Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, op. 8, nos. 1–4, “The Four Seasons”

September 26, 2021: Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Nathan Melzer, violin; Kevin Zhu, violin; James Thompson, violin; Jeanelle Brierley, violin; Oliver Neubauer, violin; Clara Neubauer, viola; Paul Neubauer, viola; Isabella Bignasca, viola; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Sihao He, cello; David J. Grossman, bass; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord

Vivaldi’s greatness as a composer lay in his extraordinary mastery of instrumental forms and orchestration. An accomplished violinist, he also trained for the priesthood, taking his Holy Orders in 1703; he was dubbed “the red priest” because of his striking hair color. For much of his career he worked at the Pio Ospedale Pietà, an orphanage and famous conservatory for girls in Venice. Many of his instrumental works, including most of his 500 concertos, were written for his students there. He also traveled throughout Italy in connection with the presentation of his operas, and for a time around 1718–20 he was employed as court music director in Mantua.

We know from Vivaldi’s own preface that he composed The Four Seasons long before their publication in 1725, but the precise date and place of composition may forever elude us. Possibly composed as early as 1716, these concertos appeared as the first of twelve making up his Opus 8 collection, which he dedicated to music-loving Bohemian Count Morzin. Vivaldi’s preface implies that he knew the count’s “virtuoso orchestra”—had the composer visited Prague?

The Four Seasons spread Vivaldi’s fame far and wide in his own lifetime. Would he have been surprised to find that these concertos later achieved such ultra-popularity as to be played as restaurant background music, in television commercials, and for movie soundtracks? Though he might have been irritated at some of these applications, he might have been intrigued that their use in Alan Alda’s film The Four Seasons and on the Weather Channel actually relates to one of their most salient attributes—that of being program music, or music that tells a story. On the most basic level these works give a musical representation of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. But what makes them so innovative and memorable is the vividness and detail of Vivaldi’s programmatic description. The concertos were prefaced by four “explanatory sonnets”—presumably written by the composer—whose verses refer to points in the score through a system of keyed letters (see below). Reading the poetry in sync with the music illuminates what the images are, but it is the remarkable music with its myriad nuanced references to mankind’s relationship with nature that shows the height of Vivaldi’s artistry.

As a fascinating aside, Vivaldi’s sonnets recently helped paleo-ecologist/climatologist Ulla Kokfelt, who was working on climatic reconstructions from Venice and Po just following the “late maunder minimum” period (1675–1715, the culmination of a “little ice age”). She was able to draw certain conclusions because of the sonnets’ specificity and the fact that the concertos were probably written well before 1725.

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One of Vivaldi’s great achievements was establishing the three-movement norm for the concerto. For the outer fast movements he often used ritornello form, in which periodic returns of thematic material alternate with contrasting episodes. His programs for the Four Seasons, while occasionally shaping the form, more often fit admirably into his characteristic concerto models. Vivaldi found ritornello form perfect for depicting the sonnets’ contrasting images in the fast movements, and the slow movements particularly apt for setting the mood of an entire scene or succession of scenes.

Of the myriad glorious depictions in these concertos, we might single out the picturesque bird calls in the first movement of Spring, which are interrupted by a dramatic squall, or the slow movement’s exquisite sleepy mood, which is punctuated by the faithful dog “barking” in the viola part.
The burning dryness of Summer’s opening contrasts so vividly with the cuckoo’s outbreak, as do the gentle breezes with the intrusion of the north wind. The anticipation of a storm builds ingeniously in the slow movement and the tempest’s fury in the final movement is truly impressive.

In Autumn’s opening movement Vivaldi cleverly intersperses the ritornello refrain of the dancing country-folk with the colorful episodes of the bacchanal, brilliantly enacted by the solo violin with solo cello, and the atmospheric slumbering represented by the solo violin accompanied only by the pulsing of the ensemble violins. The muted slow movement traditionally gives the keyboard player a chance to improvise, while the closing movement contrasts the ritornello refrains representing the riding hunters with an episode of horn calls, another of the wounded prey, and finally of the animal’s death.

Vivaldi’s depictions of shivering and of icy winds, of stamping feet and of chattering teeth are truly miraculous in Winter’s first movement. The slow movement’s peace by the fireside is shattered by the return of icy images in the finale. The Concerto and the entire cycle come to one of music’s most rousing conclusions as the howling winds wage war.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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