WSO Four Seasons

Program Notes:  Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

[WSO, 1/24/10]

History has situated the Baroque period and its music as an era of extremes.  On the one hand, the opulence and material excess so characteristic of the reigning absolute monarchs (in particular, Louis XIV of France) found musical realization in the spectacle and virtuosic flair of opera and concerto.  On the other hand, the era’s emphasis on scientific achievement and rational thought spurred the musical logic and careful craft best seen in the genre of fugue.  Strict adherence to this oppositional model, however, belies the possibility of a more nuanced and flexible understanding of Baroque music.

Born and raised in Venice, Italy, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) seemed destined to follow the musical path of his famed violinist father.  Indeed, Vivaldi’s ordination as a Catholic priest and subsequent appointment as music director at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà hardly precluded him from attaining an international reputation as a violin virtuoso.  In particular, Vivaldi’s uneven and tumultuous relationship with Ospedale administrators afforded him frequent, and often involuntary, breaks in employment during which the composer undertook lucrative performing tours.

The Ospedale della Pietà (“Hospital of Mercy”) was not a hospital, but rather a charitable institution for orphaned girls in Venice, offering a stable home and education that prepared them for marriage and motherhood, or, alternatively, for religious vows:  the two “acceptable” social possibilities for young women in eighteenth-century Roman Catholic Italy.  Under Vivaldi’s musical tutelage, many talented young women at the Ospedale became accomplished musicians, but these social constraints put an end to any ambitions they may have held for professional music careers.  Nevertheless, the Sunday afternoon concerts at the Ospedale attracted royals and prestigious visitors from all of Europe, and numerous contemporary accounts laud the girls’ great talents and skills.  It is likely that Vivaldi wrote a significant number of his estimated five hundred concertos for specific performers at the Ospedale.

Most music historians credit Vivaldi with advancing and ultimately solidifying the formal and performance expectations of the concerto genre. Vivaldi singlehandedly standardized the three-movement, fast-slow-fast form of the concerto that would dominate the next two centuries.  While Vivaldi retained the customary string and continuo based Baroque orchestra throughout his concerto output (solo instruments aside), he managed to inject his music with remarkable variety and narrative drive. Moreover, Vivaldi’s creative handling of ritornello form in the concerto genre caught the admiration of his great contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed several of Vivaldi’s concertos for keyboard.  Thus Vivaldi laid the groundwork for the more expansive concerto efforts of later composers, such as Mozart.

In 1725 Vivaldi published a collection of twelve concertos as his opus 8, which he titled The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.  Vivaldi’s famous set of four solo violin concertos, The Four Seasons, encompasses the first four works in this collection. Vivaldi’s descriptive title, The Four Seasons, immediately alerts listeners to the music’s programmatic content.  What makes this early example of program music truly unique, however, is Vivaldi’s prefacing of each concerto score with a sonnet appropriate to the season depicted in the music.  Indeed, most historians believe that Vivaldi wrote these sonnets himself.

A close look at the most well known of these concertos, Spring, provides insight into how Vivaldi weaves an inventive approach to musical form and style with the descriptive material suggested in the attached sonnet.  The Spring concerto unfolds in the now standardized three-movement pattern, with the first and third movements written in ritornello form.  In this formal plan, an orchestral ritornello (refrain) offers an audible frame of repetition and stable harmony, alternating with more modulatory and virtuosic sections for the soloist.  The end result is a seamless dialogue between orchestra and soloist that effects a dramatic narrative.

