About this Piece
The 18th century admired, studied, imitated, and vilified Vivaldi as the 19th century did Beethoven and Wagner. His music was in such demand that he eventually stopped publishing it because the published editions interfered with the fabulous prices he could command for his manuscripts. As a performer, he became a major celebrity. An ordained priest, he nonetheless toured all Europe with a large retinue that included women of the stage (who were considered per se indecent), causing such a scandal that the bishop of Parma once banned him from that city. Though his income would have made a prudent person wealthy, he spent lavishly and died virtually broke while in Vienna on tour.
Vivaldi published his Opus 8, a set of 12 concertos entitled Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention), in 1725, although they had been circulating in manuscript for some years, particularly the first four—Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The title “Four Seasons” appears nowhere in the 1725 publication, and the notion that the four concertos are an integrated work that must be played in sequence without interruption, like the four movements of a symphony, is one that would have eluded Vivaldi’s contemporaries.
What would have struck them, but often eludes modern listeners, is the fact that these four works are program music (as are Nos. 5 and 10 of the set, The Storm at Sea and The Hunt, respectively) with virtually every note describing some very specific event that is set out in a sonnet accompanying each of the concertos. Vivaldi is likely to have written these poems himself: They seem to be the work of a non-poet, containing few poetic devices and lacking the mythological allusions that characterize much poetry of that era. The lines of the sonnets are printed not only as prefaces to each concerto, but also in all the instrumental parts, in the middle of the tempo and dynamic markings.
As if this were not enough, there are also descriptive directions to the players that are not part of the sonnets. For example, in the middle movement of Spring, the second-violin part is labeled as “the murmuring branches and leaves” and the viola’s repeated notes represent “the barking dog.”
Of course, this verbal description is largely lost on anyone not actually reading from the score. In an era before public concerts, to say nothing of television, a large portion of the middle and upper classes played instruments, and a set of published concertos was intended to be enjoyed by players in their parlor, not by people who bought tickets to sit down and listen. Serious music was not the sober pseudo-religion then that it is now, and great music could be an evening’s social entertainment, even a party game, without demeaning itself, at least in the view of some.
Others did not agree. The violinist-composer Francisco Geminiani, a disciple of Corelli, a conservative in violinistic matters, and one of the leading musical stars in London, likely had the Four Seasons in mind when he wrote:
“Imitating the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl, and other birds, and also sudden Shifts of the Hand from one extremity of the Fingerboard to the other, accompanied with contortions of the Head and Body, and all other such Tricks rather belong to the Professors of Legerdemain and Posture-makers than to the art of Musick.”
Geminiani was not the first to complain that some crass virtuoso was turning music into a circus act with gimmicks and flash, and he would not be the last. Vivaldi, like Farina, Biber, and Corelli before him, and Locatelli and Paganini after him, pushed the violin to new limits of style and technique, and antagonized more than a few of the people who heard him. But as the title of Opus 8 indicates, he understood the potential clash between solid musical substance (“Harmony”) and novelty (“Invention”), and the need to strike a balance between them. —Howard Posner