The series of concerti called The Four Seasons, written by Vivaldi in 1726, is arguably one of the most often-heard pieces of classical music. The passing of almost three centuries, and with it several changes in musical fashion, has concealed much of the composer's original arrangements and intentions. The piece may be popular, but it is not well understood.
As originally performed, each movement was preceded by a descriptive sonnet. Here we match the original sonnet will to the music, giving a new way of listening to the piece, and demonstrating not only 'sound pictures' but also some deeper allegories. It takes a little time to read these notes - movement by movement - but that effort will be rewarded. Next time you plan to listen to the piece, see if you can get a version played by Baroque specialists (rather than modern ensembles). Performers such as The Academy of Ancient Music and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have recorded authentic versions, albeit without the poetry.
Most of the sound pictures are evident from the sonnets below, but where there is another level of detail beneath the picture, this is explained.
Here comes the Spring, and festively
The birds salute her with a merry song
And fountains, to the whispering Zephyrs
With sweet murmurings flow all the while.
Advancing o'er the heavens is a black canopy
With lightning and thunder to announce her.
Then, when they go silent, the little birds
Return anew to their cheerful song.
The little birds represent youth, which often chooses to ignore warnings.
And later in the lovely flowering fields
To murmurings of fronds and leaves
The Goatherd sleeps,
His faithful dog beside.
To the rustic bagpipe's festive sound
Nymphs and shepherds dance
'Neath Heaven's canopy,
And Spring appears so brilliantly.
Beneath this hard season of the burning sun
Man and flocks languish and pines burn;
The cuckoo raises its stuttering voice;
The turtle dove and goldfinch sing in answer.
The sweet Zephyr blows, but is challenged
As Boreas invades his territory.
The shepherd weeps because he fears
The fierce looming storm, and for his destiny.
The winds are named here; Zephyr is a gentle warming, sea-breeze, while Boreas is the cold wind from the north. An older person, or one with responsibilities, recognises warning signs, and is apprehensive of the future.
Depriving his tired limbs of rest
Is fear of lightning and fierce thunder
And flies, large and small
In a furious swarm.
This verse represents the fear of death and of evil.
Ah, his fears are all too true,
Flashes and thunder in the heavens and hail
Dashing the heads from the stalks
Of the ripe grain.
Violent and premature death.
The peasant celebrates with dance and song
The pleasures of a good harvest,
And many, so fired by Bacchus' drafts,
End revelry in sleep.
The music in this movement contains a short theme of an ascending scale, followed by a low note. This represents the unsuccessful efforts of various drunken revellers to get up and leave the party. At the end of the movement, this theme is repeated in the coda, indicating that the music itself has failed to escape the drunken party.
Making them leave off singing and dancing,
The air is mild and pleasant,
And the season invites one and all
To enjoy the sweetest sleep.
The hunter at the new dawn sets out
With horns, guns and dogs;
The quarry flees,
And he follows its scent.
Confused, distracted by the noise,
Of guns and dogs, wounded, it tries
Listlessly to escape, but then,
Frozen, to shiver in the silvery snow
At the cutting breath of the horrid wind,
To run on, always battering our feet
While fierce frosts set out teeth a-chatter.
To pass by the fire quiet, contented days
While hundreds outside are drenched
This is probably the least understood section, because it is usually performed incorrectly. The principal theme sounds tranquil and restful - rather odd for winter, perhaps. Accompanying this theme, the strings pluck a pattern of short notes, while the basses occasionally 'whisper' quietly. The plucked notes represent rain striking a window, and the whisper represents the wind.
Vivaldi's original, clearly detailed instructions have the plucked notes played much louder than the melody. These instructions have been ignored in most performances because they are deemed to be 'obviously wrong'. As a result, the listener hears a peaceful theme with a little rain in the background, but Vivaldi wanted the listener to be outside - in the pouring rain - able to see and hear the peaceful interior only faintly above the weather. Some authentic recordings are available; this movement makes a good 'try before you buy' test.
To walk out on the ice, and with slow steps
For fear of falling, to tread cautiously,
To go boldly, skid, and fall to the ground.
Go on the ice anew, run strongly
Until the ice breaks and splits apart.
To hear as they escape the iron portals
Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds at war.
This is winter, but it too brings joy.
Sirocco is the hot dry wind from the south, fighting Boreas from the north. The walks on the ice represent someone becoming less afraid of inevitable death, and accepting fate with dignity.