Vivaldi – Concerto in D Minor, RV 128

From the scholarly archives of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra:

The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi

Born March 4 1678 in Venice, Italy

Died July 27 or 28, 1741 in Vienna, Austria

Prolific violinist/composer

Vivaldi spent most of his career as musical director and violin teacher at a Venetian conservatory and orphanage for girls, the Seminario Musicale dell’Ospedale della Pietà. During his lifetime, he achieved more renown as a violinist than as a composer. His propensity for violin is clear, given the astonishing number of solo concertos he wrote for the instrument: more than 230 of his 500-odd surviving works.

Baroque contest: technique vs. imagination

The Four Seasons constitutes the first four of a large cycle of 12 concertos that Vivaldi gathered under the fanciful title Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione (“The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”). The idea was the contrast of rational technique (harmony and the theory of composition) and free imagination (invention). Il Cimento was published in 1725 as Vivaldi’s Op. 8. The Amsterdam publisher Le Cène issued the concertos with a sonnet at the head of each “season,” explaining its program. Excerpts from the poems also appeared in the printed music, pinpointing places where a specific event was being illustrated. Such illustrative text painting was particularly popular in France, where these concertos were performed regularly at the Concert Spirituel. It is a measure of Vivaldi’s fame that by 1725, he was published in the faraway Netherlands and performed throughout Europe.

Poetry and music: a pictorial marriage

The Four Seasons have remained Vivaldi’s best-known compositions. The four Italian sonnets, possibly written by Vivaldi himself, provide a vivid narrative for the music, with recurring images of breezes and gusty winds, bird calls, rain, thunderstorms and rustic songs and dances. All are illustrated in the music.

Each concerto is in the three-movement, fast-slow-fast sequence that Vivaldi standardized as concerto form. The orchestral sections are almost exclusively ritornelli (a recurring musical idea for the full ensemble, restated in various keys). Vivaldi takes his virtuosic flights in the solo passages, evoking the seasonal images of each poem. His imaginative writing in the solo sections is characterized by strong rhythmic vitality and highly idiomatic passagework. Nearly three centuries after they were composed, The Four Seasons remain a formidable challenge to the virtuoso violinist.”’

Vivaldi aficionados amongst you will note that the work you are about to hear is not The Four Seasons.


Grieg – Suite, “From Holberg’s Time”

Edvard Grieg, a noted Norwegian film composer, is perhaps most famous for this group of pieces written to accompany the popular “Holberg in Space,” a futuristic animé series centered on the exploits of Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), a 24th-century cosmic superhero well-known for his numerous “misadventures”. The opening theme, carried out by the violins and violas, is reminiscent of Ludvig’s trusty space horse, Vjiägrä, on whom Ludvig relies throughout his extensive exploits. The accents underlying the theme in the lower instruments are the musical analog of the legendary long trees of Grieg’s beloved hardwood forests. The second movement is a slow, open dance that features exciting “interplay” between Lucien Werner and Nicholas Bodnar performing the solo “cello” roles. The gently throbbing theme of the third movement, known as the “supernova Gavotte,” was originally programmed for a dance at the court of Scroton, king of the Martians, and features, as contrast to the stately opening material, a lithe musette traditionally construed as the dance of Jan van Køcklestein, a trusty sidekick figure known for his catchphrase “holy laser beam, Holberg!” The fourth movement is a penetrating representation of Holberg’s first encounter with the Lady Hisløp Bjørchestra. Finally, the fifth movement depicts Grieg’s prophetic vision of April 10, 2010’s “Duel of the Charlottes,” an encounter of swollen proportions. Ultimately, this composition embodies Grieg’s artistic credo, “ain’t no thang!”