Antonio Vivaldi: Le quattro stagioni

Antonio Vivaldi composed his ever-popular collection of violin concerti The Four Seasons around the year 1721. The conception of what we can now deduce as an early form of programme music was revolutionary in the Baroque period. It has been speculated that the music from each concerti was based on the countryside sights in Mantua – where Vivaldi was residing at the time of composition. Vivaldi also took it a step further by unusually including published sonnets that went with each of the concerti (which he may have written himself). Each concerto is in a fast-slow-fast structure and the accompanying sonnets are also split into three sections to represent each movement vividly.

La Primavera (‘Spring’)

The First Movement – Allegro

Sonnet Translation:

Springtime is upon us.

The birds celebrate her return with festive song, 
and murmuring streams are 
softly caressed by the breezes. 
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, 
casting their dark mantle over heaven, 
Then they die away to silence, 
and the birds take up their charming songs once more. 

Marked Allegro, the first movement of La Primavera is perhaps the most famous of the whole set. The strong unison playing at the beginning introduces the famous motif that is then developed throughout this concerto. A variation of the melody is played by the chamber ensemble before the solo violin enters with a quaint, trill-orientated solo line. Vivaldi’s consistent use of trills and other ornaments are used to represent the birds from the sonnet. Furthermore, the thick textures that he creates when the whole ensemble are playing together perhaps represent the oncoming storm that the sonnet also talks about. The movement concludes with a reprise of the main theme, with the parts uniting on a strong E major chord.

The Second Movement – Largo

Sonnet Translation:

On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches 
rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, 
his faithful dog beside him. 

The immediate change in character in this movement from the last is rather striking, with the slow and mysterious atmosphere taking over. A slow dotted semiquaver pattern opens the movement, before the very lyrical solo violin enters in the second bar. This movement has a feel of nostalgia throughout, and the beautiful solo melodic line is incredibly enchanting, especially with the bare accompaniment that it has. This is the shortest movement in this concerto.

The Third Movement – Allegro

Sonnet Translation:

Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, 
nymphs and shepherds lightly dance 
beneath the brilliant canopy of spring. 

The strong 12/8 dance feel of this movement creates a celebratory mood. The light and bouncy playing represents the nymphs and shepherds dancing, which eventually build up to reveal the ‘brilliant canopy of spring’. The festive atmosphere keeps this movement driving, with it ending as it begun in the first movement – on a strong E major chord.

 

L’estate (‘Summer’)

The First Movement – Allegro non molto

Sonnet Translations:

Under a hard season, fired up by the sun 

Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine 
We hear the cuckoo’s voice; 
then sweet songs of the turtledove and finch are heard. 
Soft breezes stir the air, but threatening 
the North Wind sweeps them suddenly aside. 
The shepherd trembles, 
fearing violent storms and his fate. 

Written in a sultry 3/8 time signature, the first movement starts off slowly with a delicate quaver motif. The soft timbre of the strings in union represents the rising sun and the soft breeze in the air, as written in the accompanying sonnet. This merely lasts all but 31 bars, before a fiery Allegro section breaks out and the solo violin begins with a driving semiquaver duet with the first violin.

Vivaldi’s use of variation in this movement is highlighted when the main melody is taken and passed around the ensemble to create different effects. For instance, Vivaldi uses rhythmic variations, such as his use of dotted semiquavers and triplets. There is another slow section just before the fast and furious final section of the movement. The repeated semiquaver patterns in the last few bars of this movement create such a thrilling atmosphere. All parts are playing in unison, whilst becoming faster until finishing on an open G chord at the end. Although this does accentuate the home key of movement, it is curious as to why Vivaldi wrote such an open chord at the end.

The Second Movement – Adagio e piano – Presto e forte

Sonnet Translations:

The fear of lightning and fierce thunder 
Robs his tired limbs of rest 
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around. 

Similarly to La Primavera, the second movement of this concerto is slow and short. Again, the highlight here is on the soloist and the delicate melody that they play. The accompaniment is comprised of a sparse dotted rhythm. This serene melody is interrupted by the whole ensemble who play a short presto section on the repeated note Bb. Doing this accentuates the harmonic shift from the first movement, and also foreshadows where the harmony is going to go in proceeding movements. These presto bursts could be paired with the idea of thunder and lightening, which is mentioned in the first line of the sonnet.

The Third Movement – Presto

Sonnet Translations:

Alas, his fears were justified 
The Heavens thunder and roar and with hail 
Cut the head off the wheat and damages the grain.

