Since it’s currently summertime, I wanted to take this opportunity to delve into The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, specifically the “summer” movement.
This is a Baroque-era concerto in a set of four concerto, each with its own season/theme: spring, summer, autumn and winter.
This will be a long-running series – each season I am going to examine the corresponding concerto, finishing with Spring next year, the most famous of the set of concertos. Today we’ll be specifically talking about the genre “program music” and how “Summer” demonstrates it.
Let’s get started!
Since each of these concerti are great examples of a style of writing called “program music”, I thought we’d talk about what program music is.
The basic idea with program music is to represent a specific thought, scene or idea musically. So if the music is depicting a scene of, say, hellfire, the composer is going to pull out all the stops so that you imagine hellfire when you hear the music.
Program music was particularly popular in the 1800s during the Romantic era of classical music. It’s almost entirely used for instrumental-only work.
The opposite of program music is absolute music, which bears no resemblance to anything in the natural world – it’s purely about the sounds. An example of “absolute” music might be something like, “Invention no. 1 in C major” – nothing evocative in that title.
More on program music
The Seasons is a set of Concerti written in the Baroque period, where the idea of program music was still very new. Vivaldi himself likely wrote a sonnet to accompany each season. Each season is written in three movements, just like the sonnets.
They were written around 1721 and were published in 1725 in Amsterdam. Summer’s full title is “Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, “Summer” (L’estate)”.
Program music fell out of favor in the Classical period but came back with a vengeance in the Romantic period. Liszt is a notable performer who wrote program music, often basing a composition off a piece of artwork or literature.
Liszt coined the sub-genre “symphonic poem”, which is basically a shortened program music composition (one movement only).
Strauss was the king of program music, saying that “music can describe anything, even a teaspoon”. An Alpine Symphony is a good example of his programmatic writing. Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and others also wrote plenty of program music.
What we’re going to do today is look at the programmatic elements in Vivaldi’s Summer, and listen through a few examples.
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi: Sonnet
Let’s start by taking a look at the 3-part sonnet, mirroring our 3-part concerto.
|Sotto dura Staggion dal Sole accesa
Langue l’ huom, langue ‘l gregge, ed arde il Pino;
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
|Under a hard season, fired up by the sun
Languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
The three-movement form was very popular for concerti at the time (fast-slow-fast), and Vivaldi’s Summeris no exception.
The movements are:
Allegro non molto (in G minor)
Adagio e piano – Presto e forte (in G minor)
Presto (in G minor)
We’ll talk about each movement in turn, listening to a few examples, after talking about some of the programmatic elements in this music.
In Vivaldi’s Summer, we hear everything from “buzzing gnats and flies”, “violent storms” to “roaring thunder”.
This sonnet is all about heat – a heat that is made easier by a cool breeze. You can also hear some birds chilling out. But the vibe quickly turns dark as the storms set in, which is the mood of most of the three movements (it is in G minor, after all).
The final movement is the most intense of all – the shepherd sees that the intense storm is, in fact, intense. It’s all hail and destruction and ruined crops. I love this movement – but we’ll get there soon!
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi: Movement 1
The first movement is about five minutes long, and is marked as “Allegro” – though the first minute or so is quite slow and moody. It’s the sound of languishing.
When things pick up to allegro, we hear the “cuckoo’s voice” – it’s that repetitive pairing of notes, duh-duhhhh. Let’s take a quick listen and see if you can hear the bird in there.
We hear other birds in this movement, including the mournful turtledove, and the rapid-fire finch. The music-story takes us through soft breezes in the air, but there’s building tension as we alternate from p to pp. And then BAM, we’re at full throttle when the “North wind sweeps them suddenly aside”.
I’m going to start this recording from the call of the finch, which will lead into this build-up (“soft breezes stir the air, but threatening”). This is a fun one to listen to!
Following that is a very sweeping and emotive part which reminds me of an aria – it’s the shepherd trembling and fearing his fate. It’s a violin solo with basso continuo in the background for simple accompaniment.
Let’s have a listen – I find this surprisingly emotive for Baroque music. Not that Baroque music is necessarily robotic, but it isn’t usually as “human” as more modern Classical styles.
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi: Movement 2
Now we hit the second movement, “Adagio”. We just left off with the shepherd worrying, and our sonnet for this part goes as such:
The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs his tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.
This part is short and snappy at about 2 minutes long. The mood of fear is being conveyed in a general sense, but there are a couple specific programmatic elements we’re listening for: fierce thunder and flies buzzing furiously.
Let’s take a listen to the beginning of the movement – you’ll hear a slow, fearful melody that is abruptly interrupted by rumbling thunder.
Now let’s listen again – this time to the tail end of the movement. The whole movement is basically this back-and-forth between the soloist and the rolling thunder, but underneath it all is this buzzing. That’s what I want you to listen for now. It’s subtle but it’s in the background of this entire movement.
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi: Movement 3
Our final movement, “Presto”, is one of my favorite Baroque movements. It’s about two and a half minutes long, and it’s just full of verve and intensity.
This is the climax of the whole thing, with the sonnet finishing with:
Alas, his fears were justified
The Heavens thunder and roar and with hail
Cut the head off the wheat and damages the grain.
Hail and damaged grain is no joke – even in our modern world. It would have been an utter catastrophe then, and that’s what the music is telling us.
You’re hearing the worry of the shepherd again (the shepherd has been the melody this whole time).
Let’s take a listen to a bit from the beginning – the constant rolling notes are the storm, and when the notes descend they remind me of hail and lightning. When the notes sweep upward, I’m thinking of big gusts of wind.
There’s a particularly ominous climactic moment toward the end of the movement with lots of tension and energy, before the storm continues rolling out our main theme to the end. Let’s have a listen – what kind of scene are you imagining?
That’s all for today’s episode of PianoTV. Thank you so much for watching, and if you’d like to support this channel, feel free to visit on Patreon.
Recordings accessed here: https://musopen.org/music/14910-the-four-seasons-op-8/
Performer: John Harrison
Copyright: CC BY-SA 3.0