Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s Fifth… and yes, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Like those other seismic cultural milestones, Vivaldi’s most popular concertos also changed the course of musical history. They might not have provoked a riot, but when the Four Seasons were first heard in the early 1720s, their audience hadn’t heard anything quite like them before.
And it wasn’t just the concert-going folk of northern Italy who experienced Vivaldi’s stylistic shot-in-the-arm. The Four Seasons had the theorists frothing too. In these seemingly polite and pretty works, the composer opened a philosophical can of worms that continued to brim over with wriggling controversies for centuries.
The crux of the issue was musical ‘description’. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth a composer can describe specific human interactions or states of mind in an orchestral work without recourse to setting words, then you’re thinking on the very same quandary that was occupying the sizeable brain of Antonio Vivaldi in the early 1720s.
Vivaldi was working in Mantua, and had already written dozens of violin concertos prompted by the fact that he was probably the best violinist on the planet. But he was itching to explore something more: the depiction of particular landscapes and scenes (in this case, the earth’s cycle of seasons) in music that would also convey specifics of human behaviour. All the while, the concerto form – one soloist playing opposite a bigger ensemble – would be preserved.
Vivaldi was determined to prove that descriptive music could be sophisticated, intricate and virtuosic enough to be taken seriously
Vivaldi had set himself quite a challenge, but he’d also hit upon an idea that a lot of music theorists didn’t like. So-called ‘programme music’ existed before, but it was seen by some as inferior and regressive. Vivaldi was determined to prove that descriptive music could be sophisticated, intricate and virtuosic enough to be taken seriously – and that it could advance the cause of the concerto at the same time. With his unequalled gift for orchestral colour and melody, if anyone could do it, Vivaldi could.
So did he succeed? Yes and no. With his elevation of descriptive music Vivaldi ignited a debate that lasted for centuries, and saw the art of telling stories through wordless sounds criticised by those who believed music should transcend earthly description. Programme music hasn’t exactly been welcomed into composition’s hallowed sanctuary with open arms, despite the best efforts of Haydn, Beethoven and Richard Strauss. Where Vivaldi undeniably did succeed was in his successful exploration of compositional techniques – those that made the Four Seasons so enchanting on the ear and so influential on other composers.
The structural thinking behind the Four Seasons was that each movement – twelve in all (three per season) – would establish a certain mood, against which narrative events could then play out. When it came to the detail of those occurrences – barking dogs, drunken dancers, buzzing insects – Vivaldi delivered elegance and originality where other composers had barely moved beyond crude animal-noise clichés. Just listen, in the final movement of ‘Winter’, for Vivaldi’s portrayal of a man skidding across ice using descending octaves on the second violins and violas. In the same concerto the soloist and lower strings conjure what one Vivaldi expert has called ‘fireside warmth’ while violins depict icy rain falling outside.
In ‘Spring’ he asks the solo violin to play like the sleeping goatherd and the viola like the barking dog
Added to that are Vivaldi’s verbal instructions to the players. In ‘Spring’ he asks the solo violin to play like ‘il capraro che dorme’ (the sleeping goatherd) and the viola like ‘il cane che grida’ (the barking dog). No wonder musicians talk of the intense imagination and character required to bring these concertos off. Those musicians have never lost their appetite for a rapid ramble through the earth’s meteorological cycle courtesy of Vivaldi’s seasons.
Performances of Baroque music have transformed beyond recognition since the first recording of the Four Seasons in 1942. The earliest taping still available was made by violinist Louis Kaufman and the strings of the New York Philharmonic in 1947 – it sounds robust but pretty unsubtle, too.
In 1984 the young virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter made her first recording of the work, conducted by Herbert von Karajan – who insisted strings should sound rich and sustained in Baroque music just as in Brahms. There’s no doubting their sincerity, but it seems the playful agility of the music is missing in these grand performances. At around the same time, attitudes towards the performance of Baroque music had started to change.
With the emergence of the historically informed performance movement we started to see fewer players in front of microphones, and instruments strung with animal gut instead of metal; both things that are historically in-tune with Vivaldi. More important than what we now see is what we now hear: a lightness, a clarity and a tremendous energy thrust into the music that makes sense of Vivaldi’s reputation as an energetic firebrand.
The famous recording by Nigel Kennedy capitalises on that energy, and it’s easy to hear why it became so legendary. With time, though, musicians have learnt more about technique – in particular how to use the bow – and been able to increase subtlety to quite some degree without losing that supercharged feeling. Anyone who loves this work can’t afford not to hear Kennedy. Add to that Giuliano Carmignola and even the recent ‘re-composed’ version by Max Richter – an ear-pricking remake of the concertos that’s decidedly urban but conversely rather more polite than Vivaldi’s original. But of the latest crop of recordings, that by Amandine Beyer and her ensemble Gli Incogniti has something special; something that points not just to Vivaldi’s musical imagination, but to his human qualities of wit, wisdom and gregarious emotional intelligence.
Andrew Mellor is obsessed with music and Scandinavia. He is reviews editor at Gramophone, co-founder of Nordic culture website Moose Report, and a regular contributor to Magasinet Klassisk Opera and BBC Online.
View our guide to the five best recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons
Explore: Antonio Vivaldi's key works, playlist and biography