Antonio Vivaldi: Le Quattro Stagioni

performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan

Yes, the four seasons. All of them.

And yeah, it’s that melody. The one that’s recognizable to a fault. It’s the one people call to mind when they think of a fancy, hifalutin classical music piece to accompany a powdered wig, or viewing a piece of art in a museum, or eating a canapé or something off of a tray held by a man with vest on. It’s that classical music thing, maybe in jewelry commercials, school plays, and perhaps even as the punchline of some unspoken jokes. But do you know all the rest of the works? There’s more to it than just enough to fill a 30-second commercial.

But Antonio Vivaldi was serious business in his lifetime, which began on March 4, 1678 in Venice. Aside from being a composer, he was a violinist, teacher and a priest. Aside from this set of violin concertos, he wrote many other concertos for other instruments, (obviously) some sacred work, and a large number of operas. He wrote much for an ensemble at an orphanage (?) associated with his position there as a priest, in two chunks of time. He moved to Vienna, hoping to hit it big with Emperor Charles VI there, but said ruler died not long after that, and Vivaldi’s death followed.

Vivaldi’s birth was so long ago that he was born, not in Venice, Italy, but in the Republic of Venice. He was apparently dedicated to the priesthood very early, perhaps the very day he was born. He had eight siblings, and their father was a musician and taught Antonio the violin and even toured a bit through Europe. It seems he had quite a musical upbringing because he apparently already showed great expertise in his early 20s, not only as composer but as violinist. He met Charles VI in Trieste, and the emperor was very impressed. Earning a gold medal and being knighted didn’t make much difference, because his music started falling out of favor, and his apparently persistent health problems got the best of him, and he died poor at the age of 63. More details about the trajectory of his career could fill books, and have, but that’s all for now.

People may think of Bach as the absolute king of classical music, the point at which much of what we know as music tradition finds its roots, but Vivaldi was one of those people who was a significant influence on J.S. Bach. Interestingly, though, despite Vivaldi’s practical explosion on the European musical scene, his disappearance was almost equally swift, and by the Classical and Romantic eras, even this, his most famous work, was “unknown in its original edition”, says Vivaldi’s Wiki.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is a set of four concertos for violin, each obviously depicting one of the seasons of the year, but were published with another eight concertos (a whole dozen!) and the entire set was titled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). Those two things might not jump out at us today, but we’re coming up on three hundred years since these works were published, so Vivaldi’s reputation as an innovator may be difficult to appreciate from such a chronological remove.

Each of the four concertos is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, and have programmatic elements, which we shall discuss. They also had extramusical influence from sonnets, poems that were written into the scores, but which composition, the text or the music, came first is debated. The entire set of four concertos (a total of twelve movements), in Mutter’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan’s famous baton, takes less than three quarters of an hour from beginning to end.

(The original sonnets and their English can be found here. I would suggest first listening to the works ignorant of the composer’s programmatic intentions, and forming your own impressions before reading what they’re ‘supposed to’ suggest.)

The first concerto is in E major, and it’s La primavera, spring. It’s also the longest of the four (at least in this recording, but they’re all between eight-ish and eleven-ish minutes long).

Do your best for me, now, to put away the past few decades of abuse from this little melody, its cliché appearance in fancy restaurant scenes, ballrooms, stuffy ceremonies and jewelry commercials and think of how someone before Mozart’s time would use music to depict spring. Fresh air, beautiful weather, flowers in bloom, a coming to life out of winter, and the first movement embodies that. You can hear the breeze, sometimes even strong gusts of wind, and something sweetly celebratory in that nearly-laughably cliché theme. You may have never heard that theme in the minor key before, though, so keep listening. Seeing how it returns to the major key in the end is one example of the role that musical structure and key play in the outworking of a movement, and there it is at the end!

And now it’s likely the vast majority of the population who recognized that first movement is completely unfamiliar with everything that follows. Listen for the violas and their persistent two-note phrase throughout the movement, for which Vivaldi wrote in the score ‘the barking dog’. Between their repetition and the solo violin’s long, melancholy lines, it sounds almost like something from Philip Glass’ pen, no?

The finale of Spring unsurprisingly calls to mind the opening movement, to the point that people would may almost recognize it independently. It suggests the first movement, but is heavier and slightly more languid, or at least thicker, less vivacious. Its similarity to the opening movement gives the overall structure of the entire concerto a more ternary (ABA) feel than three separate movements. This may not be life-changing beautiful music, but if you ever wonder what you’re missing from the parts they cut out of those famous TV scenes, etc., then give a listen to Spring, because the rest of it builds from what you do know and gives a complete work, the entire train of thought, not just a famous scene.

