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Event is Past

Event is Past

Program Notes

The iconic city of Venice has been the birthplace of numerous figures in the history of politics and culture: Giorgione, Titian, and Palladio; Marco Polo and John Cabot; lovers from Catullus to Casanova; popes and poets, philosophers and footballers. Even more important has been its inspiration to creative artists – the fascination exuded by its network of canals, the mystery of navigating through its quiet inner city, the mix of cultures and peoples, its history and power.

Among native-born Venetian composers, none is so beloved as Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Almost three centuries ago, Vivaldi composed his most famous works and the most significant examples of Baroque program music. The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are the opening works in Vivaldi’s Opus 8, a set of violin concertos published in 1725. That set actually contains twelve concertos, but the brilliance and popularity of the first four have generally obscured the remaining works. The Four Seasons epitomize various aspects of Vivaldi’s mature concerto style, including the three-movement, fast-slow-fast arrangement and idiomatic instrumental writing. But they also were influential for supporting connections between program music and an accompanying narrative.

Vivaldi chose to publish each concerto with a corresponding sonnet, and they are reproduced below. Some scholars believe Vivaldi himself penned these poems, though their authorship remains in doubt. We do know that, in his sketches, Vivaldi correlated passages from the sonnets directly to specific passages in the music. Sound effects range from broadly evocative (thunder and wind) to more directly mimetic (bird calls, a barking dog). But rather than creating just a sequence of effects, Vivaldi conveys a sense of narrative progression by introducing the accompanying sonnets. There is an irony at work here. On one hand, Vivaldi so effectively captures moments from the sonnets in sound, that it would seem redundant to offer any kind of description in words. And yet musical pictorialism is never a one-to-one correspondence; rapid repeated notes, for instance, do not always signify wind, let alone something so specific as the North Wind. We can continue to argue about reading stories or images into music, generally speaking. But here, in The Four Seasons, Vivaldi seems expressly to be asking us to make that leap with him.


1. Allegro
The festive Spring has arrived,
The birds celebrate her return with happy songs,
And the brooks of the gentle Zephyrs
With sweet murmurs flow, but,
The sky is covered in a dark mantle
And lightning and thunder announce a storm.
When quiet returns, the birds again take up their lovely songs.

By virtue of its place at the head of The Four Seasons, Spring opens with one of the most recognizable themes in all of classical music. The E major tonality effuses brightness with every bow stroke. The main theme repeatedly ascends to settle on the fifth note of the scale (B), adding a feel of expansiveness. After a series of bird calls, we encounter trickling springs, thunder, and flashes of lightning that lead to a minor-mode variant of the main theme. Ultimately Vivaldi will conclude the movement with the sunnier strains of the opening material. Thus brief suggestions of a tempest are enclosed within the reassuring frame of radiant E major. It is an aesthetic shared by the 18th century generally, as evidenced in its gardens, which preferred to confine and shape wild nature within clearly-defined boundaries.

2. Largo
And in the flower-rich meadow,
To the gentle murmur of leaves and plants
The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog at his side.

The Largo, scored for string quartet, presents three overlapping gestures that suggest a nocturnal setting: the distinctive barking dog in viola, murmuring plants in the inner strings, and a sleeping goatherd theme in solo violin. In musical terms, we have a simple chordal framework that allows the solo violinist to embellish at will.

3. Allegro pastorale
To the merry sounds of a rustic bagpipe
Nymphs and shepherds dance in their beloved spot
When Spring appears in its brilliance.

The Finale clearly envisages a rustic dance. Back again are the sunny E major and emphases on the resonant fifth scale step (B), which evokes the bagpipes mentioned in the accompanying sonnet. It is easy to be drawn in by Vivaldi’s shimmering surfaces, playing the identification game as various birds, dogs, and dancers have their moment in the sun. But this concerto rewards a purely musical study as well, with its masterful balance between solo episodes and full ensemble and its use of harmonic sequence to reach unexpected keys. Without that sense of bold tonal color, Vivaldi’s evocation of spring would have been trite and timidly monochromatic.

The Four Seasons are often programmed as a complete set, but the aural experience is arguably improved when they are interspersed with other works. Tonight’s concert uses various pieces by other Italian composers to refresh the palate, beginning with music by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677). Strozzi contributed many outstanding examples of the Italian madrigal to the repertoire. She was the daughter of one of Venice’s leading poets, Giulio Strozzi, who played a key role in the success of early opera. Giulio also nurtured his daughter’s talent by actively featuring her performances and compositions in the academies he helped to found. From that experience Barbara drew a deep understanding of musical nuance and psychology, especially the effect of performance on the listener, which she successfully transferred into her best madrigals.

Her first collection, published in 1644, utilizes 25 texts penned by her father. They are scored for anywhere from two to five voices plus continuo, and all show Strozzi’s firm grasp of the brilliant vocal style, refined through deep experience as a performer. Text expression rises above all else, and musical devices such as word painting and counterpoint are called upon when suitable to amplify the text’s message. For instance, the opening section of “L’usignolo” relies on striking chromatics and drooping lines to capture the sense of “misero,” followed instantly by rising, active lines for “the glory of song.” Strozzi brilliantly concludes the madrigal with a section similar to a sacred Amen, but here charged to deliver the final stinging couplet:

Più di rabbia cantiam We sing more from vexation
che per diletto. than from delight.


