In Winter, Nature is at her most terrifying in the bleakest of environments. This is evident in the tuneless opening ritornello, with cruel dissonance and icy articulation, and the fury of the wind that follows. It is certainly a vision of horror to Vivaldi’s way of thinking. He would later set an aria about blood chilling at the sight of a ghost – ‘Gelido in ogni vena‘ (‘Icy in every vein’) – with the same opening progression.
The message of Winter, however, is that man can shrug off, smile at and even enjoy Nature’s taunts. Much of the first movement is constructed in rhythms that convey, like lines 1 and 4 of the sonnet, both the cold and people’s physical reaction to it. There is a unity of purposes here: the cold, becoming more intense, progressively induces greater animation in a person. Thus, as the wind has its effect, the initial reiterated quavers become semiquavers for the stamping of feet (bars 20-6) and demisemiquavers for the chattering of teeth (bars 47-55) – not to be confused with demisemiquavers elsewhere that represent winds. In another realization of ‘progressive ritornello form’, the powerful sequential consequent is reserved until bar 22 – when it can show the stamping of feet to be the consequence of the cold. By emerging as the dominant element, it claims the right, as it were, to bring the movement to its close.
There can be few musical experiences as satisfying as hearing the slow movement begin. The dark warmth of Et major is the perfect welcome, quickly bringing us indoors and shutting out F minor’s grey chill. The aria-like melody (considered in Chapter 5) is of undeniable charm, the onomatopoeia of raindrops a nice touch. (In the field of opera, Vivaldi employs pizzicato strings to represent pioggia di lagrime, the ‘rain of tears’. But what contributes most to the tableau’s affection of smugness and reassurance is the soothing mesh of all the figurations together: a therapeutic rhythm functioning like the murmurings in Spring that lull the goatherd to sleep. A useful comparator is the slow movement for recorder, violin and bassoon in the chamber concerto RV 94. Lacking textural depth, it is less satisfying than its model in Winter and thus gives an insight into the extraordinary care that Vivaldi had lavished on the Seasons.
The finale’s detailed depiction of what it is like to walk and skate on ice might today seem less than impressive. Modern listeners used to the aesthetics of more recent composition can find such frankness – as legs splay apart and the ice cracks (bars 85-93/166-74), for instance – disarmingly simple and apparently lacking in subtlety. The same reception must often be the fate of other pictorial music such as Handel’s treatment of images like ‘the mountain nods’ or ‘the forest shakes’ (Acis and Galatea, 1717). Even the very idea of concentrating on an innocent pastime of ordinary folk might offend those who have too narrow a view of what is valuable in Western art-music: ‘Winter, yes – but skating?’
But skating was brilliantly chosen, for it symbolizes people’s freedom when they live in harmony with nature, and when they are not afraid to take a risk. Because it is amusing, it also enabled Vivaldi to give freedom to his technique in an easily tolerated, self-effacing way: he too took a risk. And so we should not be deceived by his depictions, but rather marvel at the timelessness of the atmosphere created ‘in notes with many a winding bout of linked sweetness long drawn out’. Travelling in wide, mesmeric sweeps, the slow progress to the dominant of the dominant (bar 73/154) is achieved with the same hanging inevitability as that of the skater’s impending accident. The harmony is static, as if time stands still, and a formal framework is scarcely required. Nowhere else in Op. 8 (except, perhaps, the finale of Summer) is ritornello form implemented so freely that its functions are transcended. When the winds come, Sirocco ironically has the rhythm and motivic substance of the opening of Summer but none of his former malevolence; now in Eb major, his gentle warmth recalls the comfort evoked in the slow movement. After that moment of reconciliation, the subsequent battle of winds can do no harm: ‘This is winter, but of a kind to bring joy’, reads the sonnet. Joy indeed. Who can fail to be moved by the unnerving hint of alarm in the long chromatic manoeuvre over the pedal’s hard, dry surface (bars 62-73/143-54) or fail to share in the exhilaration of the ending?
Milton’s texts, through a process of transmission that has yet to be uncovered, provided a basis for the programme of Winter but not its content, wrapped up in a view of music that is an ideal, not its realization. In dealing with a subject that he had to puzzle out for himself, Vivaldi liberated his art from the chains of convention and discovered something o f ‘the hidden soul of harmony’.