About this Piece
Composed: c. 1723-1725
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: strings, continuo, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: July 26, 1928 (Spring) and August 7, 1930 (Summer), both with Bernardino Molinari conducting and soloist Sylvain Noack
Famed throughout musical Europe during his life, Vivaldi disappeared from the cultural consciousness after his death, not to return until the 20th-century boom in Baroque music. Now his concertos seem the default value for that musical era in the popular imagination. These concertos cut a revolutionary swath through the rituals of Baroque music in much the same way that Minimalism gutted academic serialism 250 years later. They standardized the fast-slow-fast movement scheme that has survived as the classic concerto pattern, and developed the ritornello form (in which a refrain for the ensemble alternates with free episodes for the soloist), using it as a vehicle for thematic integration and elaboration. Vivaldi’s 500-plus concertos were athletic entertainments that swept continental Europe, influencing not only younger composers, but causing a wave of stylistic conversion in older ones.
Publication aided the dissemination of Vivaldi’s music – 78 of his concertos and 36 sonatas were published in various editions during his lifetime. (That is how the music was known to Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed for organ nine concertos from Vivaldi’s Opp. 3, 4, 7, and 8, thoroughly assimilating the Italian’s style.) These served in effect as loss leaders for Vivaldi, who found most of the profits going to the publishers and that he could often make more money selling his music in manuscript to wealthy patrons as far away as Sweden.
The Four Seasons were published in 1725 as the opening four concertos in a set of 12, title Il Cimento dellà armonia e dell’ invenzione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention). This was important not simply as a means of spreading the music, but because Vivaldi included a descriptive sonnet with each of the Seasons. They not only set a very explicit scene, but also included performance indications, and Vivaldi had the lines of the poems (generally thought to be by himself) printed in each of the parts, along with tempo and dynamic markings. (As “performers” and “audience” were largely overlapping sets at the time, everyone at a gathering where the music was played would be aware of these poems.)
A famous example is the slow movement of the Spring concerto, in which a goatherd is depicted sleeping under a tree. The second violins suggest the “murmuring branches and leaves” of the tree, and the repeated nudges from the violas represent the goatherd’s dog barking – the word for “barking,” however is not in the full sonnet, only in the viola part as a performance instruction. In the blithe first movement, the orchestral ritornello heralds the arrival of the season, and the soloist offers birds, brooks, breezes, and a sudden thunderstorm. The third movement is a May dance, with basses imitating bagpipe drones.
Vivaldi’s Summer is a rather stressful season, with the ensemble emphasizing the “merciless summer sun” and the suffering people and flocks in the first movement. The solo episodes bring in more birds and rustling breezes, overshadowed by the rough north wind. A chain of dissonances indicates the peasant’s fear of the approaching storm, a worry that also haunts the slow movement, where the calm before the storm is filled with buzzing insects. For the finale, Vivaldi finally unleashes the looming storm in a torrent of notes.