Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Vivaldi’s busy and productive career as composer, violinist and teacher drew its due share of acclaim. One measure of his success is the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach did him the honor of transcribing several of his concertos. He played a major role in several significant musical developments, the rise of the concerto above all. His 500-plus concertos – he holds the record for the highest number, by a wide margin – feature a large variety of soloists. As you would expect, the lion’s share, more than 200, focus on the instrument he played himself, the violin.

His reputation suffered a severe lapse in the years following his death. His music’s return to widespread currency dates only from the years following the Second World War. It returned to favor after two centuries of neglect thanks to the recording industry and the rise in popularity of the chamber orchestra.

During that down time, virtually the only piece to remain in the standard repertoire was the set of four violin concertos that he himself entitled The Four Seasons. It was published by the Dutch company Le Cène in 1725, although portions of it, at least, were undoubtedly written much earlier. It appeared as the opening third of a set of 12 concertos bearing the overall title The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. In the title Vivaldi put face-to-face two opposing musical tendencies: the time-honored tradition of following the current rules of composition, and the wish to give un-restrained play to the imagination. It is clearly the latter which prevails in The Four Seasons.

Its enduring popularity has been based to great degree on its nature as descriptive or programmatic music, an area in whose orchestral division Vivaldi was a major pioneer. He didn’t stop at just attaching an overall title. The original edition features quite elaborate explanations of the music’s content, including four sonnets, one for each concerto. Although the author of these verses isn’t identified, it could well have been Vivaldi himself. Some of his original manuscripts are even more explicit. The bark-ing of the goatherd’s dog in the second movement of the “Spring” Concerto, for example, is only identified in the viola part.

Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2017