Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has become arguably the most popular piece of classical music in the world with more performances and recordings than even Beethovens Fifth Symphony. This achievement is further magnified when you consider that this music lay forgotten on a library shelf for two hundred years. It was not until 1950, when a recording of the Four Seasons appeared, that the piece gained notice. The success of The Four Seasons is an extraordinary journey for a piece of music that had lived so long in utter oblivion.
The popularity of The Four Seasons also points out how much Antonio Vivaldi’s music owes it’s current acclaim to the world of technology for without audio recordings, it is doubtful that Vivaldi’s music would have gained its current wide renown.
By now everyone has heard at least one of the movements from The Four Seasons. You may not have known the pieces title but its most popular movements, especially the Spring Allegros, are quite ubiquitous in our culture having been used hundreds of times in national and regional commercials, movies, TV shows, as background music in restaurants, music-on-hold messages, not to mention constant radio play on classical music stations. If youre not sure that youve heard a movement from The Four Seasons please listen to this recording from the UniqueTracks royalty-free classical music site. You can hear all 12 movements here but if youre in a hurry, just listen to the first movement, you will undoubtedly recognize the piece.
The addictive rhythmic vitality of so much of Antonio Vivaldi’s music has led to its rebirth and great popularity amongst classical music lovers and the general public as well. Much like the music of today, Vivaldi’s music, especially his opening movement Allegros, have a driving rhythmic vitality and are brimming with energy (The Italian word Allegro is a tempo indication meaning lively or fast). Vivaldis melodies are simple, and easy to listen to. The tempo Adagio slow movements evoke a warm and beautiful sensibility (Adagio means slowly).
Vivaldi was a master violinist and it is thought that he wrote the Four Seasons as a performance vehicle to showcase his own virtuosity. The violin part is quite challenging indeed even by todays standards.
An often-overlooked compositional force in The Four Seasons is its programmatic basis. In music, the term programmatic refers to a composer consciously trying to represent something non-musical, like a story or an image, in the composition. This type of composing is called tone-painting; the composition is a tone poem.
In the Four Seasons, Vivaldi takes four poems titled Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter and transforms various passages directly into music. He is quite literal. When the poem speaks of birds, we hear bird calls in the music. Throughout the movements you can hear musical depictions of streams, thunder, lightning, a dog barking, even drunkards that have fallen asleep. These images can be found painted musically throughout the piece.
Here is a translation of the first poem Spring. It is now believed that Vivaldi himself wrote the poems.
Spring has come and with it gaiety,
The birds salute it with joyous song,
And the brooks, caressed by Zephyrs breath,
Flow meanwhile with sweet murmurings:
The sky is covered with dark clouds,
Announced by lightning and thunder.
But when they are silenced, the little birds
Return to fill the air with their song:
Then does the meadow, in full flower,
Ripple with its leafy plants.
The goat-herd dozes, guarded by his faithful dog.
Rejoicing in the pastoral bagpipes,
Nymphs and Shepherds dance, in love,
Their faces glowing with Springtimes brilliance.
Now listen to the Spring movements from The Four Seasons. How many images can you hear painted in musical tones? Heres a hint, the bird calls can be heard in the Allegro, First movement from the Spring concerto. They appear right when the violin solos begin (about 30 seconds into the piece). This gives way to the undulating sounds of a rushing brook. Next lightning and thunder are heard only to subside as the bird calls return.
It’s hard to believe today that Vivaldi’s music would be destined to lie dormant for 200 years. Vivaldi himself had fallen into obscurity by the end of his lifetime. He died penniless in Vienna in 1741. His music virtually disappeared until just after World War 2. Since then, its popularity has exploded. The Four Seasons concertos are now regularly performed concert pieces and are among the most famous pieces of music in the world. Whether it is the appealing rhythmic drive or the beautiful warmth of the baroque violins, people are just naturally drawn to this music.
Poem translation from:
Landon, H. C. Robbins Vivaldi, Voice of the Baroque Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993