1. Allegro non molto
Under the merciless sun languishes man and flock;
The pine tree burns, the cuckoo begins to sing and at once
Join in the turtle doves and the goldfinch.
A gentle breeze blows, but Boreas
Joins battle suddenly with his neighbor,
And the shepherd weeps because overhead
Hangs the dreaded storm, and his destiny.

Vivaldi’s second concerto, Summer, starts out where many of us end up around that time of year – exhausted by the heat! In the slow introduction, he employs falling lines and chromatically lowered tones (e.g., A-flat in place of an expected A-natural) to evoke sagging energy levels. What an effective foil for the much-too-vigorous cuckoo in solo violin that intrudes upon our slumber! Our next visitor is the turtledove, whose doleful cry also touches on the A-flat a semitone above G. After twittering finches have their say, things grow a bit more agitated as the winds pick up. Clearly a storm is in the offing. The shepherd feels it, too, and his fears elicit an operatic aria in solo violin.

2. Adagio e piano / Presto e forte
His tired limbs are robbed of their rest
By his fear of the lightning and the heavy thunder
And by the furious swarm of flies and hornets.

A level of unease continues into the Adagio. Now, despite a tender melody in the solo violin, flies and wasps compete for our attention with peals of thunder. The whole movement lasts just two minutes. Before we know it, a tempest has burst down upon us (the Finale).

3. Presto
Alas, his fears are well founded
There is thunder and lightning in the sky
And the hail cuts down the lofty ears of corn.

This Finale is one of Vivaldi’s very best, for it merges the two elements that have made his reputation in the concerto world: dazzling, idiomatic violin writing and significant use of harmonic sequence.

History has rightly acclaimed Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) as one of the most significant composers of all time. He was the seminal figure in the transition from the massive polyphonic edifices of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to the directed tonality of the Baroque. Born in Cremona, Monteverdi soon became one of the most active and influential composers of vocal music, ranging from sacred music to the latest, innovative madrigals. He took a post with the Gonzaga family in Mantua, but by 1613 he was settled in Venice, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Only three of his roughly twenty operas have survived, but these include the seminal L’Orfeo (1607), among the most important musical treasures of the entire age.

Shortly after completing L’Orfeo, Monteverdi was asked – on very short notice – to compose music for the wedding of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga’s daughter. He chose the tale of Ariadne of Naxos, but all that remains of L’Arianna is a single, extended lament for solo voice and continuo. From the opening notes one senses the hand of a true master at work. Coupled with Rinuccini’s exceptional poetry, Monteverdi’s melodic design starts from a position of utter despair at the opening words, “Lasciatemi morire” (Let me die), twice repeated. Throughout this lament, the vocal gestures are simple, the rhythms always natural for the Italian language, and the texture spare and unadorned. As typified by Ariadne’s Lament, Monteverdi’s elevation of text and its emotive power over purely musical considerations of counterpoint and form marked him as a harbinger of music’s future.


1. Allegro
The peasants celebrate with song and dance
The pleasure of the rich harvest,
And full of the liquor of Bacchus
They finish their merrymaking with a sleep.

Autumn strikes a placid, relaxed tone. Summer’s heat has abated; the harvest has been brought in. It’s a time for celebration, though Vivaldi’s music suggests that drunken revelry and indolent dozing are more to the point. He starts with a peasant dance in F major, simple in appeal and based on nothing more complex than tonic and dominant chords. Even the first solo episode does not advance beyond the simple tone established at the outset. But with the entrance of the stumbling drunkard, indicated in the score by Vivaldi as l’Ubriaco, the material becomes more uneven and dynamic.

2. Adagio molto
All are made to leave off singing and dancing
By the air which now mild gives pleasure
And by the season which invited many
To enjoy a sweet sleep.

Vivaldi sets this passage in recitative style and builds the initial harmony (an inverted 7th chord) one note at a time: D, B-flat, G, E. Seventh chords of all flavor appear at every moment as the various instruments slide feebly, and often downward, dozing off onto the nearest pitch they can find.

3. Allegro
At dawn the hunters with horns and guns
And dogs leave their homes;
The beast flees; they follow its traces.
Already terrified and tired by the great noise
Of the guns and the dogs, and wounded it tries
Feebly to escape, but exhausted dies.

For the Finale’s depiction of a hunt, Vivaldi borrows the key and thematic material from the first movement. However, the solo episodes are now much more rhythmically engaging and developed. Not unexpectedly, such vigorous displays are used to suggest “the beast” in flight. Only for the briefest instant, at the moment of death, does Vivaldi rein in the exuberance of this age-old autumnal ritual.


