Vivaldi: Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons)

Program Note

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) (1723)

Generally, when a work is as resoundingly popular as The Four Seasons, there is a very great danger that it will become hackneyed sooner or later. Yet The Four Seasons, after some sixty years of regular performance, appears to be as well-loved as ever. Vivaldi, producing in his career something over four hundred concertos, achieved in this set of four linked violin concertos a work of transcendent quality that completely overshadowed not only his own other efforts, but most of the concertos of his contemporaries. At a time when music was comparatively ephemeral, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons outlived musical fashion to such an extent that Rousseau, some thirty-five years after Vivaldi’s death, produced a flute transcription for publication. Since then, enthusiasm has hardly wavered.

The Four Seasons were boldly experimental when they were published in 1725. Vivaldi combined the structure of the solo concerto with the musical depiction of events found in nature, with telling results.  The inspiration for The Four Seasons came from a set of four anonymous sonnets, from which Vivaldi took descriptive phrases to direct the development of musical ideas. The sonnets themselves are rather pedestrian, at least in translation, but Vivaldi enshrined them in the richest surroundings. The original score has the appropriate phrases printed in.

Spring: Marked Allegro, the first movement is inscribed, “Spring’s awakening – Song of the birds – The Springs gush out – Thunder – The song of the birds.” In the Baroque Rondo form, this movement is in five sections, fluidly descriptive. The second movement, a Largo, describes “A sleeping goatherd – Rustling of foliage – The dog barks – The goat-herder and his faithful dog.” Under the beautiful violin solo, the cellos and harpsichord are silent. The violas become the bass instruments, and delightfully, represent the barking dog with a repeated figure. The Allegro third movement is simply inscribed “Country Dance.”

Summer: The Allegro first movement, “Languor caused by the heat – the Cuckoo – the Turtledove – the Goldfinch – Gentle Zephyrs – Various winds – the North-Wind – Young Countryman’s Lament,” is absolutely filled with events, somewhat obscuring the Rondo form, but the description is superb. The Adagio slow movement is simply entitled “Flies and Bluebottles.”  Boldly experimental, the music depicts the harvester in repose with a storm gathering in. The third movement, a Presto, fulfils the promise of bad weather.  Entitled “Summer Storm,” it is a veritable tempest.

Autumn: The Allegro is inscribed “Dance and song of country folk – the Toper,” begins with innocent rusticity, and then becomes increasingly bibulous. “The Sleeping Drunkard,” the Adagio second movement, is remarkably lively in spite of its title, suggesting that Vivaldi was carried away with his invention of a beautiful theme. The last movement, an Allegro, describes the pleasures of the chase. “The fleeing beast – guns and hounds – The fleeing beast is slain,” are all represented with an odd dignity.

Winter: The Allegro first movement is quite hilarious, as witness the inscription: “Dreadful storm – Running and foot stamping because of the cold – winds – chattering of teeth.” Vivaldi’s art of description here reaches its acme. The following Largo depicts “the Rain,” though from the comfort of a warm fireside. The Finale, an Allegro, again takes us outdoors, with a vengeance. The movement is inscribed “Crossing the ice – Moving carefully and anxiously – Falling to the ground – Striding bolding on – The Sirocco – The North wind and all other winds.” Wild description is only matched by sheer invention as Vivaldi achieves an amazing conclusion to a great work of genius.