It is ironic that The Four Seasons, some of the best-known music of all time, remain an enigma. Several interrelated questions need to be answered before a reasonably complete view of Vivaldi’s actions can ever be reached. When were the sonnets written, and by whom? Was the music based on the poetry or vice versa? Were the programme’s ideas Vivaldi’s own? Why were extra explanatory captions added for the works’ publication in Op. 8? Such uncertainties leave us blinkered when it comes to appraising the music – and the concertos themselves, far from providing answers, serve to confuse us all the more. Taken at face value, the works seem individualized, concerned only with their own narratives. Their collective integrity exists nonetheless, residing to some extent in inter-textual relationships but principally in Vivaldi’s approach to different seasonal pictures: a consistency of method, through which distinct ideas are shown to be complementary.
One cannot say, as Beethoven said of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, that the Seasons are ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’. Nevertheless, Vivaldi manages to maintain feeling while indulging in vivid painting. We observed how his movements function – even without the prop of a programme – in at least two dimensions: a foreground in which ‘events’ and musical vocabulary strike the imagination, and a background forged from key, metre, tempo and figurative relationships that places the foreground in some kind of context, whether tangibly meaningful or not. The fast movements also possess an essential third dimension: a structure that can unfold like a dramatic plot and even be transmuted somewhere along its course. In short, the composer’s customary method of the mid- to late 1710s encompassed all the factors one might associate with programme composition. Arguably, the Seasons’ only difference is that an external programme caused his method to be more focused than usual.
Since the Seasons are solo concertos that retain the genre’s essential technical principles, their conception cannot have been devoted exclusively to the programmatic function. Their excellence is a measure of how successfully Vivaldi compromised in two directions, adapting both structure and the soloist’s contribution to the programme and very probably tinkering with the programme to make sure that it fitted standard movement-types and the demands of solo virtuosity. These works, indeed, are almost as highly regarded for their remarkable technical feats – the bariolage in Summer (III, bars 51-4/247-50), for instance – as for their imagery and narrative.1 Slow movements, being short and lacking episodic change, are treated in the Seasons as tableaux: each a static scene painted with considerable textural depth. Fast movements, however, offered more scope. The needs of the solo concerto dictated that the programme must include many transient events, or sounds that do not last long (bird-song, thunder, etc.), suitable for foreground painting in episodes. While the solo violin part is an ideal medium for pictorial-ism and onomatopoeia, Vivaldi did not hesitate to orchestrate an episode more fully if this was warranted by the force or plurality of the subject depicted.
The Seasons’ background ‘feeling’ or emotional weight is immensely strong, carried by several musical factors in combination: the ‘world’ of the tonic key; ritornellos that represent a scene’s unchanging aspect; and a tonal-periodic procedure that encourages the listener to sense a movement’s direction despite change in the foreground. All the principles observed in Chapter 3 apply, but they are stretched to their limits by the needs of the programme. Thus we find ritornellos with peculiarities, modulation hastened or delayed unexpectedly, and more motivic relationships than are customary. An impression of the Seasons’ structural complexity may be gained by comparing their fast movement schemes. The procedure we have called ‘progressive ritornello form is manifest in several instances; in the first movement of Summer, its logic demands the substitution of the whole ritornello. These and other points are clarified towards the end of this chapter, where the concertos are assessed individually.
There is much evidence of significant key-associations in relation to the cycle’s programme, not least in respect of the concertos’ tonic keys. The choice of F major for Autumn is easy to understand; being the natural key of corni da caccia, it was traditionally associated with hunting and bucolic settings. An implication of anxiety and threat in G minor, for Summer, has already been observed (pp. 45 and 58-9). E major and F minor are rarely found as tonic keys among Vivaldi’s instrumental works, though his occasional use of them in opera makes their meaning clear.2 The former, perfect for Spring, is variously associated with brilliant light, pleasant rest (as in the concerto Il riposo RV 270) and amorousness (L’amoroso RV 271). F minor, elsewhere having the unpleasant connotations of horror, vengeance and extreme grief, is entirely apt as the chilling backdrop for Winter.