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This concert, and the concept behind it, came into being largely because Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has become profoundly embedded in modern culture. Its strains are part of the sounds of modern life, heard on the radio and in department stores and elevators. There are perhaps 200 different recordings that can be purchased at the moment (reissues, anthologies, and excerpts make an exact count difficult), and it accounts for about half the 174 appearances Vivaldi’s music has made in movies and television, according to Internet Movie Database.
Yet in 1725, when Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter were published as the first four concertos of his Op. 8 (the title “Four Seasons” was not used), they were viewed as crazy modern music, or facile curiosities, or tasteless gimmickry, or the way of the future, and pretty much everything in between. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was as controversial and polarizing a figure in his time as Beethoven and Wagner in theirs.
The feature of the Four Seasons that drew the most positive and negative attention when they were new was the one aspect that was largely ignored when, after two centuries of obscurity, they started to get played again in the 1950s and 1960s: their pictorial literalness. Vivaldi included a sonnet for each concerto explaining what was going on, supplying not just descriptions, but performance instructions. The sonnet verses are printed not only as prefaces to each concerto, but also in all the instrumental parts, in the midst of tempo and dynamic markings. This is something that can pass unnoticed by the modern audience, which consists of listeners who aren’t looking at the music on the page. But in Vivaldi’s day the audience for his publications consisted mostly of accomplished amateur players, who could play the Four Seasons with as many players as could gather around the part-books, or as few as six, as the highlight of a social gathering. They would have been keenly aware that the sounds they were making represented specific scenes.
In Spring’s first movement, the first tutti is the arrival of the season, while the first solo section represents the birds greeting it. The following episodes depict brooks, breezes, and a quick thunderstorm. In the slow movement, a goatherd sleeps under a tree while the second violins represent “the murmuring branches and leaves” and the viola’s repeated notes represent his “faithful dog” barking (the “barking” is not in the sonnet, but rather an instruction written only in the viola part). The finale is a big dance accompanied by bagpipes, which are represented by droning basses.
In Summer, the opening bars present the “merciless summer sun” and sweltering “man and flock.” In the first solo, the violin is an ornamented cuckoo – it’s the soloist’s task to make the cuckoo’s notes distinct in a barrage of 16th-notes. The second solo depicts the turtledove and goldfinch, and rustling of the gentle zephyr breeze, which is joined by the violent north wind. The wind subsides long enough to let us hear how it makes a shepherd fear a coming storm, his agitated state depicted in a sequence of chromatically descending diminished chords – dissonances that lead to other dissonances instead of resolving. The second movement depicts the gentle, buzzing insects, and the shepherd listening with apprehension to distant thunder. The third movement brings the long-awaited storm.
A rustic harvest dance begins Autumn, with the peasants getting drunk and falling asleep to end the first movement. In the slow movement the revelers enjoy “sweet sleep” in the “mild and pleasant” air. Virtually the entire movement is another sequence of unresolved dissonances, mysterious and dreamlike. The finale abandons the peasants for the upper class, as horn calls begin the hunt. The unspecified prey flees from gunshots and barking hounds, and finally tires and dies.
Winter begins with shivering (in another remarkable chain of dissonances), chattering teeth and “running and stamping your feet every moment” to keep warm in snow and biting wind. The slow movement is a cozy fireside scene, “while the rain drenches everyone outside,” the raindrops in pizzicato under the solo violin’s melody. The finale begins by painting a picture of trying, not always successfully, to walk on ice without slipping, and concludes with the onslaught of “Sirocco, Boreas, and the other winds at war.”
The visual aspect was particularly annoying to musical conservatives who were already inclined to dislike Vivaldi. In London, the violinist-composer Francesco Geminiani, a defender of the musical principles that he had learned from Corelli (of which he considered Vivaldi the antithesis, if not the Antichrist) complained that, “Imitating the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl, and other birds, and also sudden Shifts of the Hand from one extremity of the Finger-board to the other,” were “Tricks rather belonging to the Professors of Legerdemain and Posture-makers than to the art of Musick.”
On the other hand, the Four Seasons not only found a ready market in the musical world, but created one. In 1739, the French composer Nicolas Chédeville came out with a concoction consisting partly of movements from the Four Seasons and partly of Chédeville’s own music entitled, without much regard to spelling, “Le Printems, ou Les Saisons Amusantes, concertos DAntonio Vivaldy,” for hurdy-gurdy or musette (a chamber bagpipe), violin, and flute. It may have been the first such potpourri, but it was hardly the last. Among the 200-odd recordings of this music are similarly-inspired recompositions in jazz and other modern styles, along with arrangements for solo instruments other than violin, and adaptations for such non-bowed-string media such as guitar trio, recorder quartet, brass ensemble, solo piano, and performance “with tropical rainforest.”