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The Four Seasons: Spring’s Raptures

The cycle’s brightest, most optimistic music is heard first, as befits the season. It is also the most formal: a ritornello with the heaviness and poise of a courtly dance, suited to the proclaiming of a goddess. Vivaldi adapted the ritornello for the opera Giustino (RV 717,1724) as a short sinfonia, also in E major, during which the goddess Fortune appears in a brightly lit scene. We hear immediately an aspiration to the note b2 in bar 1 and throughout the ritornello, and solos that begin on the fifth of the chord (bars 14 and 59). These open sounds of exposed fifths seem to reach high to the deity in ‘the beloved roof; the same rationale might also explain why the bolts of lightning in bar 45 flash up – also to b2 – not down. The stormy passage, for which the first modulation has been reserved, presents no great sense of conflict. It might have been worked in simply to add a transitory event to an otherwise static scene and to provoke some volatility at the movement’s center. Nevertheless, the birds’ feathers are somewhat ruffled as a result (bars 59-65), as if to show that Nature will not remain faithful. In opera, Vivaldi had employed the same combination of tiered nightingale-calls and rising chromaticism – innocent cheerfulness and uneasy wistfulness – when addressing infidelity in love.

In the slow movement, the gentle rustling of plants recalls the figure that evoked the wind-lapped streams (first movement, from bar 31): the key word in the sonnet, for both contexts, is murmuring. Now in C# minor, the music has the zest of immense freshness and perhaps a hint of the wistfulness that crept in earlier. Hushed violins (when played well) can truly achieve that eeriness one senses when trees in bloom are swept by breezes. The dog’s barks are articulated sempre molto forte e strappato (very loud and with ‘wrenched’ bowing throughout) – not because they must be loud in an absolute sense (for how could the goatherd sleep?) but because the viola player alone provides a percussive bass.

More festive celebration follows, this time in rustic compound metre and with drones associated with bagpipes. Aptly for a Danza pastorale, the movement has a rondo-like structure, reverting to the tonic key for a central passage (bars 40-53/162-75) well before the end-play is expected, and imposing it abruptly in bar 58/180 immediately after a cadence in the dominant. The last effect is particularly reminiscent of the corresponding context in the rondo-finale of Bach’s violin concerto in E major.

According to the sonnet, the finale concerns nothing but dancing. However, Vivaldi employs a structural ‘plot’ of the kind examined in Chapter 3, where tonic-minor pathos enhances the end-play. Musical ‘events’ occur in rapid succession from bar 61/183 – the sudden introduction of E minor, a modal shift to D major, a new sequence and then plaintive chromaticism – and of course they do not necessarily mean anything. But one wonders if such a disruptive passage is not intended to remind us that happiness can never be entirely carefree. In this connection we notice the appearance of the four-note descent. Absent from the first two movements, it is conspicuous throughout the finale in various guises. The motif will occur equally prominently in Summer, seemingly as a symbol of disaster. If Vivaldi hoped that it would have that sinister implication, he may well have reasoned that it must first insinuate itself as part of spring’s innocence.