Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons

I was never one for practicing. What seemed to get me through learning violin in elementary school were two main components: my teachers and parents telling me I had to, and listening to gorgeous violin concerti and wanting to be just like the musicians I heard. In elementary school, one of my favorite pieces was “Summer,” the first movement of The Four Seasons. This seems fitting that I aspired to play a piece by Vivaldi, considering what I learned later in high school about its composer, and what is discussed here.

Antonio Vivaldi was a center-part of late Baroque music and particularly famous for his concerti as they explored the potential of instrumental music in ways never seen before his time.

He was born in 1655 in Brescia Italy, and was a resident of Venice since the age of ten, had three main patrons for both his compositions and performances: the Opera House, the Pio Ospedale della Pietá (an orphanage in Venice for which he composed and taught young girls to perform music), and Maestro de’ concerti (his published works).

Though it is not certain, it is believed several hundreds of Vivaldi's concerti were written for his pupils at the Pietá. These girls, either orphaned, from impoverished families, or left outside the orphanage without any information, were oftentimes trained as musicians in small musical groups, and would later perform in chapel choir and orchestra. Vigorous training in music performance in both voice and instruments (violin, flute, organ, oboe, cello, bassoon, and others) were conducted to prepare the girls for suitable lives as either nuns or wives. Having the girls perform music outside the orphanage was forbidden by the Pietá.

Performances by the girls, which took place almost every Saturday, Sunday, and major holidays, made the Pietá a popular landmark for those visiting Venice in the eighteenth century. Reports from audience members in diaries and letters describe onlookers wildly applauding, biting their nails, clasping a hand to their breast in awe, or even fainting when the girls would play. This was the intent of the composer, because Vivaldi's main goal was to showcase the abilities of the young performers. Though it is not certain that all his concerti were written for the girls at the Pietá, it is believed many of them were. This includes his most famous work, Vivaldi’s four-concerto cycle, The Four Seasons.

Written for string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), The Four Seasons follows Vivaldi’s standard form: three movements (fast first movement, slow second movement, fast third movement) are found in each of the four concerti: Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Sounds from all the seasons become vivid in his use of sound image. A bird singing in the third movement of Spring in the solo violin brings celebration of the earth's rebirth. The dripping of icicles in the second movement of Winter in the pizzicatos of the accompanying strings carry the listener to a snowy wonderland. These are only two examples of many in the entire work.

The prominent feature in the Four Seasons is Vivaldi’s use of ritornello, which is a short recurring passage. One of the best examples of this is in the first movement of Summer, where the movement begins with equal voicing in all the parts, generously holding rests between phrases to create tension and release. Suddenly, a violin duet bursts almost violently from the calm, depicting a hot Summer wind rising from an ominously quiet day. It includes impressively quick string changes, detaché bowing, and use of high positions, giving the music potential for deep emotional expression in the hands of a skilled musician. Once the solo has built up, it is joined by the tutti. It switches evenly between the solo voices, and the tutti for the rest of the movement, with the movement finally ending with a strong, final collaboration of all voices. Vivaldi’s use of the ritornello gave opportunity to not only show off the talents of the soloist and create musical interest, but the tutti gave time for the soloist to recover without leaving empty spaces in the flow of the music. This also served as a marker for the audience to follow and know where they were going.

Having been a teenage student violinist who played his music, I find both the history and works of Antonio Vivaldi one of the most fascinating parts of music history. His life work as one of the greatest music educators, as well as one the greatest composers for violin, serve as a direct inspiration for me. Playing and listening to Vivaldi's music strikes me on a very personal level because he wrote his music for young women, with whom I can relate, to better themselves through the noble art of music.


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