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Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Sunday, July 26th, 2009 by Martin Hester

Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
Academy of Ancient Music: Christopher Hogwood.
Available for mp3 download from amazon.com

Would you like some joyful, melodious and absolutely no-stress music to play in the mornings while you start your day? An antidote to endless Michael Jackson clips? Try any CD of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Italian composer of the Baroque period and violin virtuoso, who wrote some of the happiest and picturesque music ever!

The composer
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, and died in Vienna in 1741, which makes him a contemporary of J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750) and Handel (1685-1759). Son of a professional violinist, he was ordained in 1703, but was soon permitted to devote himself to music, being exempted from celebrating masses. From 1703 until about 1740, he directed music at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. This institution took in orphans and abandoned children, teaching the boys a trade and the girls principally music. Through the quality of the teaching, many of the girls became very fine instrumentalists – and Vivaldi turned out about two concerti per month for public performances. Some 500 are known today, and more are thought lost. Usually these concertos have one or more solo instruments – violin, flute, oboe, bassoon, bandolin – in imaginative combinations, while the orchestral parts are quite uncomplicated.

Apart from this Vivaldi wrote and produced 46 operas, as well as sonatas and Church music – his “Gloria” is now widely known.

Vivaldi travelled and performed throughout Europe – his music was particularly popular in France, while Bach in Germany studied his work, transcribing several compositions for the keyboard. Emperor Charles VI in Vienna admired Vivaldi’s work, and invited him to work there.

In his later life, the popularity of his music declined in Italy, and he decided to leave Venice and seek the patronage of Charles VI in Vienna. But unhappily, shortly after his arrival there, his prospective patron died and he was left stranded and in poverty. In 1741 he died after an illness.

The rediscovery of his music
Quite a lot of Vivaldi’s orchestral music was published in his lifetime, mostly by a printer in Amsterdam. However, after his death his music was largely forgotten, and the few copies which survived were in libraries and known only to musicologists.  In the autumn of 1926 a boarding school in Piedmont run by Salesian Fathers discovered in their arquives a large collection of old volumes which they thought of selling off to antique dealers to raise funds. They asked the National Library in Turin to value the material, and they in turn asked Dr. Gentili at Turin University for help. He asked for a list and suggested the material be sent for examination, later receiving several heavy crates. Imagine his feelings when he opened the crates, and found volume upon volume of Vivaldi autographs! Then began a long and delicate mission to try and secure this material intact for the Turin Library… a donor was found who gave a large sum to the University in memory of his deceased infant boy, and 97 volumes of rare music – printed, manuscript, or autographs – from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was secured for Turin Library.

When this was examined closely by Dr. Gentili, however, he discovered that much material was incomplete, and appeared to be a part of a larger collection which had been broken up. The original owner was traced – a Genoese Count Durazzo who lived from 1717 to 1794! Eventually Dr. Gentili found there was just one other owner, who was with great difficulty persuaded to sell his collection – again with the help of a donor in memory of his deceased infant son. Thus by 1930 a further 319 items of Vivaldi’s music were added to the Turin Library and to the world’s knowledge.

In 1939 a week of Vivaldi’s music performed in Siena marked the start of the renaissance of his music, which was cut short by WWII. But after the war, Ricordi started publishing his music, and it immediately started to become popular through recordings (and a whole season of his music at the Festival of Britain in 1951). The light-hearted simplicity of this music must have come as a welcome relief after the deprivations of war and the agonised complexity of the then contemporary “classical” music.

Today, some of his orchestral concertos are so well-known as to be almost hackneyed, but more of his choral music and operas are being performed. Often written for student musicians, today they are ideal for amateur groups to perform – while they continue to appeal to audiences.

 
This CD
The Four Seasons is the name given to four Concertos for Violin and Orchestra, each one with three movements – fast, slow, then fast again. When these were published in 1725, Vivaldi wrote a little poem for each one, describing the scene which can be heard in the music. Thus Spring begins with the sound of brooks and birds singing, which is interrupted by a short storm.

In the middle movement, a shepherd is sleeping peacefully,

and in the final one, nymphs and shepherds dance to the sound of pipes.

Summer starts with an impression of too-hot-to-move stillness, with thunder rumbling in the background;

while a sort of threatened calm returns in the second movement.

The storm finally breaks in the third movement “shaking the skies and flattening the corn” in Vivaldi’s words.

Autumn starts with a harvest party with dancing, gaiety, and apparently lots of wine (suggested by progressively wilder cascades of notes from the solo violin) until everyone falls asleep,

and they stay in blissful repose through the second movement.

In the last, a hunter sets out to a jaunty tune.

Winter gives a good impression of cold, with icy blasts of a freezing wind (from the solo violin).

In the middle, the music takes refuge by a warm fireside,

and the last part suggests the evolutions and tumbles of an ice skater

Mostly, this music has a theme carried by the solo instrument or the violins, with simple accompaniment from the orchestra. We don’t find the dynamic, interesting bass part of Bach, nor the middle parts interwoven in polyphony. However, the melodic figures are interesting, very varied, no theme is belaboured, and there is often a strong rhythmic impulse which carries it along. With the help of a little imagination, the music becomes very interesting.

Among very many recordings of the Four Seasons, this one is notable for its restraint. The Academy of Ancient Music was one of the first groups to use period instruments (originals or replicas) from the time when the music was composed. What is perhaps lost in sonority is gained in authenticity. The playing here is impeccable, and leaves one with the feeling – so that’s what Vivaldi meant!

Good Listening!