The Four Seasons

Composed by Antonio Vivaldi
Performed by The Orchestra of St Luke's, 1990, EMI
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, conductor and soloist

Review by Tim

Vivaldi generally dropped his concertos in litters of 12, which would then be published as an opus. Opus 8, subtitled The Conflict of Harmony and Invention, includes the four concertos that make up The Seasons, Vivaldi's best known compositions. Indeed, The Seasons rank among the most famous works of the Baroque Era.

The Seasons are generally included within a class known as "program music", because they portray concrete images and actions. A text of some kind is generally included by the composer to aid the listener in identifying the tableaux. While it may be possible to divine the composer's meaning in a program piece without a text, or with only the sparsest of clues (such as a suggestive title), a text surely helps in leading the listener in the right direction, and Vivaldi was careful to include one for each of his Seasons.

Vivaldi attached a sonnet to each of the concerti, and even included excerpts from the sonnets over the musical notes that evoked them. In the table below, the translated text of the sonnets is given in columns for each of the concertos. The separations in the rows correspond to each of the three movements in the conerto.

Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Spring has come and joyfully the birds welcome it with cheerful song, and the streams at the breath of zephyrs flow swiftly with sweet murmurings.

But now the sky is cloaked in black and thunder and lightning announce themselves; when they die away the little birds turn afresh to their sweet song.

In the torrid heat of the blazing sun, man and beast alike languish, and even the pine trees scorch: the cuckoo raises his voice, and soon after the turtledove and finch join in song.

Sweet zephyrs blow, but then the fierce north wind intervenes; the shepherd weeps, anxious for his fate from the harsh, menacing gusts;

The peasant celebrates with song and dance his joy in a fine harvest and with generous draughts of Bacchus's cup his efforts end in sleep. To shiver icily in the freezing dark in the teeth of a cruel wind, to stamp your feet all the time, so chilled that your teeth chatter;
Then on the pleasant flower-strewn meadow, to the gentle rustle of the leaves and branches, the goatherd rests, his faithful dog at his side. he rouses his weary limbs from rest in fear of the lightning, the fierce thunder and the angry swarms of gnats and flies. Song and dance are done; the gentle, pleasant air and the season invite one and all to the delights of sweetest sleep. to remain in quiet contentment by the fireside while outside the rain pours in torrents;
To the rustic bagpipe's gay sound, nymph and shepherd dance beneath the fair spring sky in all its glory. Alas! his fears are justified, for furious thunder irradiates the heavens, bowing down the trees and flatenning the crops. At first light the huntsman sets out with horns, guns and dogs, putting his prey to flight and following its tracks;

terrified and exhausted by the great clamor of guns and dogs, wounded and afraid, the prey tries to flee but is caught and dies.

to walk on the ice, with slow steps in fear of falling, advance with care;

then to step forth strongly, fall to the ground, and again run boldly on the ice until it cracks and breaks;

to listen as from the iron portals rush winds from south and north, and all the winds in the contest: such is winter, such the joy it brings.

Given the clues of the text, one can readily draw the imagery from the music. It is relatively easy to pick out the bird songs in the first movement of Spring, the premonitory muttering of thunder in the second movement of Summer, the frantic flight of the deer in the third movement of Autumn, the gentle fall of the rain in the second movement of Winter.

Vivaldi was director of music at a girl's foundling home in Venice, and had trained his pupils to such good effect that their performances were much admired. It is therefore all the more unusual that, having access to a wide array of skilled musicians, Vivaldi nevertheless chose to paint his images in The Seasons exclusively with strings. It is a mark of his genius that this self-imposed limitation actually enhanced the beauty of his compositions.

The soloist and conductor, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, began a rapid rise to prominence as a musician in the mid-1980's. I recall seeing her on CBS's news magazine 60 Minutes, and have since heard individual works played by her on classical music stations. It seemed to me she favored the work of Romantic Era composers, so I was suprised as well as gratified when I found this recording. Sonnenberg has become well-known for the emotional intensity of her performances, and her bravura technique. Her treatment of The Seasons exhibits these hallmarks in detail. This recording is easily the most compelling of all the performances of this work I have yet heard.