Almost nothing is known about the life of Bernardo Storace except that in 1664 he served as a kind of secular music master for the Senate of Messina, one of the leading Sicilian cities. Only a single collection of instrumental music survives, a volume of keyboard works published in Venice and from which tonight’s Ciacona for solo keyboard is drawn. Storace seems to have had a particular interest in variation forms, including the chaconne and passacaglia. His chaconnes are often quite lengthy overall but based on incredibly short motivic cells; thus occasional contrasting sections and modulations are needed to break up the excessive repetition. Without any doubt he was highly-skilled technically, though his works lack the emotional complexity and contrapuntal interest of contemporaries like Froberger.


1. Allegro non molto
Frozen and shivering in the snow.
In the strong blasts of a horrid wind,
To run stamping one’s feet at every step
With one’s teeth chattering through the cold.

If we recall how Vivaldi built the “dozing” material in the slow movement of Autumn, we will appreciate the striking twist that occurs at the beginning of Winter. The same device – building a 7th chord note by note (here F, G, D-flat, B-flat) – now creates a quite different effect by virtue of faster tempo and string tremolos. He also decides to emphasize the most pungent discord of all: F against G, the very first sounds we hear. Against this backdrop, a “horrid wind” bursts forth as three icy solo violin cadenzas, each higher than the last. For all its anguished images, Winter includes perhaps Vivaldi’s most inspired and adored music.

2. Largo
To spend the quiet and happy days by the fire
Whilst outside the rain soaks everyone.
To walk on the ice with slow steps
And go carefully for fear of falling.

Winter’s slow movement is more substantial than those in the other concertos. And while pizzicato strings are used to mimic raindrops (this is Italy, after all, where January is more often wet than snowy), it is the easy grace of the solo violin melody that holds our attention. The respite from winter’s full force is brief, however.

3. Allegro
To go in haste, slide and fall down:
To go again on the ice and run,
Until the ice cracks and opens.
To hear leaving their iron-gated house
Sirocco, Boreas and all the winds in battle:
This is winter, but it brings joy.

The ensuing Finale starts mysteriously with wandering figures over a droning pedal tone. Winter takes on spectral power as something from which we might hope to flee, like old age or death. But no matter where we hide – and despite a brief reverie of warm summer winds – winter’s cold blasts find us. Like mythical Aeolus, Vivaldi gathers and then unleashes all the winds in a torrential flourish, one of the most intense and moving endings to a work of music. As such, it is a fitting conclusion to The Four Seasons as a whole. For in these instrumental concertos, Vivaldi has been at his most comprehensive, endeavoring to paint with tones and words. He has put his incredible musical imagination and technique into the service of a noble task: to capture the rich panoply of life in sounds.

Following Winter and Strozzi’s graceful madrigal “Le tre Gratie a Venere” we will hear the music of Dario Castello (c. 1590-c. 1658). Like Storace, Castello is one of those countless musicians who would be entirely lost to history but for the survival of precious few works. Some thirty pieces survive, and circumstantial evidence places him in Venice in the early 1600s. He is listed as a kind of Venetian bandleader in a document from 1629, and he likely worked alongside Monteverdi at St. Mark’s Basilica. Castello’s ensemble Sonata No. 10 “in the modern style” demonstrates early Baroque monody, which features a solo line supported by chordal accompaniment. Polyphonic complexities favored by previous generations are here simplified into one or two active lines. We take this melody and accompaniment style for granted today, but it is always worth remembering that it, too, had to be essentially invented.

Despite their fame and musical merits, The Four Seasons signify only a tiny fraction of the 600+ concertos Vivaldi composed. He also wrote numerous concertos for multiple soloists, as well as works that spotlight instruments outside the violin family. Among the latter is the final work performed this evening, showcasing the brass and wind families. The Concerto in D Major, RV 781, is a rescored variant of an earlier concerto for two oboes (RV 563) in the same key. The adaptation of two oboes to oboe + trumpet involves almost no adjustments. Vivaldi composed several double oboe concertos in various keys, but he only wrote one that featured trumpets despite that instrument’s significant role in Baroque musical culture. As performer Kris Kwapis notes, the trumpet originally fulfilled a critical function in civic life of signaling alarm – from invading armies to fires raging within city walls. But gradually, in musical terms, it supplemented earthly connections to embrace a heavenly splendor. Hence, it would be called upon to deliver brilliant fanfare and virtuosic display on festive occasions. Not unrelated, the trumpet part was nearly always notated at the top of an orchestral score during the Baroque era by virtue of its symbolic connection to divine right and the majesty of both earthly and spiritual kingdoms.

The opening Allegro shows utmost simplicity and paradigmatic Italian concerto form, with the tutti ensemble laying out the ritornello material that is then answered by the soloists with a circling, invigorating motive. Interestingly, very nearly the same motive becomes the foundation of the finale’s theme minutes later. In between Vivaldi adds a full slow movement built around an effusive, rising and falling solo line; it is played by the oboe (or occasionally, violin soloist) while the trumpet remains silent. The finale varies the opening movement’s material to a triple-meter rhythm. As is universally true for music from this era, the notated score bequeathed by the composer is more or less a framework and never intended to be a literal representation of every note performed. Those final decisions – in Vivaldi’s day as also in our own – are left to the informed, good taste of the skilled musician, who will decorate the composer’s basic lines with trills, connecting notes, and flourishes that bring further radiance to this sunny work.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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