The third and final movement of L’Estate is perhaps one of the most thrilling of all four of the concerti. The fast driving pace, intricate bowing and unison playing is striking at the beginning of the movement. The music is technically demanding for all parts, and with there being lots of call and response work between the soloist and various members of the chamber ensemble, there is a real emphasis on diction, virtuosity and accuracy. The roaring tutti sections pack a punch, and are highlighted even more so when the soloist takes over for four bars unaccompanied. The final few passages build the tension even more before then resolving onto a G minor chord in unison.

 

L’autunno (‘Autumn’)

The First Movement – Allegro

Sonnet translations:

Celebrates the peasant, with songs and dances, 

The pleasure of a bountiful harvest. 
And fired up by Bacchus’ liquor, 
many end their revelry in sleep. 

This opening movement begins with an upbeat and celebratory quaver motif. The ensemble are playing unison here, and the changes in dynamics creates a welcome sense of light and dark. The sonnet speaks of a bountiful harvest and the celebrations being held with song and dance. This is reflected in the music with a strict tempo that is accentuated by performance markings, such as staccatos, which could be danced to. The solo part in this movement is built up until it flourishes into a burst of virtuosic scalic runs.

Similarly to L’estate, this fast movement also has a small slow section within the fast movement. Marked Larghetto, this small section is a stark difference from the rest of the movement, with the atmosphere also shifting from celebratory to perhaps more sultry. This could represent the element of sleep that is mentioned in the sonnet. A reprise of the opening motif is played and the movement ends on a tonic chord of F major.

The Second Movement – Adagio Molto

Sonnet translations:

Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance 
By the air which is tempered with pleasure 
And (by) the season that invites so many, many 
Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment 

This incredibly delicate movement has a very different atmosphere from the previous movement. All of the instruments are muted for this movement, and the eerie opening, which is proceeded by delayed entries from the ensemble, layer up the sparse texture of the movement. Although the continuo and solo violin parts are the main melodic movement of this section, there is certainly a feeling of staticism. The long notes played by the accompaniment add to the effect of the timbre and texture of the ensemble. The movement ends slowly and quietly.

The Third Movement – Allegro

Sonnet translations:

The hunters emerge at the new dawn, 
And with horns and dogs and guns depart upon their hunting 
The beast flees and they follow its trail; 
Terrified and tired of the great noise 
Of guns and dogs, the beast, wounded, threatens 
Languidly to flee, but harried, dies.

A prolonged slide on the solo violin opens this movement, which leads to a solo section that marks the main melodic theme for this movement. The melody is then passed around the ensemble, and the celebratory feel is reminiscent of the first movement. The melody becomes quite heavy in texture and emphasis, especially when the whole ensemble are in unison. A final reprise at the end of this movement wraps this concerto up in the home key of F major.

 

L’inverno (‘Winter’)

The First Movement – Allegro non molto

Sonnet translations:

To tremble from cold in the icy snow, 

In the harsh breath of a horrid wind; 
To run, stamping one’s feet every moment, 
Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold 

Beginning with a timid grace note-driven passage which builds all of the ensemble parts up, the introduction leads to virtuosic interjections from the solo violin. There is a strong sense of call and response here, with there being a real distinction between the laid back accompaniment and the forceful soloist. The group unify on a new theme, which is then developed over the movement. Vivaldi’s consistent use of tremolos builds the tension effectively in this movement.

The Second Movement – Largo

Sonnet translations:

Before the fire to pass peaceful, 
Contented days while the rain outside pours down. 

Again, this slow movement is used to highlight the soloist more than anything. The peaceful and flowing nature of this movement makes it very attractive to listen to. The use of pizzicato from the accompaniment is effective as it creates an interesting timbre for the soloist to sit on top of. The parts all come together at the end of the movement to bring it to a serene close.

The Third Movement – Allegro

Sonnet translations:

We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, 
for fear of tripping and falling. 
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, 
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up. 
We feel the chill north winds course through the home 
despite the locked and bolted doors… 
this is winter, which nonetheless 
brings its own delights. 

Similarly to other movements in this concerto, there is a long build up of parts before the real melodic structure is established. The are a lot of contrasts in this movement, which Vivaldi accentuates by using wide dynamic ranges, changing the orchestration quickly, and of course, the incredibly complex solo passages. The speed that the finale of this movement is taken is thrilling and the drive towards the final chord of the work is exciting and really does show us the ‘delights of winter’.

Happy Reading!

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