Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741) was a prolific, 18th-century Baroque composer who wrote more than 500 concertos. About 230 of those concertos were written for the violin. The most famous of all of Vivaldi’s works is "The Four Seasons” (“Le quattro stagioni”) violin concerto.
Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons": a radical violin concerto
Young people in the 21st-century can have a difficult time envisioning any piece of music as “radical.” In the world of contemporary pop culture, “radical” music means the inclusion of profanity, pejoratives, or rebellious language and sentiments.
During the Baroque period, the idea of radical music was anything that veered from the traditional way of doing things. Other “radical” classical composers of their time periods include Mozart and Stravinsky. Unlike those composers, however, historians cannot claim that Vivialid’s “The Four Seasons” caused any riots. That said, the first performances in Italy, France, and throughout the European continent had frequent concert-attendees and music theorists up in arms about what to make of his newfangled musical notions.
Vivaldi’s inventive music program
One of the reasons Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was so unique is that it was one of the first classical compositions to implement and follow a dynamic music program. You’re probably familiar with the concept of a “music program,” where the music aligns with a specific text. In fact, that style of performance wasn’t made popular until the Romantic era.
However, "The Four Seasons" was a musical score created to honor four descriptive sonnets about each season (four sonnets in all). No one is sure where the sonnets originate, so most historians allude to the rumor that Vivaldi wrote the sonnets himself.
Click here to read the sonnets in both Italian and English.
“The Four Seasons” movements are actually part of a larger body of 12 total concertos, including "The Four Seasons." The larger work is called, “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione,” or, “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.”
Speaking of invention and innovation...
While the program format was one “radical” innovation implemented by Vivaldi, so were some of the techniques required by Vivaldi to play the piece. While he was a lover of opera, the brilliant mind of Vivaldi was captivated by the idea of being able to describe landscapes or scenes in ways that correlated with human behaviour and emotions, but without setting the music to specific words.
So, while "The Four Seasons" were composed to honour the themes put forth in the previously-linked sonnets, Vivaldi composed the music in such a way that the technical playing and interpretations of the string musicians told the story - sans narration.
He also included unique dynamic instructions that remain intact in the scores today. The musicians get to use their imaginations, and the imagination of the conductor, to interpret what Vivaldi imagined in his head when he wrote notes to the musicians. For example, asking violinists to play “like a sleeping goatherd” or the viola players to imagine “a barking dog.”
Also worth noting is that the concerto format as we know it didn’t really exist at this time. It was actually Vivaldi, and pieces like "The Four Seasons" setting solo instruments apart (frequently the violin) supported by a chamber ensemble, that gave rise to the concerto form we’re familiar with today.
Part of an early feminist movement
Besides Vivaldi’s musical genius and passion for opera, his appreciation for women and what they could set Vivaldi apart from many of his contemporaries. Vivaldi composed "The Four Seasons" between 1720 and 1723 while employed at “El Pio Ospedale della Pieta,” which was a girls school dedicated to orphaned girls. He worked as the Maestro de Violino (violin teacher) there and wrote some of his most famous works during that period of time.
While we can’t say that he was truly a feminist, we can’t help but appreciate that Antonio Vivaldi spent a significant portion of his working life (1703 - 1733) mentoring talented young female musicians. And, with talent and fame such as his, he certainly had a choice in the matter.