four Seasons.   The others were The Hunt, Pleasure, and Storm at Sea.

            The Four Seasons consists of four concertos for solo violin and string orchestra.  Each concerto—in typical Vivaldi fashion—consists of three movements, the tempos of which are always respectively fast, slow, and fast.  Not only did he give each of them the title of a specific season, he is also the presumed author of the four sonnets, each of which corresponds to a respective concerto.  From listening to so many orchestral compositions of the nineteenth century that have a “program,” or story, that the music putatively illustrates or tells, audiences today have come to regard program music as practically the norm.   But, for early audiences it was quite the novelty—yes, the tradition went back to the Greeks, but it was a rather thin one.

            As one listens to each of the twelve movements of the four concertos, the “roadmap” is fairly clear.   Each opens with a section for the complete orchestra (the ritornello), followed by a section for solo violin, accompanied by the orchestra—or a few members of them.   The ritornello and solo sections alternate—about three times—ending with a final ritornello.   The solo sections vary in themes and textures, but the ritornelli generally cover the same material, so you can usually spot them when they return—although Vivaldi usually altered them a little each time.

            It is marvelous how the composer is able to evoke the sounds, situations—even the temperatures!—of the various seasons, using only imaginative string figurations, melodies, and tempos.  He doesn’t need all the resources of the modern orchestra, at all.  Taken from the accompanying sonnets, Vivaldi literally tells us to expect birds and thunderstorms in first movement of “Spring,” the sleeping, faithful dog of the goatherd in the second, and nymphs and shepherds dancing to bagpipes in the third movement.  “Summer” brings us blazing sun and scorched pine trees in the first movement, and a summer storm with hailstones in the other movements.  “Autumn” brings us rustic peasants celebrating the harvest in the allegro, sleeping off the effects of wine in the second movement, and a vigorous hunt with dogs and horns (ending tragically for the quarry) in the last movement.  Finally, “Winter” comes with shivering, frosty snow, and chattering teeth.  The second movement depicts contentment by the fire—not worrying about the poor folks drenched outside by the rain.   And the last movement brings slipping on icy paths and skittering across frozen waters.  One can literally feel the “cold wind blowing through the house, despite locked and bolted doors.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan