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When it comes to Baroque music, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is second only in popularity to Pachelbel’s Canon in D in the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Familiarity makes us take for granted this groundbreaking work, beloved of film-makers and TV adverts. On the surface, it is a collection of violin concertos; in reality, it is music’s first tone poem – that is, music with a narrative or illustrative basis.
Of the nearly 400 concertos that Vivaldi composed, over 230 are for his own instrument, the violin. He was the prototype of the modern virtuoso, bewitching his audience with his technical prowess and, while by no means the first to compose a concerto for solo violin, he was the first to personalise the instrument.
Le Quattro Stagioni (its proper Italian title) is the first four of a collection of 12 concertos composed in 1720 under the collective title Il Cimento Dell’Armonia e Dell’Inventione (The Contest Between Harmony And Invention), published in 1725 as Vivaldi’s Op.8. The fifth concerto is entitled Il Tempesta (The Storm); the sixth Il Piacere (Delight); and the tenth La Caccia (The Hunt). None of the others has any descriptive title or extra-musical frame of reference.
Each of the Op.8 concertos has the conventional three movements (fast-slow-fast). But what makes The Four Seasons unique among the 12 concertos is that at the head of each season is a sonnet indicating the meaning of the music that follows. For example, Op.8, No.1, La Primavera (Spring), opens with an ebullient realisation of the opening lines of the accompanying sonnet: Giunt è la Primavera e Festosetti (Springtime Is Come).
Although it seems likely that Vivaldi himself wrote these verses, no one is certain about this – or, indeed, about whether the music or words came first. In addition to the sonnets, Vivaldi provided further narrative detail by adding captions such as The Fleeing Prey, The Barking Dog and The Sleeping Drunk.
So as we travel through the year, we can hear the cuckoo, the turtledove and the goldfinch, get bitten by gnats and flies, and drenched in a thunderstorm during L’Estate (Summer), join in a drunken harvest celebration and an early morning stag hunt in L’Autunno (Autumn), and feel our teeth chattering as L’Inverno’ (Winter) closes in, bringing “frosty snow” and “biting, stinging winds.”