March 22, 2015 Leave a comment
Happy Spring! Spring is my favorite season. Here, in DC where I live, it’s a bit slow in coming. The cherry blossoms around the tidal basin and along the Potomac River haven’t yet opened. So for the next few posts, I’ll be writing about pieces with a Spring theme. I’m going to start with the eponymous concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
So what can you say about one of the most overplayed pieces of classical music of all times? Sure, it’s uplifting; sure it has a catchy tune; sure it captures wonder and joy of natures reinvention of itself in March. Oddly enough, I didn’t buy a copy of it until my mid 30s, and that was a used vinyl LP at a church sale. You don’t really need your own. Just wait until the 20th of March and tune to your local classical radio station and you will hear it. It’s kind of like that copy of “Dark Side of The Moon” in your basement. Eventually the geriatric “Classic Rock station will give it a spin.
Written in 1725, when Vivaldi was 47, it represents the work of a “man in full.” Vivaldi wrote the music for a group of four sonnets. These concertos are interesting because they expand the role of the solo instrument, in this case the violin. The first movement of Spring starts out with a joyous burst of energy, which has passed into the collective conscious now, probably through its over use in TV commercials. The second movement is a Largo, which I find curiously sad for a work about Spring. Maybe he’s trying to convey the changeability of the weather. Maybe at 47, Vivaldi is ruing his own lost youth. Maybe he trying to capture the mystery of the flowers pushing up through the earth and the green that gradually starts to erase the grey. The last movement sounds very mature as the season stabilizes and takes us into Summer.
To every thing, there is a season, and to Spring belongs the blush of youth on a young girl’s cheek, the happy gamboling of the newborn lamb in verdant meadow, and the quivering voices of pseudo-intellectual, adolescent boys writing love poems to the prom queen. In high school, I felt torn apart. Under the tutelage of the M**** family–which had three pretty daughters, by the way–I strove to turn myself into an intellectual. I disdained rock music; I read Dostoyevsky; I studied books on Picasso, Chagall, and Miro; I fell in love with and botched my dates with a number of girls. At the same time, I felt like I was on the rack, plagued by physical desire. For example, I did not bemoan the wasted life of one of the schools prettier girls, when a swim team mate got her pregnant. Instead, I envied him and rued not having been the father.
Now that I have two daughters of my own, I lament that our society has strayed so far from any logical (and responsible) way of raising its young. “Primitive” cultures don’t waste their youth this way. Children grow up at their parents’ side and not only do they apprentice the life skills and trades they need, they also learn how to be adults. “Adolescence” I suspect, rose out the isolation of children from their parents when universal education was adopted. In high schools, youth have more interactions with their peers than with adults. At most they have 50 minutes a day with any one adult, and for the rest of their time they are working out their pecking order and values from interactions with their peers. It seems like we as a culture have thrown our hands up and said Malthus was right, we give up. I’m not advocating a return to family values, but I do think it’s important for children to have longer, more healthy interactions with adults (uncles, aunts, civic leaders), during adolescence. If not, they will continue to spin their wheels unproductively (and sometimes fatally) when “adult-hood” is thrust upon them upon graduation.
Maybe there is a lesson in Vivaldi’s life. He was trained for the priesthood, but instead took a job as violin master at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. This was a home for sick and orphaned children. Imagine what a role model he was. He organized a lot of concerts of his own music which brought in money for the work of the hospital. He was staggeringly prolific: wrote hundreds of concertos for the violin alone, 49 operas, and countless other works. Oddly though, after his death he faded into obscurity but was rediscovered in the early 1900s. I think I heard recently that the corpus of his work hasn’t been completely catalogued.
Here is the poem to Spring for which he wrote this piece:
Spring has arrived, and joyously the birds
now welcome her return with festive song,
and streamlets, by soft airs caressed, are heard
to murmur sweetly as they course along.
Casting their inky mantle over heaven,
thunderstorms, her chosen heralds, roar;
when they have died away to silence, then
the birds take up their charming songs once more.
And now, upon the flower-strewn grass subsiding,
with leafy branches rustling overhead,
the goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
By festive sound of rustic bagpipes led,
nymphs and shepherds dance beneath the shining
canopy of spring with sprightly tread