August COMPOSER: antonio vivaldi
four seasons 1720-1725
August is one of the coldest months in Melbourne, it’s hard not to long for the lengthening light of warmer days and the pink and yellow buds of spring. So how could I not think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, where the opening concerti is not only called Spring but is almost embedded with it in our minds. I saw it performed not long ago and was unprepared for how intense and playful it was, and how wonderfully caught up in it I would get. Since I decided to look at Vivaldi I’ve heard parts of this piece everywhere in popular culture. It has to be one of the most widely recognised pieces of classical music, definitely Vivaldi’s most famous.
Watch Spring, with Julia Fischer and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
The Four Seasons is a 40 minute piece made up of 4 separate violin concertos: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, each of which has 3 movements. The piece is accompanied by a set of sonnets that match the 4:3 structure and tell a story of the seasons, of goatherders frolicking and drinking, open fires and ice skating. No one is sure whether Vivaldi was the author of these sonnets. Regardless, the piece is emotionally engaging from the familiar opening lines, it gets inside you and brings out all that hope and new life of spring, the long lazy heat intensive summer days, the beautiful crispness of autumn, and finally the cold but cosy surrounds of winter. It is a piece where, as with the seasons themselves, contrast fits together like a puzzle to become one big picture.
Watch the whole Four Seasons with Julia Fischer and The Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Four Seasons makes me think of is a story my friend told me years ago about driving a small fiat car through the hills of Ireland with this music on the radio. Out the window castles, celtic cross-filled cemeteries and ancient stone walls pass by.
It’s chilly and damp but daffodils have poked through the wet grass, splashes of yellow running circles around tree trunks. Branches once skeletal and brittle now bristling with buds of baby green leaves.
But then there is a shift in space and the fiat is now driving through the hills of Tuscany, making its way down narrow laneways, through fields and into the bright sunshine and red terracotta of summer. The sunlight forms a halo on the roof of the car before it travels further into the golden-leaved haze of autumn. The fields are ablaze with colour, the trees each one a stunning exhibition.
The little car slows and almost stalls before turning left back into the rainy, cold hills of Ireland. It stops outside a thatched roofed pub, inside we tumble out and into the arms of a oak beamed open fired room while outside the rain beats against the windows.
Antonio Vivaldi was an interesting man. He was popular and successful in his own lifetime, the majority of which he spent in Venice, Italy. He was a priest, a virtuoso violinist, a teacher, a conductor as well as a composer. Then despite all this he died a pauper aged 63 in Vienna. His work after his death fell out of favour and was only rediscovered early last century, when it became wildly popular again. The Four Seasons is now unsurprisingly one of the most performed classical works.
Vivaldi is said to be the master of the concerto, some claiming he invented the form as we know it today: the fast-slow-fast structure. It’s said Vivaldi’s work was heavily influential on Bach. But it’s easier to assess the impact of an artist’s creative work from a distance where you can see all the ripples and reverberations of it. The Four seasons when I saw it played seemed as alive and relevant as it would have done some 300 years ago. It not only travels me across continents but across time as well. This is something only art can achieve – a transcendental state of time and place of being. And it’s a wonderful reminder that people hundreds of years ago were just like us. Yearning for meaning, yearning for the seasons. Bring on Spring.