Many composers have a seminal work for which they’re known. In this lesson, we’ll explore Vivaldi’s masterpiece, ‘The Four Seasons’, and examine its structure and content.
Antonio Vivaldi and The Four Seasons
Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Everybody has a favorite season, that time of year when everything just feels better. You may even wish you could write a song about it. Well, no need.
Antonio Vivaldi has done it for you. Vivaldi was an 18th-century composer associated with the ornate Baroque period of music. His best known work is a set of violin concertos entitled Le quattro stagioni, or The Four Seasons. Written around 1720, this piece is composed of four concertos of three movements each. Each concerto represents one season of the year. To maintain a compelling composition, each section’s three movements are organized into a tempo pattern of fast-slow-fast.
To help us understand his work, Antonio Vivaldi included a series of poems describing each season’s events. These sonnets may have been written by the composer or by a colleague. The close association of narrative and music was pretty ground-breaking at the time.
Spring: Concerto No.
1 in E Major
The first season of Vivaldi’s work is spring. The movement’s associated sonnets can be translated as:”Joyful spring has arrivedthe birds greet it with their cheerful song,and the brooks in the gentle breeze,flow with a sweet murmur.”This is what you should listen for in the music. Violins mimic the sounds of chirping birds and babbling brooks, but then change tone as a thunderstorm arrives. The orchestra imitates thunderclaps; after they recede, the little birds return.
Movement two is slow and dignified, musically describing a goatherder sleeping in flowering meadow with his dog at his side. The scene is tranquil and idyllic, capturing the peaceful idleness of spring.The third movement portrays a rustic peasant dance.
The poem describes nymphs and shepherds dancing to festive sounds. The orchestra presents an upbeat melody as well as the sounds of a joyous gathering of people.
Summer: Concerto No. 2 in G Minor
Vivaldi’s depiction of summer correlates to a poem about the season’s blazing heat. The intense, lazy heat begins to be replaced by a cool and refreshing breeze, accompanied by various singing birds. However, minor chords and dramatic undertones warn us that this breeze could turn into a storm.
The shepherd begins to worry.In ”Summer,” the second movement starts slow but speeds up as the shepherd becomes more aware of the approaching storm. The orchestra not only mimics thunder, but also furiously buzzing insects.
It’s a very different tone than what we’ve experienced so far.The final movement is hurried, anxious, and dramatic as the shepherd realizes that the storm is as bad as he feared. The mighty thunderstorm brings great hailstones raining down on nearby crops. The orchestra captures the storm’s thunder, wind, and hail, and the worry of the shepherd witnessing this tempest.
Autumn: Concerto No. 3 in F Major
From the heat and the storms of summer, we move into the cool blessings of autumn. Overall, this section is upbeat and joyful as peasants celebrate the bountiful harvest. The fact that the crops survived the summer storms is a relief. The peasants drink deeply until falling asleep.Movement two depicts the peaceful sleep following the harvest festival. The poem describes cool breezes replacing the songs and dances.
In the orchestra, festive music fades away in favor of peaceful melodies. The only item on the agenda is a nice, pleasant nap.The last movement is again upbeat, this time with a more dramatic feel. The scene is a hunt, as harvest celebrations continue.
The music depicts the hunters’ joy and triumph as well as the panic and death of the prey. This foreshadows things to come as lively fall begins to fade to winter.
Winter: Concerto No. 4 in F Minor
The last section portrays winter, introduced by that most definitive of winter experiences: freezing your butt off. The orchestra captures the poem’s description of chattering teeth, biting winds, and freezing snow. The tempo is upbeat, but not in a festive way. Instead, we hear a person running around, stamping to stay warm.
Luckily, there is a reprieve. The second movement is lethargic, as our beleaguered denizen finds a warm hearth and, as one translation puts it, is able to ”rest contentedly” beside it. However, beneath the warm and relaxing music are still hints of the storm outside. Trills and bright notes represent those still caught out in the freezing rain and wind.The last movement begins by evoking the experience of treading carefully across an icy path, then slipping, falling, and quickly scooting off the ice out of fear it will crack. Finally, the music guides us indoors. Though the wind still makes its way in through the cracks, there is a sense of peace.
In a common translation, Vivaldi ends with this thought: ”this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.”
So, what does it all mean? Why would Vivaldi tackle such a project? The Four Seasons is more than just a depiction of seasonal weather. It explores our relationship with nature. Nature can be formidable and terrifying or passive and pleasant. Sometimes we fight it.
Sometimes we live with it peacefully. Vivaldi’s themes constantly explore this idea; his structure is based around it. The ”Spring” and ”Autumn” concertos are written in major keys, depicting a positive relationship with nature. The air is cool and things are nice. The ”Winter” and ”Summer” sections are in minor keys, focusing on the struggles of extreme heat or cold.
However, their repetitive nature and repetition of fast-slow-fast patterns of the movements remind us that nature exists in cycles. The pleasant seasons will end, as will the harsh ones. The only consistency is that nature defines much of our lives – season after season and year after year.
Antonio Vivaldi was an 18th-century composer whose most famous work, The Four Seasons, captures the essence of all four seasons of the year. Each season is its own three-movement concerto, written for violin and performed by an orchestra, and is thematically accompanied by poems describing the events of the music.
It’s a celebration of all four seasons, a perfect soundtrack throughout the year.