By 1725, when Vivaldi published his Opus 8, a set of 12 concertos entitled The Contest between Harmony and Invention, he may well have been the most famous musician in Europe, and the first four concertos of the set, named Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, were already well known from circulating manuscript copies. 

Part of their appeal would doubtless have been their extra-musical content. Vivaldi was hardly the first composer to depict nature and human activities in instrumental music, but no one had conjured the physical world quite so vividly and concisely with violins before. He wrote a sonnet for each concerto explaining what was going on, intended not only as description, but as instruction for performance: the sonnet verses are printed not only as prefaces to each concerto, but also in all the instrumental parts, in the midst of tempo markings and performance directions.

In Spring’s first movement, we hear the arrival of Spring, the birds greeting it (first solo), brooks and breezes, and a quick thunderstorm. In the slow movement, a goatherd sleeps under a tree while the second violins represent “the murmuring branches and leaves” and the viola’s repeated notes represent his “faithful dog” (whining or barking, depending on how violists understand the word “grida” written in their part). The finale is a big dance accompanied by bagpipes, which are represented by droning basses.

In Summer, the opening bars present the “merciless summer sun” and “man and flock” sweltering under it. In the first solo, the violin is an ornamented cuckoo — it’s the soloist’s task to make the cuckoo’s notes distinct in a barrage of 16th-notes. The second solo depicts the turtledove and goldfinch, and rustling of the gentle Zephyr breeze, which is joined by the violent north wind. The wind subsides long enough to let us hear how it makes a shepherd fear a coming storm, his agitated state depicted in a sequence of chromatically descending diminished chords — dissonances that lead to other dissonances instead of resolving. Vivaldi was capable of great harmonic (and contrapuntal) sophistication when it suited his purpose, and there are passages in the Four Seasons that could easily be mistaken for something written a century after his death. The second movement depicts the gentle, buzzing insects, and the shepherd listening with apprehension to distant thunder. In the third movement we get thunder, lightning, and hail.

Autumn begins with a celebration of the harvest in a vigorous dance that loses its energy as the peasants get drunk and fall asleep. In the slow movement the sonnet speaks of revelers enjoying “sweet sleep” in the “mild and pleasant” air, but the music is mysterious and dreamlike: virtually the entire movement is another sequence of unresolved dissonances. The physical world, and the aristocracy, barge in with the horn calls of a hunt in the third movement. We hear the prey flee from gunshots and barking hounds, and finally tire and die.

Winter depicts shivering (yet another remarkable chain of dissonances), chattering teeth, and “running and stamping your feet every moment” to keep warm in snow and biting wind. Venice, at about the same latitude as Portland or Minneapolis, can get serious winter weather. The slow movement is a cozy indoor scene by the fire “while the rain drenches everyone outside,” the raindrops in pizzicato under the solo violin’s melody. The finale begins by painting a picture of trying to walk on ice without slipping, not always successfully, and concludes with the onslaught of “Sirocco, Boreas and the other winds at war.”

For those with enough skill, the four concertos are great fun to play, which would have ensured popularity in the 18th century, when instrumental proficiency was common among people with money. Of course, not everyone liked them. Geminiani, the Corellian conservative, complained that “Imitating the Cock, Cuckoo, Owl and other birds, and also sudden Shifts of the Hand from one extremity of the Finger-board to the other,” were “Tricks that rather belong to the Professors of Legerdemain and Posture-makers than to the art of Musick.” Geminiani inveighing against Vivaldi sounds not unlike the 19th-century classicists inveighing against Wagner and Liszt, and just as ineffectively.