The Four Seasons – Summer’s Ruin

The Four Seasons – Summer’s Ruin

Vivaldi’s vision of the fear and destruction associated with a temporale – a violent storm, brewed by the warm winds from the Sahara, of a kind that regularly afflicts Italy in summer – is arguably his most inspired characterized concerto. Of all the Seasons, only Summer has a relentless progression across its three movements from anticipation to realization of a single event, and this is reflected in the fast movements’ unusually high degree of motivic integration. Vivaldi’s four-note leitmotif not only makes the connection between the violence of the storm and, in diminution, its cutting effects (solo part, bars 41-8 and 109-13). With perfect logic, it also characterizes the winds that threaten to bring the storm. Descent through the tetrachord in a minor key is a melodic feature common to many composers’ works – frequently those concerning suffering. Haydn’s use of it, for the opening bars of ‘The Seasons’ (1801), is particularly close to Vivaldi’s: played harshly in G minor, it conveys Winter’s undiminished threat with similar menace.

Other relationships, too, compel us to consider the movements of Summer collectively. All three are set in G minor, with all that that implies for the continuity of the fear-and-realization theme. All possess rapid figurations of similar type for the whole band, in turn representing winds, thunder and the storm itself. Both fast movements are in triple metre – thus in apposition as cause and effect – and solo passages are at a premium in both since nothing less than tutti scoring can achieve the force attributed to Nature in this instance.

The finale’s unprecedented representation of destructive power is made all the more effective by what precedes it: an immense tightening of tension throughout the first movement that the weary lyricism of the slow movement cannot dissipate. Many of the first movement’s peculiarities deserve attention. First we hear a ritornello that is anything but typical: a set of disarmingly ‘slow’ gestures, metrically dislocated, that must represent the lethargy of the anxious man at least as much as the oppressive heat of an airless day. Here Vivaldi introduces wilting figures that will remain significant: falling quavers, often with the jarring sound of the augmented second, and, embedded in the cadential element, the four-note descent transformed by Neapolitan-sixth harmony. The cuckoo’s voice, itself a premonition of disaster, and the other bird-songs do nothing to relieve the uncomfortable sense of expectancy. Fixed in G minor and recalling the four-note motif (bass, bars 63-6), they intensify – even to deafening proportions (bars 49-52) – the man’s awareness of danger. Modulation, long-delayed, happens only when the ‘sweet zephyrs’ disturb the stillness. The descent to D minor occurs over eight innocent-sounding bars (each bar represented by one crotchet) – in a fateful melodic contour(y) that relates back to the ritornello and forward, as we shall see, to the man’s utter distress. The irony is clear: breezes that in other circumstances bring welcome refreshment are the harbinger of destruction. Although it is tutti, the subsequent battle of winds (from bar 90) continues the episode, prior to the ritornello at bar 110. But the same music, when recalled in G minor from bar 155, functions as a substitute ritornello in this special example of’progressive ritornello form’: what might have been merely a transient, inconsequential feature of the weather proves to be a lasting and ultimately damaging one.

That realization dawns earlier, when the movement’s volatility, end-play and cadenza fuse together in one of Baroque music’s most radical creations: ‘Il pianto del villanello‘ (the countryman’s lament), bars 116—54. The person represented is not the ‘shepherd boy’ that many translators have made of the sonnet’s ‘il pastorel‘ – for why should a mere boy be so distraught? The diminutive form of pastore (like that of villano) was surely preferred as a term of endearment and perhaps because the line in the sonnet scanned better as a result. He is a man with whom we have sympathy because his precarious livelihood – his crops soon to be ruined – hangs in the balance.

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