The Music Plays On — Vivaldi The Four Seasons

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Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi, ca. 1723

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) are now thought of as two pillars of the Baroque era, but when they were both alive, only Vivaldi was widely known. Vivaldi’s music was published and performed throughout Europe. Even Bach greatly admired his music, transcribing and orchestrating quite a few of Vivaldi’s violin concertos for various other instruments.

First page of Bach’s 1714–1716 autograph of BWV 596, his organ transcription of Vivaldi’s double violin concerto Op. 3 №11.

From the moment Le quattro stagione (The Four Seasons) was published in Amsterdam in 1725 they were known to a wide audience. These four violin concertos, together with eight additional concertos, were published under the title, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention) Op. 8, and have remained incredibly popular since then. Here are six of the other concertos in Op. 8.

Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op. 8 Nos. 7–12

However, one of the things that truly set The Four Seasons apart from the other concertos in his Opus 8 is something few people get to experience in modern day performances or are even aware exists. For each of the seasons, there is an accompanying sonnet, which was written most likely by Vivaldi himself. These sonnets beautifully describe each season of the year, and the music perfectly corresponds to these sonnets, making The Four Seasons one of the first examples of program music, music that has a specific extra-musical meaning.

Please read the sonnet first before listening to the accompanying concerto.

Spring

Allegro
Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are
softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar,
casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence,
and the birds take up their charming songs once more.

Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches
rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps,
his faithful dog beside him.

Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes,
nymphs and shepherds lightly dance
beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Spring

Summer

Under a hard season, fired up by the sun
Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine
We hear the cuckoo’s voice;
then sweet songs of the turtledove and finch are heard.
Soft breezes stir the air, but threatening
the North Wind sweeps them suddenly aside.
The shepherd trembles,
fearing violent storms and his fate.

Adagio e piano — Presto e forte
The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs his tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

Presto
Alas, his fears were justified
The Heavens thunder and roar and with hail
Cut the head off the wheat and damages the grain.

Summer

Autumn

Celebrates the peasant, with songs and dances,
The pleasure of a bountiful harvest.
And fired up by Bacchus’ liquor,
many end their revelry in sleep.

Adagio molto
Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance
By the air which is tempered with pleasure
And (by) the season that invites so many, many
Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment

Allegro
The hunters emerge at the new dawn,
And with horns and dogs and guns depart upon their hunting
The beast flees and they follow its trail;
Terrified and tired of the great noise
Of guns and dogs, the beast, wounded, threatens
Languidly to flee, but harried, dies.

Autumn

Winter

To tremble from cold in the icy snow,
In the harsh breath of a horrid wind;
To run, stamping one’s feet every moment,
Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold

Largo
Before the fire to pass peaceful,
Contented days while the rain outside pours down.

Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless
brings its own delights.

Winter

And I leave you with one of the most daring and imagined performances I’ve ever seen — A staged version of The Four Seasons by the violinist, Midori Seiler, and the amazing ensemble, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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