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The Four Seasons: Autumn’s Revels

Struggle with Nature, so central to Summer, is a theme absent from Autumn. Having achieved a temporary victory by harnessing Nature’s power, man may now enjoy the spoils (crops, ale, wild animals to be killed) in untroubled leisure. Selfish indulgence is hinted at both in the sonnet – which eschews the idea, present in Spring, that Nature ought gratefully to be honored – and in music that concentrates on carousel and sport. Only the quarry experiences struggle, but the single phrase devoted to its distress and pain is mere tokenism – albeit nicely timed for the cadenza – in Vivaldi’s picture of the pursuit of pleasure. It is no coincidence that Autumn elicits from the soloist the Seasons’ most sustained displays of extrovert virtuosity, for in this way man’s brash confidence is superimposed on our perception of depicted events.

The first movement manages to convey crudeness with artful grace, initially in a repetitive ritornello of primitive’ harmony and a similar first solo rooted to the steps of the peasants’ dance. Thereafter, Vivaldi’s structural game-plan – increasing musical volatility to reflect increasing inebriation – is more subtle than it might at first sight appear. Timed with the drunkard’s first serious totter (bar 41), the first change of key is not the normal step to the dominant but the beginning of a radical modulation – to G minor, with its overtones of impending disaster. The movement’s second phase thus arrives early as if the sudden onset of drunkenness comes as a shock to both inebriate and bystander. Already dangerously wayward, the music’s behavior now takes on a drunk’s capacity for self-delusion: an assured (but premature) return to the tonic key in bars 72-4, followed by a convincing lunge (in the wrong place) to the dominant. From there, the penultimate ritornello restores F major in a welter of new syncopation as the dance dissolves into an unreal, spinning world. With the sound of merry-making retreating to the background (violin parts, bars 97-105), the wretched man’s stupor finally induces sleep.

While the sonnet would have us believe that the season’s fresh air gently ‘invites’ the peasants to sweet slumber, the slow movement’s caption ‘Ubriachi dormienti‘ (sleeping drunks) leaves us in no doubt of the true cause. This slumber, after all, is not so very sweet. With frequent dissonance, unpredictable phrasing and extreme tonal dislocation, the Adagio seems rather to represent the fits and starts of confused dreams, and was appropriately reused later in a ghostly context as the movement called ‘Il sonno’ (Sleep) in two versions of La none (RV 104 and 439). Like the motif in Summer identified as y, the principal figure evokes an uneasy, troubled sense. An association between sleep and terrors is implicit, indeed, in the figure’s recurrence in ‘Sonno, se pur sei sonno e non orrore‘ sung by the imprisoned Manlius at the beginning of Act III of Tito Manlio RV 738 (1719). Even the rare direction ‘Il cembalo arpeggio‘ might indicate that the drunks are in need of relief; in Act I scene 10 of Dorilla in Tempe RV 709, harpsichord arpeggiation is similarly called for when Dorilla begs the gods for pity.

The finale, subtitled ‘La caccia‘, is a tour de force that perfectly reflects a vigorous outdoor romp. Possessing the common denominator of progressive animation though its episodes, it complements the first movement through parody to some extent. The peasants’ crudeness translates into the presumably genteel skill of the hunters, the antics and danger of the drunk into those of the quarry. Even the first solo resembles that of the earlier movement in its formality and harmonic style, with double-stopped figures derived from the ritornello. As is customary in a movement’s central phase, the band contributes important phrases of articulation in the form of bursts of gunfire (bars 82-6/242-6 and 92-6/252-6) – in demisemiquavers that signal both the musical climax and the animal’s demise.