Vivaldi and his Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741), an unquestioned baroque music celebrity in our times, in the thirties of the 20th century was considered an excentric ecclesiastic nicknamed the red-haired priest, good violinist and author of the Four Seasons. Such underrating evaluation we owe the Venetian stage-writer and Vivaldi`s co-worker,Goldoni. It was in contrast to the esteem on the part of J. S. Bach who transcribed all Vivaldi concertos for the clavier. A real Vivaldi revival started in the seventies and in the past decade or so almost each year brings new discoveries, especially in the realm of his rich if little-known sacred music. At present, in Italy and not only Italy the composer is subject of a virtual cult. A special periodical examines all newly discovered pieces while numerous old music ensembles vie in stylish performances.
Most of his mature life Vivaldi spent in Venice which in the 17th and 18th centuries was an important music center introducing new styles and techniques in European music. Vivaldi cultivates two main forms of the then instrumental music, one involving two rivaling groups within the concerto form – grosso and concertino, the other juxtaposing grosso and solo. It was the latter variety that Vivaldi brought to perfection. What more, his double, triple and quadruple concertos became something in between the concerto grosso and the solo concerto. With Vivaldi there is difference between the two forms, where concertino ceases to be just a contrasting group but becomes instead an ensemble of soloists, each playing independent part.
The Venetian love for instrumental colour in the works of Vivaldi results in a variety of instrumental combinations, from strings or flutes to concerti grossi with woodwinds. Vivaldi`s sensitivity to tone colour causes him to give his concerto cycles fantastic program titles, e.g., L`Estro armonico (harmonic passion), La Stravaganza (extravagancy), La tempesta di mare (seastorm), La caccia (a hunt), Il piacere (pleasure), Le quatro stagioni (four seasons). Far from being literal, Vivaldi introduces skilful and charming – if some what naive – imitative effects like bird voices, murmuring stream, rain, tempest or even staggering steps of a drunkard. At the some time those illustrations – always in the solo part serve the purpose of widening the virtuosic means. Thus that composer introduced such novel techniques as extended scale passage arpeggios in extreme register, angular themes based on wide leaps (octave, twelfth, thirteenth), bariolage (contrasting tone colour), vehement broken chords on all four strings etc. New techniques are paralleled by motoric tempi and strong rhythmic pulsation so characteristic of baroque concerto, yet with Vivaldi accompanied with a greater load of expression. Next to sharply contrasted rhythms we find alla zoppa or the limping Lombardian figure of his invention. Together with the running bass and rhythmic energy in the violin parts they are responsible for the breath-taking impetus and stylistic coherence for which Vivaldi was famous and imitated by many composers in his time. It was his model of concerto, refined further by J. S. Bach, that became standard as a three-movement form (sometimes with an introduction) that remains valid to this day.
On 14 December 1725 Gazette d`Amsterdam bore an ad about the edition of Il cimento dell`armonic e dell`inventione or twelve concertos op. 8 by Antonio Vivaldi. Four of the concertos were known already from handwritten copies dedicated originally to count Wenzel Morzin whom Vivaldi served as maestro di musica in Italia. They were precisely the opening four works entitled Le quattro stagioni.
Published by Le Céne house it includes a sonetto dimostrativo before each concerto, with a relevant program, which the composer realises quite simply and convincingly. The overall mood is reiterated with some harmonic changes by the ritornello, while the string of specific events are illustrated by the solo group. E. g., the Spring ritornel illustrates the joy of Spring with a dance
Giunt` é la primavera.
The remaining two stanzas of the sonnet are divided into four episodes, as follows:
…. birds welcome Spring with a joyful song.
Three violins solo with b. c. only imitate birds in E major tonic chord.
… while under Zephyr`s soft blow murmuring streams flow on.
The murmuring streams are represented by the pairs of sixteenths in parallel thirds and soft wind – by accompanying half notes.
Lightning and thunder sent to proclaim spring fill the air with darkness.
String tremolo imitate thunder, while quick ascending passages and brilliant arpeggios – lightning.
Birds resumpt their melodious singing after a moment of silence
A steady motif symbolises sleep, while birdsong motifs piano are self explanatory.
The said expressive means, simple and easily understood illustrate only the outer movements. The slow and shorter middle movements cannot be treated in the same manner. Here Vivaldi creates a proper mood by introducing meaningful details. A good example we find in the slow movement of the Winter concerto, where lower string parts suggest cosy seats by the fireplace while the violins provide raindrops effect.
That old idea of programme music was not particularly in vogue in 18th – century Italy but the Four seasons were enthusiastically received in France. The Mercure de France reported that on 25th November 1730 the king himself demanded an improvised performance of the Spring. An orchestra gathered on a short notice and including a number of aristocratic amateurs performed it to the king`s delight. Its popularity led to a great number of arrangements, most unusual of them being the Laudate Dominum in coelis motet by Michael Covrette (1765) and for solo flute by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1775).
An important novelty in the Four Seasons is the subjugation of human activity to the incontrollable laws of nature. Vivaldi`s way of reflecting that truth is definitely romantic and, thus, foreboding a musical trend which remained valid throughout the next two centuries. Suffices to mention a few famous examples Die Tageszeiten by Telemann (1759), Haydn`s symphonic trilogy (Morning, Noon and Evening) (1761) his Die Jahreszeiten oratorio (1800), Beethoven`s Pastoral Symphony (1808) and Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz (1830).
In our time the Four Seasons is an unquestionable musical hit with sophisticated and lay audiences alike. Numerous new performances range from stylistically faithful, to more or less free interpretations – all equally successful on the recording market which sells them in staggering quantities.[…]. Incessant popularity of that Venetian baroque music by il preto rosso is quite a phenomenon, proven, inter alia by the present recording which brings fresh approach by the young virtuoso, Kuba Jakowicz and the chamber group of the renowned Sinfonia Varsovia ensemble.
Translated by Jerzy Gołos