The details of Vivaldi’s life are surprisingly sketchy. Even extensive modern scholarship leaves many wide gaps in his whereabouts and activities. Biographies typically devote at most a few dozen pages to his career and the rest to his works. Indeed, only in 1962 was his birthdate determined from baptismal records to have been 1678; prior writers had placed it as early as 1669.
Vivaldi learned the violin from his father, a Venetian barber who played in the orchestra of San Marco cathedral. He was ordained in 1703 and, thanks to his flaming hair (blanched in his only color portrait, perhaps due to a powdered wig), became known as the Red Priest, but his ecclesiastical functions were forestalled by bronchial asthma, which denied him the stamina to say a complete mass. The next year he became a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for a thousand girls, of whom a few dozen received intensive musical training. In 1716, he became the music director.
Among his duties was to provide two concertos per month (even while he was away) for concerts given each Sunday by the school orchestra (in which, to the amazement of visitors, the students played all the instruments, rather than just the ones deemed suitable for ladies, and whose sensual attraction undoubtedly contributed to their widespread fame among gentlemen patrons). Despite a bumpy relationship with the school administrators, Vivaldi enjoyed considerable freedom, not only to fill his compositions with whimsy and technical hurdles to challenge his students and display their artistry, but to travel extensively to fulfill commissions and to stage his operas. Although Vivaldi negotiated sizable fees for his work, he spent prolifically and died in poverty during a 1741 trip to Vienna, where he was given a pauper’s funeral.
For nearly 200 years, Vivaldi was a historical footnote, although a somewhat influential one – the twelve concerti comprising his first publication (L’estro armonico, 1711) were widely imitated. Yet, as Groves’ Dictionary aptly observes, the current repertory system lay well in the future; instead there was a constant need for new output. Thus, soon after his death his few publications were forgotten and the rest of his output remained unknown. His only lasting recognition came from the fervent admiration of Bach, who modeled his own concerto style after Vivaldi’s and adapted for keyboard nine Vivaldi violin concerti (even though Bach devotees tended to disparage the source).
That suddenly changed in 1926 when a monastery presented a massive cache of old scores to Turin University for appraisal prior to sale to fund repairs. The collection was traced back to a Count Durazzo, who had purchased the lot from the Ospedale, donated half to the monastery and passed the remainder to his heirs. Lawsuits overrode the Count’s will, which forbade publication, and private donations kept the scores intact and off the antiques market. Among them were a huge number of Vivaldi’s handwritten originals, including over 300 previously unknown works. Scholars delved through the treasure and were astounded by the unsuspected diversity and range. Since World War II, a burgeoning of biographies, catalogs, analyses, performances and recordings have led to a thorough reevaluation of Vivaldi’s significance and a new understanding and appreciation of the scope of his art.
In 1725 in Amsterdam, Vivaldi published twelve violin concerti entitled Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (literally, The Contest of Harmony and Invention). The first four were designated Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons). In his dedication, Vivaldi alludes to his patron having enjoyed them long ago and asks that they be accepted as if they were new, thus suggesting that they had been composed and performed much earlier.
While song and opera tie music closely to words, instrumental music at best reflects an abstract overall mood, but with the Four Seasons Vivaldi decisively bridged that gap. Each of the four concertos is prefaced by a sonnet (presumably written by the composer) full of allusions ripe for sonic depiction. Thus, the first greets Spring with a profusion of birds, the breath of gentle breezes, a murmuring stream, swaying plants, a goatherd lulled to sleep and shepherds holding a celebratory bagpipe dance. (Summer brings torrid heat, buzzing insects and a violent storm; Fall a harvest celebration and a hunt; and Winter chattering teeth, stamping feet, slipping on ice, shelter by an inside fire and, for a zesty conclusion, a howling windstorm.)
Not only are the individual verses printed in the score alongside the music they are intended to depict but Vivaldi adds further phrases (“the barking dog,” “the tears of the peasant boy,” “the drunkard”) to clarify specific allusions. His music depicts some rather literally (accurate imitations of specific bird calls and pizzicato raindrops) and others metaphorically (dissonance to underline a winter chill, rapid scales to portray swirling winds.) While all this may sound like a dry schematic for a sound effects track, it all fits musically and centuries later is still enthralling to hear and enjoy. While the Four Seasons may have originated as a routine assignment for his girls to play once, Vivaldi clearly poured his heart and soul into this work.
THE FOUR SEASONS:
1: Concerto No.1 in E Major, RV 269, “SPRING”
Allegro / Largo / Allegro (Pastorale dance)
2: Concerto No.2 in g minor, RV 315, “SUMMER”
Allegro non molto – Allegro / Adagio � Presto � Adagio / Presto (Summer Storm)
3: Concerto No.3 in F Major, RV 293, “AUTUMN”
Allegro (Peasant Dance and Song) / Adagio molto (Sleeping Drunkards) / Allegro (The Hunt)
4: Concerto No.4 in f minor, RV 297, “WINTER”
Allegro non molto / Largo / Allegro
One of the earliest uses of music was in the accompaniment of theatrical dance and story-telling, so it is natural that composers should from time to time produce what we know as “program music” � music written to portray events, activities or moods such as pastoral scenes or storms. Music representing the moods of the four seasons has always been popular, and baroque composers such as Werner and Fischer among others produced cycles of concertos representing the fours seasons. But none were to do so in such precise pictorial detail as Antonio Vivaldi in his Four Seasons concertos.
As a descriptive basis for his Four Seasons, Vivaldi took four Sonnets, apparently written by himself. Each of the four sonnets is expressed in a concerto, which in turn is divided into three phrases or ideas, reflected in the three movements (fast-slow-fast) of each concerto. The published scores (by Estienne Roger of Amsterdam in 1725) are marked to indicate which musical passages are representative of which verses of the sonnet. It is advisable, at least during the first few hearings, to follow the sonnets and music together, for they are bound up with one another to an extent rarely heard in any other programmatic pieces either of the baroque period or subsequently.
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.
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.
Allegro non molto
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 north wind sweeps them suddenly aside.
The shepherd trembles, fearing violent storms and his fate.
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs his tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.
Alas, his fears were justified
The Heavens thunders and roar and with hail
Cuts the head off the wheat and damages the grain.
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.
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
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.
Allegro non molto
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
Before the fire to pass peaceful,
Contented days while the rain outside pours down.
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.