The Four Seasons
solo violin, violins, violas, cellos, basses
notes by James Keays
Concerto No. 1 in E Major, Op. 8, RV 269, “La primavera” (Spring)
III. Allegro Pastorale
Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8, RV 315, “L'estate” (Summer)
I. Allegro non molto
II. Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
Concerto No. 3 in F Major, Op. 8, RV 293, “L'autunno” (Autumn)
II. Adagio molto
Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “L'inverno” (Winter)
I. Allegro non molto
First published: 1725.
Of the many composers who helped to bring the Italian Baroque style to its zenith at the beginning of the 18th century, Antonio Vivaldi stands out as perhaps the most creative. Like Bach, his energy was primarily directed toward perfecting existing forms rather than creating new ones. Within the works of Vivaldi, we see a perfection of the 17th century Italian concerto and opera forms. He and Scarlatti were to be the last important Italian composers until Rossini and Verdi.
Vivaldi’s interest in concerto writing was to a large degree brought about by his employment as the “conservatoire director” at the Ospedale della Piera, a home for orphaned and illegitimate girls which specialized in the teaching of music. Additionally, he had established a reputation as an outstanding violinist, having substituted for his father in the orchestra at St. Mark’s Cathedral as early as the age of ten.
According to reports by contemporary reviewers, the conservatory orchestra under Vivaldi’s direction maintained very high standards. Weekly concerts featured either the most outstanding students or Vivaldi himself performing concerti written for the occasion. During his forty year tenure, he wrote over 450 concerti. Considering Vivaldi’s training, it should not be surprising that the vast majority of the solo concerti (220) were written for the violin.
Vivaldi showed a predilection for using descriptive titles. Rarely are the titles meant to be programmatic, and there is evidence that more than a few of them were nothing more than jests. In the case of the four violin concerti known collectively as The Seasons, there was a conscious attempt to write programmatic works. They are, in fact, one of the earliest attempts to compose music of this type.
The concerti were published in 1725 as the first four works of Opus 8. Prior to publication, they were frequently performed at the Italian court of Count Morzin, Prince of Hohenelbe, for whom they were presumably written. Each work was accompanied by a sonnet of unknown authorship (probably Vivaldi) which served as a program. Letters preceding the lines of each sonnet can be found in the scores at the corresponding passages, along with the appropriate line of text and, often, further descriptive subtitles. As an example of the poetry that inspired Vivaldi, a free translation of the “Sonetto Dimostrativo” for the third concerto (Autumn) follows:
With dances and singing, the peasants celebrate
the fine pleasure of a rich harvest
inflamed by the potion of Bacchus;
then their rejoicing ends with sleep.
Thus, everyone leaves off dancing and singing,
the gentle air is pleasant,
and the season invites all
to the joyousness of a sweet sleep.
In the early morn, the hunter sets off
with horns, guns, and dogs.
The wild beast flees, his scent is pursued;
frightened and wearied by the sound of guns
and the howling dogs, shot at and imperiled,
too weak to escape, he perishes in the chase.
Despite their close association with descriptive sonnets, the concerti are quite “correct” in a formal sense and can be appreciated for their inventiveness and virtuosity without any knowledge of their programs. They have continued to be amongst Vivaldi’s most popular works.