Friday, October 22, 2010

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is widely regarded not only as a musical masterwork of a renowned baroque composer, but also as one of the great masterworks in all of Western art. The Four Seasons is a series of four concertos (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, each containing three movements) which are the first part of the larger 12 concerto work entitled "Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione" (The Contest of Harmony and Invention) - Vivaldi’s 8th Opus. The works were first published in Amsterdam in 1725, but were written a few years earlier, most likely when Vivaldi spent several years as Maestro for Prince Phillip, governor of Mantua.

In addition to being hailed as a musical genius and a virtuoso violinist of the highest caliber, Il Prete Rosso, or “The Red Priest” (as he was known because of his red hair and the fact that he was an ordained priest) is credited with numerous breakthroughs in baroque music. For example, today, it would be hard for anyone to imagine the violin not being used for solo work. However, before Vivaldi came along with his boundless creativity and mastery of his instrument, the violin was seen as strictly an ensemble instrument. He single handedly brought the violin from the background to the front and center.

Another of Vivaldi’s many contributions to Western music is the concept of pictorialism, which he presciently demonstrates for us in Four Seasons. For each of the three movements of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, Vivaldi attaches short sonnets for added vividry.

After springtime is so gloriously heralded-in in the very first movement, we hear the shepherd’s dog bark throughout the next movement (“Spring 2”). Rustic bagpipes fill the air at the beginning of Spring 3. In the first movement of Summer (or “Summer 1”), the call of the Cuckoo is simulated. In Summer 2, insects furiously swarm the troubled little shepherd before he witnesses the sad scene of the crops being destroyed by a summer storm. The hunters’ bugles ring out as they pursue and overcome their prey in Autumn 3. Interestingly, being that music notation doesn’t allow for certain techniques used by Vivaldi to imitate man and nature; the original sheet music has several instances of hand-written notes from him in order to coach the reader.

Besides offering a most exquisite example of pictorialism, Seasons also highlights many of the gifts which made the Red Priest one of the greats. The phenomenal mastery over his instrument becomes clear when listening to the hair-raising runs heard in pieces such the first movement of Spring and the first and third movements of Winter. His ability to lift the heart of the listener through his sheer love of music is apparent throughout Seasons, but is particularly pronounced in the first and third movements of Spring and Autumn respectively.

The sonnets below are more exegeses than translations, as literal translations of the originals to English would produce something resembling gibberish. The exegeses used here are original to this article, as many of those currently available were found to be lacking in many respects. In some cases they were too precise in translation, to the point of detraction while, in other cases, not precise enough for authenticity.

The audio files accompanying the sonnets are from an “out of print” album produced in 1976 by a 12 piece French ensemble led by Nikolaus Haroncourt. The group, obvious Vivaldi fanatics, went to great lengths by acquiring actual instruments of the time and carefully researching specific performance techniques used during the period when Vivaldi was alive. Another laudable aspect of this version is that the harpsichord - an instrument Vivaldi played - doesn't get buried by the recording process, as is so often (and so frustratingly) the case with productions of seasons. The converted sound files used for this article are for example purposes only and do not do the work appropriate justice. If you can find any available CDs of the Haroncourt version of Seasons, buy one. The production is exceedingly authentic, with a natural sound and subtle beauty that must fill the room via an appropriate sound system to be fully appreciated.

Those new to the works of the Venetian master will find Seasons is an excellent primer. Be advised, however, that Vivaldi is highly addictive. For those familiar with Vivaldi yet have not become familiar with these sonnets (there are, surprisingly, many), listening to their associated movements while contemplating them adds a new and elightening aspect to the music and the composer.

As far as the Vivaldi aficionado is concerned, well, Seasons is always a good listen. Regardless of how many times it is enjoyed, like a good cigar or glass of fine wine, it can never disappoint.