THE FOUR SEASONS
Some know Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as superior elevator music. Some know it as a brilliant exemplar of the baroque violin concerto genre, part of a collection from 1725 called The Contest of Harmony and Invention. The Four Seasons might be one of the most famous musical works ever written, but not everyone knows that Vivaldi was doing something daring and unusual when he wrote it. The violinist Gil Shaham, for example, tells of playing the concertos as a young musician and only much later discovering the descriptive sonnets Vivaldi had written into the score.
It’s generally assumed that Vivaldi wrote these sonnets himself, and within the framework of a conventional baroque concerto format – two fast movements framing a slow movement – the music underscores the events and images of each poem in astonishing detail. It’s like a soundtrack that follows the pastoral experience of the year: birds in spring, storms in summer, the harvest and the hunt, the icy winter.
This makes the concertos far more than showpieces for Vivaldi-the-virtuoso, they are effectively an early form of program music. In other words, Vivaldi-the-innovator was using pure music – music without singing, music without words – to tell stories and paint pictures. For these notes we’re reproducing the sonnets with some of the corresponding musical gestures.
Spring (La primavera)
I. Allegro (Fast)
Spring has come and the cheerful birds
Welcome it with happy song
And the brooks, caressed by soft winds
Flow with a sweet murmur.
The sky is covered with a dark mantle,
Thunder and lightning announce a storm
But when all is quiet, the birds
Return to fill the air with harmonious songs.
II. Largo (Broadly)
And in the flowery meadow
To the sweet murmuring of plants and leaves
The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
To the festive sound of the rustic bagpipe
Nymphs and shepherds dance, in love,
Their faces glowing with Springtime’s brilliance.
I. Allegro non molto – Allegro (Not too fast then fast)
Under the merciless sun
Man languishes, his herd wilts, the pine tree burns.
The cuckoo finds its voice, and at once
The turtledove and goldfinch join in song.
The sweet Zephyr blows, but once provoked,
The North-wind joins battle with its neighbor,
And the shepherd weeps because he fears
The fierce storm and his destiny.
II. Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
(Slow and soft then As fast as possible and loud)
His tired limbs are robbed of their rest
By his fear of lightning and wild thunder,
And a furious swarm of gnats and flies surrounds him.
III. Presto (As fast as possible)
Alas, his fears prove all too true.
Thunder and lightning split the heavens, and hail
Cuts down the lofty ears of corn.
The peasant celebrates with dance and song
The pleasure of a bountiful harvest.
And many, ablaze from Bacchus’ liquor
Finish their merriment in sleep.
II. Adagio molto (Very slow)
Now the mild and pleasant air
Makes everyone give up dancing and singing:
The season invites one and all
To savor a sweet slumber.
At dawn the hunters are off to the hunt,
With horns and guns and dogs they sally forth,
The wild beast flees and they follow its trail.
Already terrified and weary from the din
Of guns and dogs, and wounded it tries
Feebly to escape, but exhausted dies.
I. Allegro non molto (Not too fast)
Frozen and trembling in the icy snow
Amid the biting breath of the horrid wind,
We run, stamping our feet at every step,
Our teeth chattering in the hard frost.
II. Largo To pass quiet, serene days before the fire
While the rain outside pours down in sheets.
To walk on the ice with slow steps,
Moving with care for fear of falling.
To turn sharply, slip, fall to the ground,
Then go out again on the ice and dash about
Until the ice cracks and opens.
To hear the Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds
Break through iron-clad doors and clash in war:
This is winter, but what a joy it brings.
SERENADE FOR STRINGS
Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for strings “from an inward impulse,” seized by a creative fervor and composing rapidly. The result is an expansive, good-humored work, which both the composer and his friends agreed was his “best thing.” And Tchaikovsky was more than proud of the Serenade – before the premiere he told his publisher: “I am violently in love with this work and can’t wait for it to be played.”
Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart emerges in the first movement, a graceful “Piece in the form of a little sonata.” It begins with a rhetorical gesture: a descending scale of notes which is presented emphatically at first, paired against a rising scale, and will then appear in different guises through the course of the work, tying the four movements together. Tchaikovsky’s love of dancing is the impetus behind the second movement, one of the loveliest waltzes outside the ballet theatre. This is followed by the heartbreaking sadness of the Elegy – its tears giving way to impassioned melody. The fourth movement shows Tchaikovsky in Russian mood. As in the first movement, there is a slow introduction, this one based on a Volga boat song but interpreted with great delicacy. The main part of the movement makes for a thrilling finale: sometimes vigorous, sometimes songlike and soaring, but never once losing momentum.
When the composer Joseph Haydn heard the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah he declared, “He is the master of us all.” But it’s not only the great, climactic chorus which makes this oratorio a masterpiece. In Charles Jennens’ text, compiled from the Old and New Testaments, and in Handel’s powerful writing for voice, Messiah offers musical perfection in the solo moments as well as the thrilling choruses.
Messiah is the most famous of Handel’s English oratorios; ironically, it’s also the least typical. Its subject matter prevented Handel from adopting his usual approach to dramatizing biblical stories. Presenting Jesus as a singing character on the stage was taboo and so his story had to be told via prophecy and report. As a result there is almost no narrative action, other than the brief account of the nativity, taken from Luke.
Although the nativity is only a small part of the overall arc of Messiah, the practice of performing this Lenten oratorio at Christmas emerged in North America during the 19th century and remains an unshakeable tradition. The two arias in this concert both come from the end of Part I. There are two versions of “Rejoice greatly” – both share a spirit of rejoicing at the coming of savior and shepherd. And there’s a pastoral mood in the gentle rocking rhythms of the soprano aria “He shall feed his flock.”
Yvonne Frindle © 2010
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2010
Vivaldi is the composer of the most frequently recorded work in the classical repertoire: the set of violin concertos called The Four Seasons. In his lifetime, Vivaldi sported the nickname ‘The Red Priest’ (Il prete rosso): he had red hair and he was in fact ordained. But his true fame came from his astonishing skill as a virtuoso violinist and his often innovative compositions.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky’s near-universal popularity stems from three things: an astonishing gift for melody, an unerring dramatic instinct, and the directness and sincerity of emotion in his music. These are the qualities that make his ballet music so great, and which underpin concert-hall masterpieces such as the Serenade for strings, composed in 1880.
George Frideric Handel
German-born English composer
Handel is one of the greatest composers of the high baroque era – sharing the glory with Vivaldi and JS Bach. His cosmopolitan nature saw him travel Europe, absorbing different musical styles, before settling in England and effectively inventing the English concert oratorio. Messiah, completed in 1741, is the most famous and arguably the greatest of his oratorios.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....