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"The Four Seasons" and Other Violin Concertos in Full Score
Opus 8, Complete
By Antonio Vivaldi, Eleanor Selfridge-Field
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1995 Eleanor Selfridge-Field
All rights reserved.
Vivaldi's violin concertos "The Four Seasons" constitute one of the best known and best loved collections of string repertory in our time. Their programmatic nature makes them easily accessible to a general audience. The bird calls in "Spring," the swarms of wasps in "Summer," the hunters' horns in "Autumn," or the narrator's chattering teeth in "Winter" are readily discernible. That these images are so easily communicated by sound alone is, in our visually oriented age, a consoling testimony to the evocative power of aural art.
Less well known are the eight concertos that together with "The Seasons" made up Op. 8. The full collection, Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione ("The Contest of Harmony and Invention"), was issued by the publisher Michel-Charles Le Cène in Amsterdam in 1725. It was dedicated by Vivaldi to the Bohemian Count Wenceslas, Count of Morzin, an advisor to the Austrian Emperor Charles VI.
Vivaldi was engaged as a string teacher in the Venetian Ospedale (orphanage-conservatory) of the Pietà in 1703. Although his first published opus (1705) contained chamber sonatas, Vivaldi soon became involved in the composition of string works—both sonatas and concertos—better suited to the needs of a sacred institution. His reputation as a virtuoso spread rapidly. It attracted daughters of the nobility to seek places in the Pietà's music program, which had originally been designed for foundling girls, and it created great demand abroad for Vivaldi's compositions.
Vivaldi's skills as a composer were enhanced by other callings. In 1713, when his superior Francesco Gasparini moved to Rome, Vivaldi was called upon to compose sacred vocal music for the Pietà. In the same year he became active as a composer of operas. Vivaldi left Venice to direct music for Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt at his court in Mantua at the start of 1718 and stayed for three years.
Vivaldi's theatrical activities had more to do with his instrumental music than might be supposed. His violin solos at intermissions became legendary. According to the account of a German nobleman, J. Fr. A. von Uffenbach, who in 1715 attended three performances of one of Vivaldi's operas, the composer "made his fingers jump to the point where there was only a hair's breadth between them and the bridge. He did this while playing imitative passages on all four strings at incredible speed." In 1724 Vivaldi went to Rome for the production of his opera Giustino, which offered a proving ground for the opening theme of "Spring." A simpler version of this theme was used in the sinfonia of Act I. It accompanied the descent of the goddess Fortuna, on her wheel, to the stage.
Vivaldi explained his reasons for publishing these works in the following way in his dedication of Op. 8:
Thinking to myself about the long course of years in which I have had the honor of serving Your Highness in the capacity of Master of Music in Italy, I am embarrassed to realize that I have never offered a token of the profound veneration in which I hold you. In consequence I have resolved to print the present volume as a token of my humility at your feet. If among these few, weak concertos you find "The Four Seasons," for so long regarded with indulgence [compatite] by the Generous Goodness of Your Highness, I entreat you not to marvel [at my folly], but [rather] to believe that I have thought them worthy of publication because, in fact, they are more substantial [than those you know] insofar as they are accompanied by their sonnets, which contain an absolutely clear declaration of all the things which are depicted in these works. This, I believe, gives them the status of new works.... The intelligence that Your Highness possesses in music and the valor of your most virtuous orchestra enable me always to feel confident that my impoverished deeds, in your esteemed hands, will enjoy a greater ascendancy than they merit....
This commentary (the obsequious tone is characteristic of dedications to noble patrons) is unusually informative. It tells us that the works had indeed been circulated, but without their "demonstrative" sonnets, for a number of years. It is evident, both from the commentary and from the music, that they had been polished over a substantial period of time.
The idea of cycles, both natural and man-made, was in vogue at the time among painters, poets, sculptors and philosophers. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, illustrating the cycle of tonalities, appeared just three years before the publication of Vivaldi's Op. 8. Earlier musical treatments of the seasons included Lully's ballet Les Saisons (1661) and an operetta, Die Vier Jahrszeiten ("The Four Seasons"), given in Dresden in August 1719 for the wedding of Friedrich August II to Maria Josepha.
Vivaldi does not say who wrote the sonnets on which his works were based. Their texts, which are printed with new translations on pp. x and xi of this edition, are presented in tables that serve three purposes. They show the letter designations that Vivaldi used in linking each section of poetry with the music. They show the divergent rhyme schemes employed. Finally, they show how the segmentation of each sonnet into three musical movements was different.
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Far less perfected are the remaining works of Op. 8. Among them there are two further works with naturalistic subtitles—"The Storm at Sea" (No.5) and "The Hunt" (No. 10)—and one with the more general subtitle "Pleasure" (No.6), but no specific scripts are provided for these works. In Nos. 5 and 10 it is easy to detect the bobbing boat and the horns of the hunt, but if these works were intended to narrate a sequence of events, that sequence is impenetrable without a text. "Pleasure" is a work of blissful simplicity to which it is difficult to impute any graphic image.
While there are significant differences in style and occasionally some poorly planned transitions in the last eight works, the overall quality of both virtuosic display in fast movements and thoughtful reflection in slow ones is characteristic of Vivaldi's best instrumental works. There is some cohesion in terms of instrumental treatment between concertos 5 through 8 and 9 through 12. It appears that all of the works were composed in the early 1720s.
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In relation to the popularity of "The Four Seasons," the scarcity of editions reflecting scholarly discoveries of recent years is surprising. The important work of cataloguing manuscript sources of Vivaldi's music, begun in the 1960s and continuing to the present day by Peter Ryom (RV stands for Ryom Verzeichnis), has brought to light handwritten examples for all but two of the concertos—Nos. 6 and 12—in Op. 8. However, for only six of the works (5, 7-11) are there manuscript sources predating the print.
The Turin manuscripts (for 8-11) consist of autograph scores and demonstrate how Le Cène (or an unknown intermediary) revised the works for a larger and perhaps less skilled market. The Dresden materials (Nos. 5, 7, 10) include partial scores made by Vivaldi's Saxon pupil Pisendel and parts that were obviously made later. These demonstrate differences in performance practice between Dresden and Venice. There are also manuscript parts for Nos. 1-5 in Manchester, England; these appear to have been made in Rome in c.1740 from the Le Cène print and demonstrate differences between Roman and Venetian performance practice.
Collectively the manuscript sources demonstrate that Vivaldi was quick to change his mind, especially about the solo passages in his concertos. There are numerous discrepancies—especially in Nos. 7, 9 and 11—that have warranted the inclusion of variant readings of such passages from unpublished sources. Numerous small differences in accompaniment style, continuo figuration and bowing are found from source to source.
This new edition, while being based mainly on the 1725 print, gives Vivaldi's (or Pisendel's) bowings and figurations, where available, in the Violino Principale. It restores continuo figuration changed in the print to what is found in autograph sources and adds numerous figures to enable today's performers to provide a satisfactory realization. It offers needed corrections to pitches and rhythms. It supplies dynamics markings and ornament indications given erratically in the print. Lastly, it retrieves from Vivaldi's autographs variant readings not available in other editions.
Excerpted from "The Four Seasons" and Other Violin Concertos in Full Score by Antonio Vivaldi, Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Copyright © 1995 Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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