The Wall Street Journal: What's Still Timeless About 'Seasons' by Daniel Hope
By DANIEL HOPE - I first experienced Vivaldi as a toddler at Yehudi Menuhin's festival in Gstaad, Switzerland, in 1975. One day I heard what I thought was birdsong coming from the stage. It was the opening solo of "La Primavera" from the "Four Seasons." It had such an electrifying effect that I still call it my "Vivaldi Spring." How was it possible to conjure up so vivid, so natural a sound, with just a violin?
Opinions of Vivaldi divide between those who adore and those who despise him. Ask the average person if he recognizes a classical melody, however poorly hummed, and he will probably nod enthusiastically at the second theme of "Spring" from the "Four Seasons." On the other hand, Igor Stravinsky summed up the case for the other side when he quipped, "Vivaldi wrote one concerto, 400 times."
Yes, Vivaldi was incredibly prolific. Nonetheless, his most famous work remains his "Four Seasons." To understand this masterpiece, it helps to shed a little light on the rise and fall of one of the greatest violinists of the 18th century. Born in Venice in 1678 into a desperately poor family, Vivaldi chose the priesthood early on—it offered good chances of advancement. But his plans were scuppered when his severe asthma meant that he was unable to conduct long masses and because, gossip has it, he would nip out for a glass of something during the sermon.
What changed his life forever was an unusual job offer. In 1703 a Venetian orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, which provided musical training to the illegitimate and abandoned young daughters of wealthy noblemen, asked Vivaldi to direct its orchestra. Vivaldi understood immediately that he had a unique ensemble at his disposal. Many of his greatest works were written for these young ladies to perform. Very soon, all Europe was enthralled.
He remained there for 12 years and, after an itinerant period working in Vicenza and Mantua, returned to Venice in 1723. The 1720s were a difficult time. The bursting of the "South Sea Bubble" triggered a recession that spread across Europe. Vivaldi needed an income. So in 1723 he set about writing a series of works he boldly titled "Il Cimento dell' Armonia e dell'invenzione" ("The trial of harmony and invention"), Opus 8. It consists of 12 concerti, seven of which—"Spring," "Summer," "Autumn" and "Winter" (which make up the "Four Seasons"), "Pleasure," "The Hunt" and "Storm at Sea"—paint astonishingly vivid, vibrant scenes. In "Storm at Sea," Vivaldi reached a new level of virtuosity, pushing technical mastery to the limit as the violinist's fingers leap and shriek across the fingerboard, recalling troubled waters.
In the score, each of the four seasons are prefaced by four sonnets, possibly Vivaldi's own, that establish each concerto as a musical image of that season. At the top of every movement, Vivaldi gives us a written description of what we are about to hear. These range from "the blazing sun's relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering" ("Summer") to peasant celebrations ("Autumn") in which "the cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber." Images of warmth and wine are wonderfully intertwined. When the faithful hound "barks" in the slow movement of "Spring," we experience it just as clearly as the patter of raindrops on the roof in the largo of "Winter." No composer of the time got music to sing, speak and depict quite like this.
Vivaldi's fame spread. He received commissions from King Louis XV of France and Rome's Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. When Prince Johann Ernst returned to his court at Weimar from an Italian tour, he brought with him a selection of Vivaldi's earlier, 12-concerto "L'Estro Armonico" ("Harmonic Inspiration") and presented it to the young organist Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was so taken with the music that he rearranged several of the concertos for different instrumentation. A legend was born. Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach exclaimed: "Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment—splendid—to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be: he brought his fingers up to only a straw's distance from the bridge, leaving no room for the bow—and that on all four strings with imitations and incredible speed."
But Vivaldi's fame was eventually to become his greatest enemy. People said that "Il Prete rosso" ("the red priest," due to his flowing red locks) was surely in league with the devil—seducing those poor defenseless orphans, whose corsets he untied with a mere flick of his bow. The pope threatened him with excommunication. Suddenly, he was out of fashion. Once again he was broke. In May 1740, he headed to Vienna, where Emperor Charles VI had once offered him a position. He died there a year later, and was buried in a pauper's grave.
Centuries passed. Dust gathered on the red priest's music. A revival of sorts began when scholars in Dresden began to uncover Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1920s. But what really redeemed him was the record industry. Alfredo Campoli released a live recording of the "Four Seasons" in 1939. But, at least indirectly, the greatest revival of the "Seasons" occurred thanks to Hollywood. Louis Kaufman, an American violinist and concertmaster for more than 400 movie soundtracks, including "Gone With the Wind" and "Cleopatra," recorded the "Four Seasons" for the Concert Hall Society. It won the 1950 Grand Prix du Disque.
Today the "Four Seasons," with more than 1,000 available recordings, are not just rediscovered—they are being reimagined. Astor Piazzolla, Uri Caine, Philip Glass and others have all created their own versions. In Spring 2012, I received an enigmatic call from the British composer Max Richter, who said he wanted to "recompose" the "Four Seasons" for me. His problem, he explained, was not with the music, but how we have treated it. We are subjected to it in supermarkets, elevators or when a caller puts you on hold. Like many of us, he was deeply fond of the "Seasons" but felt a degree of irritation at the music's ubiquity. He told me that because Vivaldi's music is made up of regular patterns, it has affinities with the seriality of contemporary postminimalism, one style in which he composes. Therefore, he said, the moment seemed ideal to reimagine a new way of hearing it.
I had always shied away from recording Vivaldi's original. There are simply too many other versions already out there. But Mr. Richter's reworking meant listening again to what is constantly new in a piece we think we are hearing when, really, we just blank it out. The album, "Recomposed By Max Richter: Four Seasons," was released late last year. With his old warhorse refitted for the 21st century, the inimitable red priest rides again.
article appeared August 23, 2013, on page C13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal