Poetry, falling on the ice, and a barking dog, there is so much to hear and discover in Antonio Vivaldi’s masterpiece, The Four Seasons. In this episode, we get into the details and musical examples with a recording that brings a fresh perspective to this work published nearly 300 years ago.
John Banther: I'm John Banther and this is Classical Breakdown. From Classical WETA in Washington we take you behind the music as we get into it all with conversations with local and touring musicians, go on deep dives to figure out things like what exactly is a symphony. In this episode I'm joined by a Classical WETA host James Jacobs as we explore Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. There is so much to get into with this piece, like depicting in music dogs and insects, torrential storms, lightning and falling on the ice, even things written on the music you didn't know before.
James, Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, it has to be one of the most recorded and remixed pieces of all time, don't you think?
James Jacobs: Oh yeah. Absolutely. There's I think literally hundreds.
John Banther: Hundreds. And you've got this kind of stuff, you've got rock and roll.
James Jacobs: Oh yeah. And you know what? There's even recordings with violins and not guitars.
John Banther: Yeah. And it's a huge... also a thing for metal heads-
James Jacobs: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
John Banther: But Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, we're going to get into it in this episode because there's just so much detail, so many exciting things that over time it's easy to overlook and not realize just how much is in there. But this whole phenomenon of recording all of these, recording The Four Seasons hundreds of times, that's kind of an American invention, right?
James Jacobs: Oh yeah. Absolutely. It was in 1947 that a violinist named Louis Kaufman, who's actually... Many of you have probably heard him without knowing it because he's on the soundtrack of all the classic Hollywood MGM films from the '30s and '40s, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind. He was a concert master of the MGM orchestra, so if you hear of violin solo on I think Citizen Kane even you hear him.
Someone approached him saying there's these concertos by Vivaldi that have never been recorded, and he recorded them in one week, in the last week of December 1947 after midnight in Carnegie Hall with a pickup orchestra. And he had to do it really quickly because there was going to be a strike looming. And he finally got it all together and recorded The Four Seasons, and it became this global phenomenon with these American Hollywood pickup musicians.
John Banther: Amazing. Such a simple after midnight in Carnegie Hall kind of thing. So Vivaldi published this in 1725, and it was actually a part of a set of 12 concertos, (foreign languate) , A Contest of Harmony and Invention, and I do not speak Italian of course. But the first four concertos of this 12 set are known... They're called (foreign language) , The Four Seasons.
James Jacobs: The Four Seasons. Yes. And I think part of the reason they've become so popular is just because it's a global... I mean everybody knows what The Four Seasons are, and it's something... It's a universal concept, and of Vivaldi not only wrote this music, but he also wrote poetry to go with it so that we all understand how he translated these poetic concepts and meteorology into music.
John Banther: Yeah. It's something we all experience, these seasons, and the sonnets that he wrote pair perfectly. We're going to get into that, and we're going to get into it with a recording. And with these recordings and performances you can kind of lump them kind of generally into two categories. You've got musicians who are playing from the published version that was available to the public, and then those that are playing from the original manuscripts from Vivaldi, because there's a little bit of a difference between these.
James Jacobs: Yes. I think it's really hard to tell whether it was Vivaldi himself who did the alterations or the publisher, because Vivaldi of course was a virtuoso. And when you published music... You know, this was before recordings. It was a way of not only putting out music that you want everybody to play, but also it was a way of showing everybody what a great violinist you are by showing I can play this, and of course not everybody could. So what you see in the difference between the manuscript and the published version is the difference between what Vivaldi could really be capable of doing and what the publisher and perhaps Vivaldi himself thought everybody could be a capable of doing.
John Banther: And we're going to explore this piece with one recording in particular, and that's with violinists Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, and they are playing from these original manuscripts or copies of them. And in a couple of cases we'll listen to the other version too, because it's quite striking but the way Biondi plays this, it's just almost explosive, so let's jump into this, four concertos, four seasons, each one for the violin, and each one has three movements, a fast movement, a slow movement, and a fast movement.
A sonnet accompanies each one, and it's just brilliant what Vivaldi does with bringing that to life in the music. So I'm going to read the part of the sonnet that is for all of the first movement, and then we're going to go back in into all these little details. So it reads this, " 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 charming songs once more." So right from the beginning springtime is upon us.
And that's a simple opening. It does kind of show you... It's like an arrival, a kind of march going forward into spring.
James Jacobs: Yes. And it does feel that the sun is finally out, when you're finally waking up and it's a beautiful day. And it has that... It really captures that emotion perfectly.
John Banther: And it only gets into more detail from here. And what's actually fascinating is in the score, in the music, Vivaldi actually writes over notes like this is what's happening here in the sonnet. And sometimes he writing things that aren't even in the sonnets themselves. So right after the introduction we get to this line, " The birds celebrate her return with festive song," and it says the song of birds right when the violin soloist comes in.
It sounds like two little birds having a conversation.
James Jacobs: Yes. And there's a little bit of history about this that I think you would find fascinating. The whole idea of ornamentation, those little trills, those little turns, they do come directly from birdsong, and a lot of violinists were originally recorder players. Now the reason why recorder has a name recorder is because it's from the Latin for (foreign language) , to remember, and specifically to remember birdsong. It was invented by monks. And because monks went into... They had nothing else to do, so they played their recorders as a way of a sort of bird call, and then that was adopted into the violin. So what you're hearing is really the violinist into this legacy and continuum of instruments communicating and humans communicating with birds.
John Banther: And the trill... The trill is when you've got a note and it's going back and forth very fast to another note, usually a half step or a whole step away. And in the music it just says TR and then a squiggly line for as long as that's supposed to go on. But that really is... Those are birds coming to life right away with the introduction. And not long after that we get to the next line, " And murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes."
What comes to mind, the more that I listen to this, is that it sounds like a murmuring stream, like I'm the leaf going down these twist and turns of like a stream.
James Jacobs: Yes, I think you're right, because I was just thinking that's a very fast moving stream, but if you're a leaf being buffeted around by the water then that's probably what it feels like. Yeah, you're right.
John Banther: And then next we get to... What did we get to next? These thunderstorms, right? " Heralds of spring roar, casting their dark mantel over heaven."
And these are storms.
James Jacobs: Right. And what you're hearing here is really Vivaldi. I mean the whole concept of... Well, string instruments with bows, they were still fairly new instruments in terms of being able to do this sort of thing. And up to then they were basically used to play pretty tunes. But it was Vivaldi who really developed the idea that you couldn't just play tunes, because the idea of the bow on the string, these horse hairs that you're rubbing up against these wire strings, you can do really cool stuff and make really cool sounds.
And if you're a string player that's what you do most of the time when you're fooling around, is trying to figure out what cool sounds you can make. And it's amazing that Vivaldi translates that into sort of like it's not just fooling around, it's tone painting. And so he says string instruments cannot just sing melodies, but they can also make noises that can be used for expressive purposes.
John Banther: And in another concerto in another season, there's storms and they sound horrifying. They're terrifying. But in this one it's a sense of just a spring storm that brings those May flowers. And right after that the birds returned literally with the song of birds written in the score.
James Jacobs: And what I love about that passage is that you really feel the concern, you feel the worry sort of like just in that turn to the minor key. You sort of feel like, oh, what's going to happen? You can see the clouds coming up just in the music. It's brilliant, what Vivaldi does.
John Banther: And so with this first movement he's brought us kind of a natural progression of a stor, almost, springtime, the birds, then there's the rain, and then it clears and the birds are singing again. Now let's get into the second movement here. Let's hear what this part of the sonnet says.
James Jacobs: " On the flower strewn meadow with leafy branches rustling overhead the goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him."
John Banther: Now so far in the first movement we've got the birds, then the storm, and then the birds again. It's all kind of one at a time. But something is different about this movement.
James Jacobs: You hear all three of those scenes, the leafy branches rustling, the sleeping goatherd and the faithful dog all at the same time. And you hear the violas, which are the big violins, doing the dog, that bark. And you hear the rustling, and then that's the solo violin, which is the sort of dreaminess of the goatherd. And it's brilliant how he paints this scene. It's cinematic really.
John Banther: It's like theater almost. And what's what I love is that you've got the dog, the faithful dog beside him, but in the score it says over the viola part the barking dog, so it's that dog barking. So let's listen again to that, and you can hear the barking dog and the viola, then in the middle the violins, and then the goatherd sleeping over top.
Now a lot of recordings and a lot of performances don't have the viola really barking like a dog. It's kind of more symbolic. Here is kind of the other side of recording that we talked about with the two groups. This is Michel Schwalbe with Berlin Phil and Herbert von Karajan conducting this same exact thing.
That's a very lazy bark, right?
James Jacobs: Is that even a bark?
John Banther: No.
James Jacobs: But I think this is an important point, because you can hear different people doing the same exact... Well, it's probably different pop singers doing cover tunes. You can make it really into a completely different experience, and this is the same thing. And what's interesting is that both groups are playing the exact same notes. They didn't change the score at all. They just took different interpretive liberties from it. It's got the same tempo marking, the same notes, and it just shows you just what a performer does really.
John Banther: Exactly. So that's basically the whole second movement. It's all happening at the same time. And it brings us to the third movement of the spring, (foreign language) concerto, and the text says this in the sonnet, " Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring." And you get, like in the first movement, right from the beginning this festive sound and these bagpipes.
There's so many instances in music then that has that bagpipe sound to it, but I'm having... This is the earliest known example where I see it really kind of written in the music, the bagpipe sound, the drone.
James Jacobs: Oh, yeah. And what's interesting is that in the 17th century, it was actually an instrument called the musette, which was a small bagpipe that they actually used in the orchestra. But Vivaldi, it's almost like he could tell that, okay, that's not going to last, so you have to imitate the sound of the bagpipes, and it's actually more effective to do that. So you hear that drone going on in the lower strings, and he uses the resonance of the instruments so that it really does sound like the drone of a bagpipe really even more than an actual bagpipe would if you used it in this context.
John Banther: Right. And of course these are violin concertos, so there's some beautiful violin moments within.
And what I love about Fabio Biondi is these slides between these notes that add just a whole new kind of texture to it.
James Jacobs: Absolutely. And you can really hear those words, shepherds lightly dance, brilliant canopy of spring. The way he plays it, it's really like those words, those images come to life.
John Banther: And that brings us to the next season, (foreign language) , or summer. Now this might be one of my favorites of this whole thing, what's here. Can you read us a bit of the opening movement sonnet?
James Jacobs: " Under a hard season fired up by the sun languishes man, languishes the flock and burns the pine. We hear the cuckoo's voice. Then sweet songs of the turtledove and finch are heard. Soft breezes stirred the air. But threatening, the north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd, trembles, fearing violent storms and his fate."
John Banther: And just think about that first line as we listen to this, " Under a hard season fired up by the sun languishing man, the flock and burning of the pine."
I feel like I'm in the desert or something, where you hear that whah, whah, whah. It's just like the waviness when you're looking at the horizon.
James Jacobs: Absolutely. And I want us all to appreciate for a moment just how revolutionary this passage is because, again, music is generally we think, oh, you play a melody, but here he's not playing in melodies. He's playing in gestures. He's playing in these little moments that feels so dramatic and so human that really mirror the rhythms of real life and not as the conventions of music up to that time. And that's one of the reasons why this piece is so popular I think, is because it communicates so directly.
John Banther: Languishing in the sun it's so hot. And then in the next little bit here everything changes. We hear the cuckoo's voice.
When you think oh, the cuckoo's voice, you think oh, here's a nice little cuckoo singing, but this is kind of aggressive. It's startling, it's cuckoo, it's like kind of the time, telling the passing of time, but it's aggressive, like you're running out of time kind of thing.
James Jacobs: Yeah. Absolutely. And it sort of reminds us that when we listen to actual birds in the wilderness it actually can be frightening. It actually can be a little bit menacing. It's not cute at all.
John Banther: And compared with that there's these sweet songs of turtledove and finch. I'm having a little trouble with this turtledove song.
These sweet songs, but it's this turtledove, that it sounds like it's languishing too.
James Jacobs: Yes. Well, in the baroque era, and you actually get this even in Shakespeare, the turtledove is as much a symbol as it is an actual idea of a bird. And I think what Vivaldi is playing on here is how the turtledove represents in literary terms a kind of idea of longing. of longing in love, and an idea of faithfulness as well, and the fickleness of that. I think he's playing on what would've been the accepted ideas of the turtledove as much as he is playing on the actual sounds of the actual bird.
John Banther: Oh, okay. Yeah. And then it goes on with, " The soft breezes stir the air, but threatening the north wind sweeps them suddenly aside." It's like in summer you've got this huge storm coming, but what comes right before it is this really soft, cool wind.
James Jacobs: He's really portraying just the unpredictability of nature, the wildness in all of its power in that passage.
John Banther: And it already sounds... This is our second storm. We already had a storm in spring. This one sounds different.
James Jacobs: Yeah. And there was more storms to come.
John Banther: Oh yeah. Because after this the shepherd is scared, he's trembling.
It sounds like he's pleading.
James Jacobs: Well, yeah. He might lose his sheep and he might lose his living.
John Banther: Yeah. And himself.
James Jacobs: This is serious business, you know?
John Banther: It's like he's trying to... He's looking for shelter, looking for somewhere to take them. And from there we get into the next movement, the slow movement for summer, " The fear of lightning and fierce thunder robs his tired limbs of rest as gnats and flies buzz furiously around." And this is similar to the slow movement in spring. Listen for all of these things happening at the same time.
That kind of startled Me.
James Jacobs: Yeah. Absolutely. And just listen to the... I mean they're all playing violins, violas and cellos, and we have this idea about what they sound like, right? But in there you feel like you're listening to completely different instruments playing each... And what Vivaldi is doing there... And also the musicians playing this particular recording are exploring all the different colors that string instruments can make that can create this picture of lightning and thunder and weariness and insects.
John Banther: So the insects are the violins. So they're playing pretty low on the instrument, and it sounds like they're playing close to the bridge to get that kind of metallicy sound.
James Jacobs: Right. It's what they call (foreign language) , or on the wood. They might actually be playing on the wood part of the bow instead of the hair, and they're playing very close to the bridge. It's called (foreign language) , meaning the bridge. It's an effect that we usually associate with the 20th century, but here's Vivaldi doing it in the early 18th century.
John Banther: Yeah. And the bridge, of course, it's part that holds the strings up off of the violin or the cello. And that is the second movement, kind of like in the other concerto, where it's all these things happening at the same time. And that lightning, that thunder is just... It catches you off guard.
James Jacobs: Well, it's interesting. Notice already the difference between how he uses slow movements and how he uses fast movements. So in the slow movements, since he can't go as fast, what he does is he compresses it so that it's sort of almost a vertical experience instead of a horizontal one, and so that way he gets in that much more imagery in a compressed amount of time. It's really brilliant.
John Banther: And that brings us to the third movement. And you would think, okay, you've got this... It's the summer and it's hot, and then there's a storm, you'd expect a lot of times this is going to be the storm clearing and the heavens opening up and all is okay, but it's not quite like that, is it?
James Jacobs: Vivaldi's summer is not very much fun.
John Banther: No.
James Jacobs: We think of summer as being a fun season, but not according to Vivaldi. This is serious business. In a way sounds less fun than winter does. Let's hear what Vivaldi, the poet, has to say. " Alas, his fears were justified. The heavens thunder and roar, and with hail cut the head off the wheat and damages the grain."
John Banther: And knowing the sonnets more, it makes me really listen to this and appreciate it in a whole new way.
James Jacobs: Yes. And it's interesting, because I just really thought about this, because it says, " cuts the head off the wheat." And the way Vivaldi makes that picture with these really violent and choppy notes, it's actually very similar to how he did a setting of a psalm called (foreign language) , in which there's this word (foreign language) , about the cutting off of heads, and he uses almost exactly the same musical imagery, and it's very violent. And what he's really illustrating here is, again, this is serious business, you lose your crops. There's no fooling around there.
John Banther: Yeah. It's not a happy ending for the summer. Actually I want to play the ending, because this sounds equally... It sounds creepy.
The way they play that last note, to me it's like in a movie or something, almost like Aladdin, swallowed up by the sand and there's no evidence left of you. It's just kind of creepy.
James Jacobs: I think it's no accident that that particular movement is very popular with heavy metal guitarists, because it has that sense of apocalypse, that sense just of shredding.
John Banther: Definitely. And we will get into the next season. Let's take a break.
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Now we get into the third season, (foreign language) , or autumn, and it starts with this sonnet, " Celebrates the peasant with songs and dances. The pleasure of a bountiful harvest and fired up by Bacchus' liquor, many end their revelry in sleep." And, again, a lot of these start with kind of a little celebration, and this one definitely has that.
Sounds like a party.
James Jacobs: Absolutely. But it's interesting listening to this, after listening to spring, how Vivaldi manages to make this sound like fall instead of spring. And he does this in a very clever way, because in spring he uses a key that uses lots of open strings on the string instruments. So you hear lots of very open resonances. But here in this key of F, it's it's a little bit more muted. So you hear very subtly. It's brilliant the way that Vivaldi does that. But of course it's still lots of fun. Now you talk about Bacchus' liquor. Tell us who Bacchus was.
John Banther: Bacchus is the god of the grape harvest and of wine making, and you can definitely hear some wine influence in this example.
What's interesting is that sounds like Bacchus can hold his wine. He's with it in that example. But at the end in the music... It's kind of hard to almost hear it the first time, but at the end, when it goes up and down, in the music it says drunk in those in the other parts, not Bacchus' part. But then it ends everyone falling asleep.
It sounds like when I'm listening I've gone back into the pub three hours later and everyone is there, but everyone is kind of passed out and fallen asleep on the table.
James Jacobs: You bring up a really good point, because what just occurred to me is just how primal and how universal this is, because everything he talks about could talk about the entire history of agricultural society back for millennia, but he could also be talking about how our attitudes or reactions to the weather in modern times, whether it's like the weather is starting to turn, time to get a drink in a bar, the way we feel those same rhythms even in our urban life, and that was as true as in Vivaldi's time as it is now. And it's, again, one of the amazing examples of universality in his music.
John Banther: Everyone experiences seasons. Everyone maybe at some point experiences wine.
James Jacobs: Exactly.
John Banther: So getting into the second movement, it says this with a sonnet, " Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance by the air which is tempered with pleasure and by the season that invites so many, many out of their sweetest slumber, to find enjoyment." And with the music it's a little interesting because it says over top of it drunken sleepers at the start of this.
So they're having some very interesting dreams. But what's interesting is if you think about what the harpsichord is playing, it's not really written in the music.
James Jacobs: No. And, again, one of the things that's so revolutionary about this particular movement is that Vivaldi completely forgets that it's a concerto. It has nothing to do with the violin. It's no showing off at all. He's just interested in creating this image of a lot of people sleeping, of sort of mass slumber and dream and dream state. So it's really in the surface of the music, this completely static, the way the strings barely move and the harpsichord. What are the exact things that he says the harpsichord is to do? Is it-
John Banther: Arpeggio, playing notes that are kind of outlining a chord.
James Jacobs: Right, which could be the flickering of our eyes during an REM cycle, right? And you hear that, and it's just... Eespecially the particular kind of sleep that happens after if you're sleeping off-
John Banther: A couple of glasses of wine. Yeah.
James Jacobs: Exactly. And it's just biological and an exact portrait of how this could happen. It's amazing music.
John Banther: Unlike the other concertos, this is all just one scene painted at the same time, so it is just like you said, it's just kind of floating in there through the movement. And then it brings us to the last movement of the autumn concerto, and what does it say here for the sonnet?
James Jacobs: " The hunters emerge at the new dawn, and with horns and dogs and guns depart upon their hunting. The beast flees and they follow its trail, terrified and tired of the great noise of guns and dogs. The beast, wounded, threatens languidly to flee, but harried dies."
John Banther: You can totally hear that opening line, " Hunters emerge at the new dawn with horns and dogs," right at the opening of this.
I can really hear what Vivaldi is depicting this example, because my wife and I have a couple of thoroughbreds, so we're in the horse scene a little bit, and at an event there was a kind of fox hunt demonstration. So from the distance over a hill you heard all of these hounds and riders with their red coats coming over a hill from a distance getting closer and closer and louder and louder, just like in that example. But they get hold of the beast and the beast flees
James Jacobs: And notice how much the violin throughout all these concertos has to constantly change characters. One moment he might be a sleeping shepherd, in the next moment he's this beast flying away. Well, it's showing off the violinist's skill and it's also showing off... Basically I think Vivaldi is trying to show off what the violin can do and all the different aspects that a violin can play, really roles that a violin can play like an actor.
John Banther: Yeah. I've heard you say that before, and especially with this piece you have to be an actor. You're really setting scenes. I mean everyone has to be at some point when they're playing this. And the beast flees, but the beast is wounded and the beast dies.
But it's okay for the hunters.
James Jacobs: Right. Exactly. It's a sad ending for the beast, but it's sort of just part of the cycle of life and nature for everyone else. And so what's amazing about that is that you actually do hear the dying of the beast, but it's not a tragedy.
John Banther: Right. It moves on. I think autumn has actually kind of become my favorite real life season since moving and living in Washington for a couple of years. I've lived in places where you don't get all the seasons either. It's always hot or it's kind of always cold, but there's something crisp that you can even hear in the air of this concerto.
James Jacobs: Oh, absolutely. Actually autumn has always been my favorite season, and perhaps part of that is because it's one of the few seasons that you can actually experience all over the country. And I've lived all over the country as opposed to some other seasons that can be unpleasant or... At any rate, the point being is that yeah, you really do hear that quality of air in that concerto, and I do think it has to do with, as I was saying before, the way he uses the string instruments in this particular tonality that create this really sort of unique sound world.
John Banther: (foreign language) , winter. This sounds ice ice cold, and it starts off very, very cold. In the sonnet it says, " To tremble from cold in the icy snow, in the harsh breath of a horrid wind, to run, stamping one's feet every moment, our teeth chattering in the extreme cold." The opening of this is very, very interesting in this recording.
The harpsichord is painting the whole scene here. And in the music they don't have that. It's just kind of a guide of chords of what you should play.
James Jacobs: Right. All I can think is that every film composer has ripped this off to portray suspense, and to portray the cold, and to portray... It all started here. This is what invented that musical trope, was this moment in this music, of how you can create that emotion of suspense and terror in music.
John Banther: And all of these different recordings have their own merits of course, but you can hear a more typical way that this part is played in that other recording we've been sampling with Michel Schwalbe.
With the harpsichord just playing the rhythm and the chord not painting the whole thing.
James Jacobs: Absolutely. And that's, again, another tribute to Vivaldi's artistry, is because he wrote music that he knew full well everybody was going to bring their own interpretation into. And he lived in an age when musicians' attitude towards a score was more like a jazz musician's attitude towards a chart. You put your own stamp on it. You never just played the notes on the page. Vivaldi knew this, and yet he wrote music that would work no matter really how you did it.
John Banther: And it gets from to tremble from the cold and the icy snow too, where the violin soloist comes in, the harsh breath of a horrid wind.
But I don't wonder what that was like for the first violinist to get the music and then to see where they come in for the big solo, a horrid wind.
James Jacobs: But again, I want to talk a little bit about how Vivaldi was showcasing the violin as an instrument, because, sure, an oboe could do certain kinds of things and the new fangled clarinet that Vivaldi was one of the first people to write for, could do certain things, the trumpet could do certain things. But only one instrument could do all of those things, and that's the violin, and that's what Vivaldi was trying to showcase in this piece. As much as his own compositional skill was, really these are all the things the violin can do.
John Banther: And there's a famous... In the next section, where it says in the music literally with the sonnet written in, " to run stamping one's feet." This is also I think, and one that maybe you can agree with, is used a lot within movies and sound scores.
You could see two people looking back and forth at each other, maybe on a bridge, and maybe moving fast, and-
James Jacobs: But it does sound cold, and it sounds teeth chattering, stamping one's feet. But definitely the idea of drama, just drama unfolding in real time. You get this idea of real time that usually... And I think that's another thing that's very unique about this music, is it's up... So much of music was, you know, you sort of waited your turn, you had your tune, and then you had this other tune, and it was like a dance. It all unfolded in neat phrases of equal length. And this was like we have no time for that. We're not trying to just do this dance. We're trying to portray what life is really like, and I think that's the way he captures that is incredible.
John Banther: And it sounds cold, not just because I guess because it's really high in the violin, but Biondi is getting... It sounds like he's getting a smaller sound, where he's getting more sound into a smaller space.
James Jacobs: Yeah. And I think that's another difference between baroque playing and the playing that became standardized in the 19th century, where everything became about projecting like an opera singer projects. You've got one tone, and it's a beautiful tone, and it can project to the last row of a 3, 000 seat opera house. And in Vivaldi's time you could dare to be intimate, so you were only playing soft enough that only the person in front of you could hear it, and yet you could do that in Vivaldi's time because there was a lot less ambient noise and you were playing much smaller halls. And so you can capture that almost frightening sense of intimacy in the playing.
John Banther: Yeah. It sounds exactly right, what you're saying, how it sounds and everything. And in the next example I love what Biondi does here, and I can't find anywhere in the music of what he could possibly be playing.
This is the teeth chattering in the cold.
James Jacobs: Yeah. He's actually just throwing his bow onto the strings instead of... It's basically using the violin as a percussion instrument.
John Banther: And you don't hear it played a lot this way. Often you hear it kind of played this way. This is Michel Schwalbe.
And maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I was at the dentist yesterday, but this chattering teeth, I hear it almost in a painful way with Biondi, hitting the bow against the strings.
James Jacobs: Right. And I think that's a way of playing in a way... What Vivaldi meant, and I think that's why Vivaldi put the words of the poem into the score, because he's telling the musicians play those words, play the imagery as much as you play the actual notes, and that's what Biondi is doing. He's taking it in a way maybe less literally, but more seriously in terms of the gestalt of what Vivaldi was trying to do.
John Banther: And that brings us to the slow movement of winter.
James Jacobs: " Before the fire, to pass peaceful, contented days while the rain outside pours down."
Really sounds so much like sitting inside by a fire while there's rain, so you hear that little pluck in the strings, the rain outside, and then you hear the person inside warming himself by the fire, and then in almost a subliminal way... And he only puts it in one of two versions of this piece, you hear the cello with its pulse almost portraying the fire itself. So again, just in all the others movements, he has these three layers that we're listening to at the same time to create this scene for us that plays out.
John Banther: And subliminal, I like what you said, that because with the cello that's what it is. It's almost if you're noticing it it's too much. It's supposed to be in the background, like when you see a movie with a fireside and you hear a little crackle, the crackle isn't like an explosion, it's just in the background setting that scene. And you can only... Before I didn't really actually know the exact text for this movement, but now it means contented days just passing by. It's like the clock is ticking, the rain is outside, the fire, it's just kind of beautiful.
James Jacobs: And again, it's such a universal image. This could have been cavemen, and it could be today, looking out the window of our high rise apartment. It's a universal idea.
John Banther: And getting into the final movement of winter, this is quite a end for the sonnet. It says, " 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 across the ice lest it cracks up. We feel the chill of north winds coarse through the home, despite the locked and bolted doors. This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights." And, again, as he's writing in the music all these little kinds of lines and cues here, and this is treading across the ice slowly.
