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The Four Seasons

The latter-day revival of Italian instrumental music, the very bedrock of the late Baroque, waited for nearly 190 years after the death of Vivaldi. While this rediscovery of a virtually forgotten legacy is a 20th century phenomenon sparked by the likes of composers Alfredo Casella, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Ottorino Respighi and other musicians, as well as the scholars who discovered vast quantities of Vivaldi's manuscripts in northern Italy in the 1920s.

 

In 1939, Casella organized a historic Vivaldi Week at the ancient Tuscan hill "commune" of Siena, launching the revival of the most influential of all Italian concerto composers. A few short years earlier the now-ubiquitous "Four Seasons" surfaced and, according to some accounts, was first heard publicly in a piano, four-hands reduction. While it may be hard to believe that these immensely popular concertos only came to light in the '30s, it was not until the Italian chamber orchestra I Musici made their debut for Philips Records on a 1955 LP that "The Four Seasons" became an international hit. 

 

The revival of early Italian music owes an indirect debt to Giuseppe Martucci, a native of Capua who in 1867, at age eleven, entered the Naples Conservatory. Martucci introduced the corpus of 19th century European orchestral music from Germany and France to Italian audiences. Making his conducting debut in Naples, in January 1881, he performed works of Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. In 1888 he also conducted two performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Bologna. A pioneer in his own right, Martucci went on to compose two highly commendable symphonies—the first in 1895 modeled on Mozart's "Jupiter"—a couple of piano concertos and various other instrumental and chamber pieces. Significantly, Martucci's best-known composition student was Respighi. Yet Martucci's efforts arrived a generation too early to trigger the "neo-classical" movement that fired the imaginations of the aforementioned Italians, along with the likes of Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Bloch and many others.

 

Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751)

Concerto in D Minor, Op. 9, No. 2  (1722)

Allegro e non presto

Adagio

Allegro

 

Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni might well have remained forgotten but for the above-mentioned revival. His claim to the pantheon owes much to improvements to the double reeds—the oboe and bassoon—by French instrument makers in the 17th century. It also owes a debt to the rise of bel canto singing in contemporary opera, witness the long-phrased melody of the adagio movement played over broken chords, in this, one of twelve, concerti à cinque (concertos in five parts) published in 1722. (Baroque composers were keenly attracted to the idea of arousing emotions among their aristocratic patrons—the so-called 'doctrine of affects'—and, in the case of the opera's boisterous audiences, the public's craving for sensual excitement.) Likewise, the movement alludes to the da capo form (A-B-A) favored in baroque arias, complete with the implicit license for ornamental embellishments in the returning A section.

 

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Trittico Botticelliano  (1927)

La primavera

L'adorazione dei Magi

La nascita di Venere

 

Of his generation of Italian composers, Respighi is the great picture painter, conjuring detailed graphic imagery of the pines and fountains and festivals of Rome, with as much glitter, as well as some of the noisy blare, as Gershwin lavished on Paris and Grofé splashed across the Grand Canyon. But blare is no more found in the Botticelli Triptych than in Botticelli's glorious panels themselves. A student of even earlier music than that of the Baroque, Respighi had already composed two of the three suites called Ancient Airs and Dances when he completed the triptych in 1927 (and dedicated it to his American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.)

 

La primavera (Spring) shimmers with ecstatic trills, fresh as new verdure, in an instrumentally transparent and theme-rich fantasy that captures the exuberant spirit of the Vivaldi concerto of the same name. Listen for the antique-sounding trios for woodwinds. With modal allusions, the pastoral L'adorazione dei Magi invokes the ancient advent chant we know as O come, o come Emmanuel and, in its latter pages, the pastoral Italian Christmas song Tu scendi dalle stele (You come down from the stars.) La nascita di Venere opens with undulating high strings and intones a haunting melody in a rising crescendo to a climax in full light—Venus rising from the sea—then a brief recollection of the opening.

 

Alas, this joyous and radiant music must now come with a touch of sadness. The three great Botticelli panels at the Uffizi in Florence are today displayed in dark galleries and illuminated by extremely dim lighting. The original colors, not least the astonishing flesh tones, have suffered greatly from exposure to ultra-violet light.  

 

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Le quattro stagioni, from Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, Op. 8.  (1723)

 

"Vivaldi is greatly overrated, a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over," opined Igor Stravinsky. An odd comment from a composer who imbued each of his own notes with great significance—not unlike Vivaldi actually in "The Four Seasons." Today, performers of these works have made it clear that no single note among them sounds without programmatic implications. In noting that the four concertos mirror the images in four sonnets, apparently written by Vivaldi, violinist Gil Shaham said, "It's as if the music were a soundtrack to go along with these poems." If we are told that the viola in the second movement of the "Spring" concerto depicts a barking dog, isn't it reasonable to ask why doesn't the viola bark like a dog? In fact, Fabio Biondi, virtuoso founding leader of the now-twenty-year-old chamber orchestra Europa Galante, instructs his viola player to do just that. Hearing it played that way—along with the gnats buzzing in your face and ears in summer, the stumbling drunkard in autumn and the desperate skater who's broken through the ice covering a winter pond—is to recognize the composer's visionary note-for-note genius. To complain that Vivaldi merely turned scales and arpeggios—the stuff violinists must practice day-in and day-out in order to perfect and maintain their craft—into real music is similarly to miss the point. What composer doesn't use scales and arpeggios to make music? If, as is well-documented, Vivaldi's music instructed and was imitated by Johann Sebastian Bach, that should be good enough for anyone. However, it all depends on the imagination of the players who restore dots on a page into living music.

 

Spring (La primavera)

Allegro

Largo e pianissimo sempre

Danza pastorale: allegro

 

An exuberant ritornello (recurring theme) opens the first movement as three violins imitate bird songs with trills and repeating notes. A brook murmurs in undulating sixteenth notes. A brief thunderstorm temporarily interrupts the warbling birds. In the second movement a shepherd snoozes to a lovely melody, his dog warning off intruders (while the continuo players rest.) The third movement is a pastoral musette (bagpipe) dance.

 

Summer (L'estate)

Allegro non molto

Adagio; presto

Presto

 

The first movement represents the oppressive, enervating heat of summer, and the anxious call of a cuckoo, considered a bad omen, as well as songs of the goldfinch and turtledove. A gentle zephyr blows, to be suddenly interrupted by the fierce north wind and a battle between the two ensues causing the shepherd to lament pitiably the coming meteorological violence. In the second movement, gnats and flies (dotted rhythms) pester the poor shepherd while distant lightning and thunder portend a coming storm, which explodes in full fury in the last movement.

 

Autumn (L'autunno)

Allegro

Adagio molto

Allegro

 

A celebration of the harvest opens the first movement. An oafish drunkard disrupts the festivities but the villagers soon return to their dance and the drunkard gets sleepy. The drunkard uses the second movement to sleep off his bender while the harpsichord gives him sweet dreams (arpeggios). The third movement depicts a hunt, horns a-blaring, while the terrified prey tries to escape. Guns shoot and dogs bark. The poor hunted animal dies a pitiful death before the final ritornello. 

 

Winter (L'inverno)

Allegro non molto

Largo

Allegro

 

Icy cold winter opens with brittle harpsichord and staccato strings. The people stamp their freezing feet; their teeth chatter in the face of the bitter wind. Perhaps the most memorable melody of the four concertos dominates the second movement, now safe and warm at home, to the accompaniment of drenching rain drops outside and the fire crackling in the hearth. The third movement finds the villagers trying to walk and skate on ice covering a pond, which eventually cracks open. Dead leaves hang in a zephyr before a bursting winter storm completes the pageant.

 

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