Vivaldi; The Man, The Myth, The Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 to Giovanni Battista Vivaldi and Camilla Calicchio. Antonio’s father taught him to play violin, being a professional violinist himself, and they then toured Venice together playing violin. It is thought that Vivaldi started playing at a very young age due to the musical knowledge he had gained by the time he began working at the Ospedale della Pieta (a convent/orphanage/music school) at the age of 24. Over his lifetime, Vivaldi composed over 500 concertos (many of which were for violin), over 40 operas and many choral works. All of these compositions were and are considered among the most innovative music of the time, bringing new life to the rigid structure of the concerto with a touch of flamboyant exuberance.

Vivaldi was composing during the Baroque era (roughly 1600-1750) therefore his music was swarming with characteristics of the era. These include:

  • Instrumentation: basso continuo, SATB, harpsichord (in modern-day recordings, sometimes a piano is modified to sound like a harpsichord to get a rich timbre), a = 440Hz, orchestral with very little percussion, lack of ornamentation due to limits of instruments e.g. no vibrato on strings (the strings in many recordings use martele bowing and little ornamentation in order to replicate the limitations of baroque era instruments)
  • Mostly melody dominated homophony however there was some polyphony and contrapuntal (Bach chorales)
  • Often a single melodic idea which portrays/projects a single mood or expression of feeling
  • Either major or minor – no modes
  • Many different forms: binary, fugue, concerto (orchestra + soloist/group of soloists), orchestral suites (collection of dances)
  • Terraced dynamics and contrast in general

Examples of other Baroque composers are: Handel, Corelli, Purcell and JS Bach (whose influence can be found throughout Vivaldi’s work).

Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni)

Four Seasons is one of Vivaldi’s most famous works, often known as his masterpiece. They are a series of concertos written for solo violin and string orchestral accompaniment. This provides a contrast in texture between sections. Passages containing the orchestra are known as ripieno. During the time period, the most common instrument used for solos was the violin. Each of the four concertos is written to emulate the feelings one might have on a day in that season and are all prefaced by a sonnet which outlines the subject of the music and tells the story of the events depicted in the pieces. The lines from the sonnet are written on the sheet music next to the part of the story they are telling.

A general musical overview followed by some more specific things:

  • Largely melody dominated homophony.
  • Entirely for strings – uses many techniques including pizzicato, tremolo, martele
  • Lots of modulations and going through circle of fifths
  • Each concerto has 3 movements (fast-slow-fast) this is typical of any concerto and provides enjoyable variation
  • Many melodies based around arpeggios (allegro – Winter)
  • Very few examples of dotted rhythms – some in Autumn movement 3
  • Variety of time signatures throughout however only one change within a movement – first movement of Summer (3/8 to 4/4)
  • Summer is the only one of the four with no triplets

“Spring” (La primavera

  • Concerto No. 1 in E major
    1. Allegro (in E major)
    2. Largo e pianissimo sempre (in C♯minor)
    3. Allegro pastorale (in E major)

”Joyful spring has arrived
the birds greet it with their cheerful song,
and the brooks in the gentle breeze,
flow with a sweet murmur.

Uplifting, Confident, Cheerful, and Optimistic. Spring is the most famous concerto due to its popularity with King Louis XV.

“Summer” (L’estate)

  • Concerto No. 2 in G minor
    1. Allegro non molto(in G minor)
    2. Adagio e piano – Presto e forte (in G minor)
    3. Presto (in G minor)

“Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat
men and flocks are sweltering,
pines are scorched.
We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard
.”

Assertive, Somber, Forceful, and Stormy.

“Autumn” (L’autunno)

  • Concerto No. 3 in F major
    1. Allegro (in F major)
    2. Adagio molto(in D minor)
    3. Allegro (in F major)

“The singing and the dancing die away
as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,
inviting all to sleep
without a care
.”

Bumpy, Relaxed, Serene, and Sinuous.

“Winter” (L’inverno)

  • Concerto No. 4 in F minor
    1. Allegro non molto(in F minor)
    2. Largo (in E♭major)
    3. Allegro (in F minor)

“Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill
.”

Brisk, Stingy, Active, Tamed, and Vigorous

 

Thank you for reading. Be sure to leave any thoughts or suggestions of other composers for me to talk about in the comments as I would love to have further conversation on this topic. I have left some relevant links below as well as all my social media. Most regular updates will be on Twitter.

Sources and Relevant Links: Vivaldi and the Ospedale della piertaClassic FM biography

Social Media: TwitterTumblrInstagram, Snapchat: megs.l2000

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