The sonnet that precedes the Spring concerto celebrates the onset of spring, greeted joyfully by singing birds and murmuring brooks.  With spring, however, comes changing weather and sudden storms, which come and go quickly.  Soon the birds hesitantly reemerge, and the peaceful atmosphere of the sonnet’s opening returns.  Vivaldi begins this movement in the tonic major key with the anticipated orchestral ritornello, which, in typical Vivaldi fashion, consists of two short and distinct musical ideas. The second melody, characterized by graceful syncopations, will comprise the bulk of the varied and frequently fragmented ritornello repetitions throughout the movement. The trills of the soloist’s first entrance suggest mellifluous bird song. A fragment of the ritornello heralds a new idea in which the strings imitate murmuring brooks and gentle breezes through flowing sixteenth notes.  A modulation to minor, confirmed by another brief recurrence of the ritornello, leads to thundering tremolos in the orchestra and rapid rising scales that imply bolts of lightning.  It is the soloist, however, who ultimately takes on the fury of the storm, via rapid-fire sequences in triplet rhythms. Another ritornello fragment signals the disintegration of the storm and the hesitant reawakening of the birds, once again in the major key. Vivaldi briefly interrupts the final, complete presentation of the ritornello with a brief wandering solo that suggests a cadenza:  a procedure unique to Vivaldi that appears frequently in his concertos.

The second movement of Spring depicts a sunny day in which a goatherd sleeps lazily in a meadow alongside his dog.  As such, Vivaldi scores the movement for a reduced orchestra without the low strings and keyboard continuo. The gentle breezes that ripple the flowers and reeds are played by the strings, while a lyrical melody unfolds above in the violin.  Perhaps the most famous aspect of this movement is the “barking dog” suggested by the two-note pattern in the violas.  The third movement returns to a fast tempo and ritornello form, depicting a rustic dance in compound meter, in which nymphs and shepherds celebrate the arrival of spring.  Drones in the low strings imitate the sound of country bagpipes.

Vivaldi’s next sonnet places the Summer concerto in the sizzling heat of midday, in which shepherds and their flocks languish in exhaustion.  As such, the movement unfolds mainly in minor. The short motives of the opening ritornello yield to the solo song of the cuckoo, and, following a brief ritornello, doves coo and goldfinches chatter in the solo violin.  The orchestra, however, evokes a blowing wind, gentle at first, through the rhythmic play of violin triplets against the viola’s constant sixteenth notes.  The shepherd soon awakens and begins to fear for his flock as he recognizes the signs of an oncoming storm.  In the brief second movement the shepherd struggles to his feet amongst increasing storm clouds and buzzing swarms of flies:  a scene that Vivaldi ingeniously depicts through the frequent changes between Adagio and Presto tempos.  The onset of the third movement confirms the shepherd’s fears, as its relentless figuration and minor key suggest a violent thunderstorm and damaging hail.

The third concerto, Autumn, opens with another celebration, as country dwellers celebrate the success of their harvest.  The major key and melodic shape of the movement’s ritornello cleverly reference the similarly pleasant atmosphere at the start of the Spring concerto.  The initial solo takes on the opening ritornello’s character, but at the soloist’s second entrance we begin to hear the drunken peasants pass out from their revelries. The second movement is characteristically lyrical and slow, as the fresh and fragrant autumn air lulls everyone (inebriated and sober alike) to sleep.  In the third movement, huntsmen awake and take their guns and hounds out to pursue their quarry.  An energetic chase ensues, replete with horn calls in the strings.  The unspecified prey, wounded and terrified, tries to flee but fails, dying in agony.

For those accustomed to New England winters, no explanatory sonnet is necessary for the fourth concerto! The music of the Winter concerto alternates between the depiction of bitterly cold winter air and icy snow with the warm respite of the fireside indoors.  Not surprisingly, the minor mode dominates this concerto.  The first movement takes place outdoors.  We first hear the strings shiver with cold in repeated staccato eighth notes, periodically interrupted by the soloist’s whirling wind.  The orchestra reenters with similarly flashy figuration, suggesting a person running about and stamping feet in order to avoid frostbite.  Finally, the soloist’s third entrance brings to mind chattering teeth. The concerto’s second movement offers welcome contrast, unfolding amid the warm shelter of a parlor and blazing fire, even as cold rain and sleet relentlessly pour outside. The third movement returns us to the outside and the suggestion of a person who, rather unwisely, decides to take on the hazardous wintry conditions.  In the movement’s frequent tempo changes and vibrant figuration we can hear that person walking, at first carefully, through the snow and ice, as well as the inevitable slips and falls.  While the concerto does end in the minor mode, Vivaldi reminds us in the final line of his sonnet that winter can be a time of enjoyment as well!

Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD — Naugatuck Valley Community College (Department of Music)