Concert Notes

Vivaldiā€™s Four Seasons

Concerto for Flute and Violin in E Minor
Georg Philipp Telemann
b. Magdeburg, Germany / March 14, 1681;
d. Hamburg, Germany / June 25, 1767

Even in an era known for its composers’ productivity, Telemann was exceptional. A rough estimate of his output numbers several thousand pieces. Estimating is all that can be done so far. The publishing firm of Barenreiter began cataloguing his music in 1950, and its editors have still not completed the project. 

Such efforts would be meaningless if Telemann’s music did not deserve them, but clearly it does. The skill, imagination, and vitality which his finest works display are qualities too precious to ignore. During his lifetime, his music earned him the reputation as the finest German composer of the day, superior even to that of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

He stated that he was no great lover of concertos, but his many splendid examples of the form belie that view. Throughout this impressive, five-movement double concerto, Telemann ensured that the solo instruments receive equal time in the spotlight. The first and last movements are brisk in tempo and dramatic in mood. In the lyrical second movement, he artfully contrasted the solo violin’s playing with a bow, and the strings of the orchestra playing pizzicato.

Concerto for Flute and Violin in E Minor
1. Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Presto
4. Adagio
5. Allegro 

Concerto grosso No. 12 in D Minor “La folia”
Francesco Geminiani
b. Lucca, Italy / December 5, 1687;
d. Dublin, Ireland / September 17, 1762

Geminiani earned acclaim on several fronts: he was one of the greatest violinists of his era, a composer of original and expressive music, and a teacher whose influence passed to countless others through his widely circulated and highly esteemed book, The Art of Playing the Violin (1751). He published several sets of concerti grossi, which he scored for two groups of strings, the smaller concertino and the larger ripieno. His being an exceptional violinist meant that he regularly gave the first violin of the concertino group the lion’s share of the major thematic material, and the most frequent opportunities for solo display.

Some of the concertos are transcriptions of sonatas for violin and continuo by his teacher, the celebrated Italian violinist and composer, Arcangelo Corelli. The original Corelli sonata that Geminiani used as the basis for this concerto (Op. 5 No. 12) is a set of variations on a traditional and widely familiar melody, possibly of Spanish origin, known as La folia. Geminiani’s arrangement takes Corelli’s ingenuity and virtuosity a step further, creating a dazzling showcase for the full ensemble. 

The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi
b. Venice, Italy / March 4, 1678;
d. Vienna, Austria / July 28, 1741

Vivaldi’s busy and highly productive career as composer, violinist and teacher drew its due share of acclaim. One measure of his success is the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach did him the honour of transcribing several of his concertos. In his General History of Music (1776-89), British musicologist Charles Burney wrote, “The most popular composer for the violin, as well as player on that instrument, during these times was Don Antonio Vivaldi...maestro di capella of the Conservatorio della Pietà in Venice.”

Vivaldi played a major role in several significant musical developments, the rise of the concerto above all. His 500-plus concertos – he holds the record for the highest number, by a large margin – feature a wide variety of soloists. As you would expect, the lion’s share, more than 200, focus on his own performing instrument, the violin. 

His reputation suffered a severe lapse in the years following his death. His music’s return to widespread currency dates only from the years following the Second World War. It returned to favour after two centuries of neglect thanks to the recording industry and the rise in popularity of the chamber orchestra. 

During that down time, virtually the only piece to remain in the standard repertoire was the set of four violin concertos that he himself entitled The Four Seasons. It was published by the Dutch company Le Cène in 1725, although he undoubtedly composed portions of it, at least, much earlier. It appeared as the opening third of a set of 12 concertos bearing the overall title The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. In the title Vivaldi put face-to-face two opposing musical tendencies: the time-honoured tradition of following the current rules of composition, and the wish to give unrestrained play to the imagination. It is clearly the latter that prevails in The Four Seasons. The four concertos appeared as the first third of collection of 12 violin concertos bearing the overall title Il cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention), Op. 8.

The enduring popularity of The Four Seasons has been based to great degree on its nature as descriptive or program music, an area in whose orchestral division Vivaldi was a major practitioner. He didn’t stop at just attaching an overall title. The original edition features quite elaborate explanations of the music’s content, including four sonnets, one for each concerto. Although the author of these verses isn’t identified, it could well have been Vivaldi himself.

Some of his original manuscripts are even more explicit. The barking of the goatherd’s dog in the second movement of the “spring” concerto, for example, is only identified in the viola part. Storms recur throughout the score, blowing through gustily in spring, summer and winter. The spring and autumn concertos wrap up with festive rustic dances. 

The Four Seasons

Concerto No. 1 in E Major, RV 269 “Spring”
1. Allegro
2. Largo e pianissimo sempre
3. Danza pastorale: Allegro

Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, RV 315 “Summer”
1. Allegro non molto
2. Adagio – Presto
3. Presto

Concerto No. 3 in F Major, RV 293 “Autumn”
1. Allegro
2. Adagio molto
3. Allegro

Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 297 “Winter”
1. Allegro non molto
2. Largo
3. Allegro


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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