The second of the set is in G minor, L’estate, or summer. What does hot weather sound like? Well, in the score, for the first movement, the composer writes “Languor caused by the heat”. The music may sound melancholy at first, but it’s not mournful; rather, it is languid, depressed or oppressed by that need we all feel on occasion to move so little that we don’t break a sweat, which was obviously much harder in the days before air conditioning. The soloist appears after an oppressed beginning, and she moves plenty, bringing the orchestra to life. There are big, crunchy movements that seem to jump out of the Baroque era and to the verge of the Romantic, but it’s overall languorous, the way a beautiful woman in full 18th-century garb might be half-melting in a fancy armchair while maintaining some semblance of elegance. But those two expressions, of oppressive heat and sudden, furious bursts of energy, bring this movement to life.

The middle movement begins sweetly, like a temporary relief from the heat brought on by a momentary cool breeze, but it’s punctuated by the crunchy bursts from the strings that we heard in the first movement. It’s very short, and it’s this crunchy, hot stiff breeze that whips the ensemble into furious energy for the finale, one of the most stirring passages of this set of four concertos.

I bet you can guess the third! It’s L’autunno, autumn, and it’s in F. Spring and autumn are my two favorite seasons, but autumn wins because it precedes winter, not summer. Autumn means the setting in of cooler weather (relatively speaking, depending on where you live) and for me, that is a cause for celebration. We’ve moved away from the heavy, sticky heat of summer, and can breathe some fresh air. The leaves are changing colors, and that freshness is embodied in the opening of the third concerto, calling back to the same freeness and joy of spring, even sounding identifiably similar to most ears, I’d say, and the first movement feels the most… substantial of anything we’ve heard so far, with greater contrasts and more developed sections.

The second movement also gets a little note from the composer: “The drunkards have fallen asleep.” I don’t know that that is to signify that what we heard in the first movement was a drinking song or meant to depict Oktoberfest or anything, but this movement is certainly soft, quiet, with a plucked string here and there, a lullaby of sorts. Extremely little happens here, like a scene from an opera where a character has a somnolent internal monologue during a scene change.

The finale of autumn is another of my favorites. It has a spring in its step, almost folk-dancy, in triple meter, a bucolic welcoming nature; thinking back to Tchaikovsky’s seasons, the hunting song of September comes to mind, or some early version of a folk-like minuet that would appear in later Austrian or German music.  I don’t think this passage would get the same hifalutin ‘jewelry commercial’ treatment that Spring does, but this is clearly a gem of the set and shows some good-hearted fun.

The final concerto, L’inverno, winter, rounds out the year, and it is in F minor. Again, let’s give this one the same treatment we gave the others. What does winter sound like? Well, despite it being my favorite time of year, it’s often depicted in mythology and art and elsewhere by the absence of life and vitality: the animals fly south or hibernate, the leaves have long since changed colors and fallen, flowers are no more. Winter begins with snowflakes blown around in a cold breeze, a deep blue sky in the background. The F minor isn’t (entirely) melancholy, but cold, a different kind of beauty. It has its own crispness, but not in any warm way.

Its second movement sounds almost serenade-like, but that’s probably just the plucked strings talking. It’s tender, almost like an intermezzo it’s so short, but gives the soloist the spotlight in a wintry landscape as she sings a lyrical and slightly melancholy song. Or not. The sonnet line for this movement reads:

To rest contentedly beside the hearth, /while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

She also begins the finale, with a more lively extension of the second movement song, and again, if you listened to only a few bars, you might just be fooled into thinking it’s some 20th century minimalist work. The soloist repeats a few figures before the rest of the string brethren enter, an F from cello sticking to the bottom of the ensemble like the earth under the snow waiting to thaw.

…this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

I’d say it’s not important to have to know the innovations that Vivaldi brought to the concerto, how he proved to be an influence on Bach or what he saw in Vivaldi’s music. There’s no need to put the entire thing in complete context, to know what musical things Vivaldi did with key changes, with orchestration, with his programmatic ideas and how they may have been looked down upon at the time, but if you ave any inclination toward enjoying the work, then any of that can only greaten your appreciation for this piece. I obviously haven’t gone to such great lengths to explain in any detail the musical merits or details of the work, but for me, an overview of the general plotis enough, what each is about and what they sound like and express beyond that snippet from the first work.

However, after giving 10-ish minutes to each of these concertos and forming your own imagery of the work, it can be very satisfying to return to view the sonnets of unknown origin, to read about the thunder and lighting and bugs in Summer, his crop destroyed; the chase scene in Autumn’s allegro; the journey to get home and within the warmth of closed doors and away from the winter bluster in the finale of that concerto.

In looking at it that way, it’s not just music of contrasts and a theme and some background and a repetition and a fast-slow-fast idea. I see Vivaldi as being really compelled by the idea of extramusical themes, expressing the universal concept of the changing of the seasons with both word and music, and giving this entire set just a little more attention, we can see the entire work as not just a caricature of classical music from the first bars of Spring, but as a colorful, expressive collection of very high artistic merit.

Phew… The Four Seasons. Sometimes I don’t know where these articles will go or how I’ll end up presenting the work, but after 2100 words in this article, one starts to think that simply listening is enough. That being said, stay tuned for more words about new composers to the blog. Ciao.

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