The way this violence slides around, it reminds me of if you have a ice cube on a table and you just touch it and it kind of just glides away.
James Jacobs: Well, it reminds me of the time I actually slipped on the ice and broke my elbow, and he's really... Because I get this. And ever since then the way I walk on the ice is the way he's playing.
John Banther: Yeah. It's very cautious.
James Jacobs: Very cautious, no matter how good my treads are. But of course it's in the music too. But the way Biondi is playing, again he's being a dancer, a sort of actor here as he's portraying the music
John Banther: And you've got, " Turning abruptly, slip and crashing onto the ground."
James Jacobs: Yeah, you don't want to do that.
John Banther: No. And then here as it's going on, now you're going fast across the ice because you don't want it to break up. But you hear that fall, which I'm sorry for you, you probably hear a lot more than I do. I've come close. I've lived in Boston too, and that's a lot of ice on those sidewalk.
James Jacobs: Oh, yeah.
John Banther: But the end of this one, in the Italian and then in the English one, they're a little bit different. In the English one you don't have... It's probably more context for non- Italians or non- Europeans, but in the Italian it talks about sirocco and bora. Sirocco are these winds that come off the coast of North Africa, blow over the Mediterranean and across Italy, and I didn't really know about that until this. So you have these sirocco winds, and then the bora, which are these winds from the north, and that's also the god of the north cold wind, that's the bringer of winter.
In the Italian translation it ends with this. It says, " To hear leaving their iron gated house, sirocco, bora, and all the winds in battle." And that's a different sound to it. They both end with the same, " This is winter and nonetheless its own delights." But in between you have in the Italian version the sirocco and the bora and the winds battling, and I think it brings it together in the music.
James Jacobs: I have to admit I'm not really hearing much of delight.
John Banther: And that's the way this ends, " This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights," because you've had in the first one the trembling cold, the chattering teeth, then you had the nice fireside. But in the end with the ice and the cracking and the falling on the ground and this battle, and here's how it all ends.
I think of it has its own delights, and now that I'm living in this area where you have all four seasons it's like the human experience. Even in tragedy or kind of whatever you're experiencing in life, it's its own delights in itself. Although it's tragic, it has its own delight, and it's the human experience that we all have to have.
James Jacobs: Yeah. And I think the way he ends winter... As we heard, I mean summer also ends in this sort of tragic way, but in summer it ends in this very uncertain way, where it's almost like we're helpless against it, whereas in winter it's sort of like, well, this is the cycle of life. This is our common lot as humans. And as we've seen throughout this whole cycle, because I think it's no accident this comes at the end of the cycle, this is the thing that binds us, these common experiences are common relationship to the elements. And so he ends on that minor chord, but that it doesn't necessarily mean... As you said, it's not necessarily sad or tragic, it just sort of it is what it is.
John Banther: Yeah, it's what it is. Almost like with what you were saying before with the beast dies at the end of autumn, but it's okay for the hunters, they go on. For us as humans it's winter and it's the end, but it goes on without you kind of thing and that idea.
James Jacobs: Right. Exactly. And he also knows that since he started the cycle with spring that after that chord we could just start the whole cycle all over again and go right back to spring, which cleverly enough is just exactly one step up from winter.
John Banther: In terms of pitch, yes, it's just right there. It's so close. So that's Four Seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter, these concertos that are just... They are played today so much because there's so much still to discover and love in them, no matter how many times I've heard them.
James Jacobs: Absolutely. You can never get tired of them. Every time you listen to it you hear another aspect of it. And as we've heard, you can play them in a lot of different ways, which is why there are so many recordings of them. Because I think all violinists are hungry. It's like their way of showing what they can do. Again, it's like different singers covering the same song. It's showing okay, this is how I can do this role. Or like all actors wanting to do Hamlet. This is their way of showing this is how I can portray the cycle of life.
John Banther: Perfect. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. For more information on Vivaldi's The Four Seasons visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can also send us an email at classical breakdown@ wta. org. If you enjoyed this episode be sure to subscribe in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from Classical WETA.