Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: Program Notes May 19-21
First on the program, The Four Seasons! Vivaldi’s beloved masterpiece paints tantalizing pictures of the changing seasons.
Next, enjoy a full-day excursion to the Bavarian Alps, brought to vivid life through Richard Strauss’ splendid musical descriptions. Each section is introduced by breathtaking images from filmmaker Gregory MacGillivray’s “National Parks Adventure”, also marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. You'll also see image magnification (IMAG) of the musicians on the big screen.
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for May 19 - 21. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
Meet the Guest Artist Phillippe Quint here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
To Learn more about our Cover and why The Pacific Symphony Musicians are On Top of The World, click here
The Four Seasons, Op. 8
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
La primavera (Spring), RV 269
L’estate (Summer), RV 315
L’autunno (Autumn), RV 293
L’inverno (Winter), RV 297
I N T E R M I S S I O N
An Alpine Symphony, TrV 233, Op. 64
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Der Anstieg (The Ascent)
Eintritt in den Wald (Entering the Forest)
Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering near the Stream)
Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall) Erscheinung (Apparition)
Auf blumige Wiesen (On Blooming Meadows)
Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture)
Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Going Astray in Thicket and Underbrush)
Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier)
Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments)
Auf dem Gipfel (At the Summit)
Nebel steigen auf (Fog Arises)
Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Darkens)
Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm) Gewitter und Sturm (Thunder and Storm) Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
Ausklang (Vanishing Sound) Nacht (Night)
Special thanks to Gregory MacGillivray for allowing use of his photos of the National Parks on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service.
Image magnification and video editing provided by Jeffery Sells, Center Stage Multimedia.
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Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman
Instrumentation: harpsichord, strings, solo violin
Performance time: 37 minutes
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741 )
Antonio Vivaldi (engraving by François Morellon de La Cave, from Michel-Charles Le Cène's edition of Vivaldi's Op. 8
The Four Seasons
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, actually a series of four violin concertos, is among the most popular suites in the entire classical catalog, and no wonder: Nowhere is Vivaldi’s gift for vibrant melody, vivid scene-painting and rhythmic vigor more evident.
The inspiration unfolds at a breakneck pace, with tone- painting that presents a graphically detailed picture of the natural world and the weather that modulates our lives and excites our sense of beauty. Rapid passagework in the solo violin and in all the strings reveal color and texture as they showcase the virtuosic capabilities of instrument and player.
Vivaldi actually considered himself primarily a composer of operas and claimed to have written 90 of them (about 40 have been lost), but today his reputation rests on the hundreds of concertos he wrote.
They embody his best qualities in seemingly endless abundance, and The Four Seasons remains by far his most popular work. With three movements in each concerto, the suite traverses a year of weather, behavior and seasonal moods in 12 natural divisions.
They represent not so much individual months as the natural turns of events that the annual cycle brings us—sunshine, storms, celebrations, harvests, hibernation, renewal—depicted in tonal “paintings” of extraordinary vividness and beauty.
Public domain illustration of The Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, Author Unknown
Vivaldi’s remarkable productivity as a composer of concertos can be traced to the year 1703, when he was both ordained to the priesthood and appointed as Maestro di Violino (chief violin teacher) at the Ospedale della Pieta, a charitable school in Venice.
The Red Priest
It was one of four such institutions where he would remain with few interruptions for the better part of 40 years.
His red hair was not the only reason why he came to be known as The Red Priest (il Prete Rosso); he was a dazzling violinist with a fiery playing style, as well as a demanding teacher who got results.
Under his tutelage, the students who lived at the Ospedale—young women from good families that, for reasons usually left unsaid, wanted them raised elsewhere—became some of the best instrumental players in Europe.
To hone and then showcase their skills, Vivaldi wrote literally hundreds of concertos. They heavily favored the violin, of course. But Vivaldi made sure that they could readily be transcribed for other solo instruments.
Like Bach, who was born seven years later, Vivaldi stuns us with the sheer abundance of his compositions, both in number and in the degree of their creativity.
If you look at the statistics on working hours and vacation days, Americans are among the hardest-working people in the world, but Vivaldi’s musical output can make the hardest-working among us seem like slackers.
His concertos, which number more than 500, established many of the qualities that inform concertos composed later and through the present day, both in structure and in sound: the familiar sequence of three movements in fast-slow-fast order, a conversational interplay between soloist and ensemble, and the showcasing of musical virtuosity by both soloist and composer.
The Four Seasons was published in 1725, when Vivaldi was in his early 40s, as part of a group of 12 compositions that comprised his Op. 8— all concertos.
In that era, even successful music by major composers had a relatively short life expectancy; works that were more than 25 years old were sometimes labeled “ancient,” to be rediscovered or entirely forgotten.
