Allusive Power and The Four Seasons

Two weeks from tomorrow I’m going to see Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Mutter Virtuosi.  Part of the program is Vivaldi’s masterpiece The Four Seasons, so I’ve been learning more about the work in an effort to maximize my appreciation of the performance.

Vivaldi was a Baroque composer, priest, and musician.  He wrote The Four Seasons in 1725, a series of four concertos that are meant to literally evoke the four seasons.  Each concerto has three movements, and the entire work takes about 45 minutes to perform.  The piece is for a string ensemble, and the performances I’ve seen have all been for strings, but I was interested to see Wikipedia list an arrangement for flute recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1995.

Along with the music, there are four sonnets that accompany the pieces, likely written by Vivaldi himself.  Some recordings have been made with voice overs reading the sonnets (William Shatner and Patrick Stewart have both been involved in projects – there must be something about Enterprise captains and Vivaldi).  It’s unclear if Vivaldi intended the sonnets to be read aloud at performances, or if the sonnets were to be provided to audience members for their own reflection.

Learning about The Four Seasons has made me aware of a distinction in music known as program musicProgram music is music that is meant to evoke something outside of the music itself, as in the pizzicato of the strings in the Winter portion of The Four Seasons standing for showers of ice.  Contrast program music with absolute music, which is meant to be appreciated as a standalone work that requires no appreciation of allusion; it’s music for music’s sake.

As I started to read about The Four Seasons I wondered if it might be a Tone Poem, but it is not.  I learned about these back in college in a music appreciation class – they are highly referential, and meant to tell a story.  Wikipedia helped me get it straight – Tone Poems are indeed a subset of program music, but they need to be in one movement.  Further, Vivaldi’s work pre-dates tone poems, which found their way into the scene mostly during the Romantic period.

The Four Seasons is uplifting and powerful – no wonder it’s Vivaldi’s best known work.

Thanks for reading.


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