Program Notes: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Jonathan Crow, leader & violin

Available to view March 26–April 15, 2021

Gabriela Lena Frank

“Coqueteos” from Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Dinuk Wijeratne

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Watch the composer’s introduction to this performance.

Antonio Vivaldi

The Four Seasons for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 8

I. Concerto in E Major (“Spring”)
II. Concerto in G Minor (“Summer”)
III. Concerto in F Major (“Autumn”)
IV. Concerto in F Minor (“Winter”)

A portrait of composer Antonio Vivaldi

Born: Venice, Italy, Mar 4, 1678
Died: Vienna, Austria, Jul 28, 1741
Composed: 1716–1717

Program Note

The Four Seasons was published in 1725, by the Dutch firm headed by Michel-Charles Le Cène, as the first four in a collection of 12 violin concertos bearing the overall title Il cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention), Op. 8.

In his lifetime, Vivaldi’s busy and productive career as composer, violinist, and teacher drew its due share of acclaim, not least for his pioneering role in the rise of the concerto. As might be expected, of his 500-plus concertos, more than 200 focus on his own instrument—the violin.

His reputation, however, suffered a severe lapse following his death, returning to widespread currency only during the years following the Second World War. During that 220-year “down time,” virtually his only piece to remain in the standard repertoire was The Four Seasons, its popularity based to a great degree on its accessibility as programmatic (descriptive) music, an area in which Vivaldi was also a pioneer.

In the Le Cène 1725 first edition, the solo violin part included four sonnets—based on a set of paintings of the four seasons by Marco Ricci, an Italian artist of the Baroque period—likely written by Vivaldi himself. There is one sonnet for each concerto, with block letters printed to the left of each sonnet to indicate where Vivaldi saw the movements of the concerto in relation to specific lines in the text. As such, the sonnets themselves serve well as “composer’s notes” on the structure of the four concertos, and are provided in translation on the next page.

Program note by Don Anderson

A Note on the Petrarchan Sonnet Form

Unlike the Shakespearean sonnet, which is based on three quatrains followed by a rhyming couplet, the so-called “Petrarchan” (Francesco Petrarca 1304–1374) sonnet, with which Vivaldi would have been intimately familiar, is based on an eight-line opening stanza (the octave), usually rhymed ABBA ABBA, which sets a scene, states a problem, or establishes an overall context. It is followed by a more flexibly rhymed sestet which acts on the octave in some way, or presents some counterpoint to it. Vivaldi works intricately within (and occasionally against) this Petrarchan sonnet form in terms of the breaks between movements in these four concertos.

These translations are based on those to be found in the entry on The Four Seasons Sonnets at en.wikisource.org.

The Four Seasons Sonnets

Spring (Concerto in E Major)

Allegro
Springtime is upon us. 
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are
softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar,
casting their dark mantle over heaven.
Then they die away to silence,
and the birds take up their magical songs once more.

Largo
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches
rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps,
his faithful dog beside him.

Allegro
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes,
nymphs and shepherds lightly dance
beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Summer (Concerto in G Minor)

Allegro non molto
Under a hard season, fired up by the sun
Man and flock both languish, and pine trees burn.
We hear the cuckoo’s voice; followed by
sweet songs of turtledove and finch.
Soft breezes stir the air, but, threatening,
the North Wind sweeps them suddenly aside.
The shepherd trembles,
fearing violent storms and his fate.

Adagio e piano – Presto e forte
The fear of lightning and fierce thunder
Robs his tired limbs of rest
As gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

Presto
Alas, his fears were justified
The Heavens thunder and roar; and hail
Cuts off the heads of the wheat, and damages the grain.

Autumn (Concerto in F Major)

Allegro
The peasant celebrates with songs and dances
the pleasure of a bountiful harvest.
And fired up by Bacchus’s liquor,
many end their revelry in sleep.

Adagio molto
Everyone is made to forget their cares and made to sing and dance
By the air which is tempered with pleasure
And (by) the season that invites so many, many
Out of sweetest slumber to blissful enjoyment.

Allegro
The hunters emerge at the new dawn,
And with horns and dogs and guns depart upon their hunting.
The wild beast flees and they follow its trail;
Terrified and tired by the great noise
of guns and dogs, the wounded beast,
tries futilely to flee, but harried, dies.

Winter (Concerto in F Minor)

Allegro non molto
To tremble from cold in the icy snow,
In the harsh breath of a horrid wind;
To run, stamping one’s feet every moment,
Teeth chattering in the extreme cold.

Largo
Before the fire to pass peaceful, contented days
while the rain outside pours down.

Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground,
And rising, hasten on across the ice in case it cracks.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite its locked and bolted doors...
This is winter, which, nevertheless,
brings its own delights.

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