This is why the transcription of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for flute by the Swiss composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau is so sure a sign of the suite’s noteworthy success; the transcription came about 50 years after the original’s publication. Revolutionary in its day, The Four Seasons was revived at the time of another revolution— in 1776.
What to Listen For
To understand what made The Four Seasons revolutionary, we must consider vocabulary that is hard to pin down—terms such as “descriptive” and “programmatic” music.
Listeners in the Baroque era were well accustomed to music that described tableaus or actions, and knew to take note of cues such as “soggetto cavato.” Originally associated just with sol-fa syllables, this technique enabled listeners to associate the sound of a melody with the idea it was depicting, based on the spelling of vowel sounds assembled from the tones of the scale.
By the time Vivaldi was composing his galaxy of concertos, soggetto cavato had been in common use for more than a century, and had given rise to a kind of descriptive writing that was much more accessible to the untrained ear: “imitative” writing that would denote, for example, the ascent of an angel with an ascending scale or arpeggio, or high winds with careening glissandos.
Such effects, which we now take for granted, were startling and even sensational when Vivaldi began exploring their possibilities.
Programmatic music follows a “program”—that is, a story line— with varying degrees of specificity. Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet is programmatic, but it sets the mood of a universally known story of tragic love and leaves the rest to the listener’s imagination.
Richard Strauss’ many tone poems are usually programmatic, typically inspired by a literary work; in some, such as his Don Quixote, we can identify major themes and get a sense of the source’s episodes without envisioning the finer points of the action, but in others, such as his autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) or Sinfonia Domestica (Domestic Symphony), the dramatic elements of the program’s storyline are spelled out for us.
Four Into One
For composers of the Romantic era and beyond, programmatic music was one way to expand the expressiveness of composition and escape the confines of form.
But Vivaldi was far ahead of his time in seeking to find drama in wordless compositions such as concertos. In grouping the four concertos of The Four Seasons into a single suite, he founded the modern idea of programmatic music—not by telling a story, but by finding the natural dramatic arc in the course of a year.
Beginning with the spring, the time of beginnings and of renewal, he provides all the elements of a well-structured drama, taking us from youth through development to maturity to the dark severity of winter, always with a sense of the driving energy that is characteristic of the Baroque, and ultimately with the affirmative sense that spring will come again.
The specificity of Vivaldi’s tone-painting ability allowed him to describe his musical intentions with annotations that have the character of stage directions—“the barking dog” in the second movement of Concerto No. 1; “languor caused by the heat” in the first movement of Concerto No. 2; “the drunkards have fallen asleep” in the second movement of Concerto No. 3; and so on.
Other equally picturesque passages—note, for example, the gorgeous yet excruciatingly accurate evocation of wind-driven ice and snow in the winter concerto—need no verbal cues.
In describing the suite’s first movement, we could equally well be describing Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It opens at an allegro marking, greeting us with unfolding energy and the affirmative songs of birds that take shape in the form of a rondo.
Pleasantly exhausted with the onrush of spring, we next hear a sultry largo in which Vivaldi depicts “A sleeping goatherd—Rustling of foliage—The dog barks— the goatherd and his faithful dog.”
Of Birds And Wind
Vivaldi’s deft use of the violin as the featured voice provides us with a point of view as we envision the scene, which—as in Beethoven—culminates in a rustic dance.
The Four Seasons is very nearly a musical aviary, and in the summer section, depicting “Languor caused by the heat,” we hear birds more enervated than energetic: the cuckoo, the turtledove, the goldfinch.
Breezes blow, but calm prevails amid gentle zephyrs, “various winds,” the north wind. A drowsy adagio brings us “flies and bluebottles.” But then the threat of storm trespasses on the peaceful scene, and a storm gathers as an exhausted harvester dozes, oblivious. When the summer storm arrives, it seems to drench us with wind-driven rain.
The Graphic, July 2, 1870, Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck
In a good year, the kind depicted in The Four Seasons, the farmer’s autumn is a time of joyful fatigue and fecundity.
It begins innocently enough, but soon gives way to signs of drink-fueled merriment and its aftermath, such as “The Sleeping Drunkard” of the second movement. With the successful harvest a memory, the third concerto ends with an account of a hunt, with quarry fleeing while huntsmen and their dogs give chase.
A sense of the passage of time is very much with us as we listen to The Four Seasons, but that doesn’t mean that the musicians who perform it are allowed to grow tired and slow down.
In the climactic winter movement, the most familiar and frequently quoted of the four concertos comprising the suite, its virtuosic demands reach their peak. “Dreadful storm—Running and foot stamping because of the cold—winds—chattering of teeth” is the inscription for the opening of this section.
But we need hardly read the words, because it is all there in the music, depicted in devilishly quick passagework. Relief comes with yet another storm, this time rain, but this time enjoyed in the sheltered warmth of a hearth.
Father Of The Modern Concerto
But in the concluding allegro we are outside again, “Crossing the ice—Moving carefully and anxiously— Falling to the ground—Striding boldly on….”
Perhaps Vivaldi had secretly visited Minnesota in February? We can only guess whether he would have been surprised at the way in which this gorgeously wintry concerto has been put to expressive use in countless films and television commercials.
For further proof of the staying power of The Four Seasons, glance up at the listing of movements in any concert program that includes a concerto; the fast- slow-fast sequence of the four concertos in this suite was destined to become an almost universal template.
Contrasting tempos and dynamics, exciting finales, sumptuous melodies… Vivaldi’s successors knew a good thing when they heard it, and they followed his lead. Today he is credited as a father of the modern concerto.
Richard Strauss at age 74, photographed in his garden at his country home at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1938, Author Unknown
An Alpine Symphony
Richard Strauss (1864-1949 )
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (third and fourth doubling on piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling on English horn), hecklephone, 3 clarinets (third doubling on bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (fourth doubling on contrabassoon), 12 horns (fourth-eighth doubling on Wagner tubas), 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 bass trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, 3 percussion, 2 harps, celesta, organ, strings
Performance time: 47 minutes
Strauss, with his supreme mastery of orchestral color and post- Wagnerian harmonics, pushed the limits of tonality without crossing over into atonality. Was he old-fashioned, or modern? Both, actually.
Born in 1864, at the end of Western classical music’s Romantic era, Strauss had a long, productive life that began before America’s Civil War and ended after World War II. Though he lived more than 50 years after Wagner and was prevented by his musician- father from hearing Wagner’s music, he later became obsessed by it.
Many Strauss contemporaries thought Wagner’s revolutionary ideas had been exhausted before Strauss came on the music scene, but Strauss found new life in them: By adding iridescent layers and unexpected modulations, he expanded old chords to make them do things we never thought they could do.
Dazzling Musical Technician
His glittering compositions matched the emotional immediacy of Expressionist painters, but not their abstraction; that was the realm of atonal composers such as Schoenberg and Berg.
In his 20s, Strauss established himself as a dazzling musical technician with superb keyboard technique. His mastery of complex, inventive harmonies gave hope to listeners in the post-Brahmsian, post-Wagnerian world that there were still musical frontiers to explore without abandoning tonality altogether, as the Second Viennese School was doing under the leadership of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.
And as your annotator has noted, Strauss lived and composed “with the regularity of a dentist.”
An Alpine Symphony
Though An Alpine Symphony is not one of his earlier works, it has much in common with those he wrote when first making his reputation as a composer with lushly entertaining, vaguely programmatic tone poems.
To many music historians and critics, An Alpine Symphony belongs in this category, rather than with other symphonies of its time, such as those of Strauss’ friend Mahler.
What to Listen For
Meditative ideas are given voice and mountain scenery comes to life as we listen to this symphony; in it we can sense memories of human experience and hear Strauss’ innate theatricality.
These are the qualities that would lead Strauss to write 17 operas, assuming leadership among post-Wagnerian composers of Germanic operas. Dating from the decade before his international breakthrough hit Salome (1906), Strauss’ best-known tone poems are indispensable concert staples today—Don Quixote, Til Eulenspiegel, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, to name the most familiar.
Strauss began An Alpine Symphony during this period, in 1899, but abandoned it for a while, though other equally ambitious tone poems were begun and finished.
Also sprach Zarathustra, for example, is everywhere now, thanks to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strauss was in his 30s and still pigeonholed as a “promising young composer” when he wrote these works, and was recognized as a pianist, conductor and technical wizard of harmony.
By the time he completed An Alpine Symphony, in 1915, Strauss was an international celebrity and an acclaimed opera composer. His global prestige gave him the freedom to compose in the forms of his choosing and to exercise his gift for dramatic expressiveness in a purely orchestral form, returning to a genre that had engrossed him two decades earlier.
But his major impetus to finish it was the death of his friend Gustav Mahler, who was the greatest symphonist of his generation.
An Alpine Symphony would prove to be the largest-scale non-vocal composition Strauss would create before his death, 34 years later.
Musicologists sometimes analyze a symphony in terms of how a composer “gets out of” each movement, and though Strauss and Mahler had opposite strategies for symphonic construction, both were innovators. As Strauss leads us through exotic modulations, at least half the fun is marveling at how he gets where he’s going, leading us back to his tonic key.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To learn more about tonight's guest artist, Violinist Philippe Quint, please click here
To learn more about the Pacific Symphony musicians, please click here