Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, Number 1 (Spring)

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
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

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Carl Orff: “Amor Volat Undique,” “Stetit Puella” and “Dulcissime” fromCarmina Burana

Unlike most fans of classical music, I don’t necessarily compare performers and performances. Usually, whatever recording was the first I heard becomes the definitive performance for me. Of course there were exceptions: I listened to about 10 versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony-by Walter, Solti, Szell, Bernstein, Toscanini and others-before finally choosing one by Karajan. And that wasn’t for any profound reason; I just happened to prefer it because I could hear the oboe and English horn passage in the second movement more clearly than any of the others.

The definitive performance of Carmina Burana for me is the one with Michael Tilson Thomas, in which the soprano, Judith Blegen sings the arias mentioned in the title of today’s post. This recording was one of the first ever done in quadraphonic sound, and so they spared no expense to making it a blockbuster. They had a chorus of 250 singers and used some of the best soloists of the day. On the liner notes it says that Blegen was a regular at the Met during this time period, and she was so good that all they needed was one take. The aria, “Amor Volat Unique” (love flies everywhere), requires the soprano to hold a note for a full 30 seconds. For a long time, Blegen’s was the only recording I heard in which the singer could sustain the note for that long. In some recordings, the sopranos actually took a breath midway through.  Unfortunately, this version has been removed from Youtube.

“Amor volat unique” has to be one of the most beautiful songs on the album. It starts with a musical interlude in which flutes waft along playing a melody that the soprano will sing at the end. A boys’ chorus then chimes in and with cherubic delivery sing about the rightness of young men and women joining together. Then comes that chillingly beautiful soprano solo:

“If a girl lacks a man
she misses all delight;
darkest night is at the bottom
of her heart.
This is the bitterest fate.

Blegen’s performance still sends shivers down my spine, these 30+ years later. The second soprano solo is called “Stetit Puella”.

The poetry has an almost Haiku-like simplicity, but it captures perfectly the feeling of being dumbstruck by love:

There stood a maid
in a red tunic;
when it was touched
the tunic rustled.
Ai!

There stood a girl,
like a rose;
her face was radiant;
her mouth bloomed.
Ai!

Sometimes, however, you can get burned even by a good orchestra and performer. When I lived in Italy five years after first hearing Carmina Burana, my girlfriend bought a copy on Deutsche Gramophon with Eugen Joachum conducting and Gundula Janowitz singing. Not only did Janowitz break the note into two with a huge breath, on the aria, “Dulcissime” where the soprano has to slide up to an impossibly high note, her voice actually cracked. It sounded like a cross between a squawk and a scream.

Here’s Kathleen Battle singing “Dulcissime” another piece that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Depending on your point of view, Carmina Burana may or may not be the perfect music for an adolescent virgin male to listen to in the Spring. Back then (circa 1975 at the ripe age of 20) I found the songs devoted to love quite poignant and used to just sit around listening to them and dissolve into self-pity. I wonder now at how I could have missed the exhortation in the words to just go out and get on with it. There I was living in a dorm among women who shared similar tastes in music, art and literature, and I was still too tongue-tied to do anything about it. Perhaps it goes back to having formed a warped notion of Romantic love from reading too much Dostoyevsky. Remember, a number of his women characters are fallen women, whom the protagonist worships from afar and sees the means to salvation.

They really should teach you how to fall in love high school.

Orff Biography

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Carmina Burana

Carl Orff: “Auf Dem Anger” from Carmina Burana

Carmina Burana held me under its spell during most of the Spring Semester of my sophomore year at Indiana University in 1975.   The section of Carmina devoted to spring is divided into two parts, the second of which is called “Auf dem Anger” (On the Lawn).

The first piece is an orchestral interlude called simply “Dance,” which always buoys my spirits. At just under two minutes, it’s an incredible tour de force. It starts out with three trumpet blasts followed by drums-a mini tattoo. The violins then start playing a wonderful syncopated rhythm that carries you along like a galloping horse. It stops and there is a beautiful little flute solo, before the trumpets and horns return playing the galloping themes. The horns build to a climax and then the dance ends abruptly with a short drum roll.

The second song in the “On the Lawn” section is given to the sopranos and chorus. It is called “Chramer, gip die varwe mir” and goes:

“Shopkeeper, give me color, to paint my cheeks,
that young men may not resist my graces.
Young men, look here,
do I not charm you?
Make love, good men and gracious women.
Love will ennoble you.
Hail, o world so rich in joys.
I will obey you always
and accept your bountiful gifts.”

This seems like a fitting way to express the feelings invoked by Spring.  And because of its title, it brings backs memories of unrequited love and something that happened “on the lawn,” of my dorm that semester.

Around this time, PBS devoted a number of weeks to showing a series of classic Japanese films. A venerable old Orientalist named Edward Reischauer presented them, giving a little talk about the historical, political or philosophical significance of each. When I was a boy, my father took me to see a number of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, which my brother Bob later told me were based on a couple of the samurai films in the series.

So every Thursday night, I’d go plop myself down in front of the television in the lounge of my dorm to watch the weekly film. No one in the dorm thought this was odd. In fact, one of the girls from my dorm named Andrea used to come down and we would watch together. Eventually, we became friends after a fashion. She studied karate and talked about the Zen Buddhism. Sometimes Andrea would invite me back to her room after the film and brew up a pot of jasmine tea, and we’d talk until the wee hours. To vary things a bit she would sometimes throw a section of orange or a handful of raisins into the pot.

Andrea occupied the large end room on the second floor of the dorm that looked out over the meadow and the creek. She had hung posters of the Matterhorn and bamboo reproductions of Japanese scrolls on her wall. Her bookshelf was lined with an eclectic blend of novels that indicated her major: comparative literature. She had long, straight, dark hair, and an athletic build. She really looked like she could have stepped off a Swiss hiking trail, which she had in fact hiked the year before. Of course I fell for her, but, some part of her must have sized me up for not being outdoorsy enough, so we just stayed friends.

But she did introduce me to Haiku, which I immediately took a liking to. In my French literature classes, we had to read a lot of poetry, stuff by Hugo and Ronsard, some of which were so artificially contrived that you wondered what effete snob read this stuff. Haiku, by contrast, was direct and immediate. Though highly stylized–in Japanese you can only use something like 17 syllables and it must contain a reference to the observer, the season and nature–these poems seemed to have the uncanny effect of telegraphing the poet’s experience and emotions right into me. Someone once told me that dolphins can reproduce the sound pattern that they hear using echolocation and broadcast it to other members of their pod. In that way, they can completely reproduce for another being their sensory impression of the world. And that is how I feel when I read Haiku.

So one day during my “Japanese” period, I trudged off to the library and went looking for a book of Haiku. In the Japanese literature section, I discovered a five volume set that had been collected, translated, and commented on by an Brit named R.H. Blyth living in Japan after World War II. He had devoted one volume to each season, and the fifth to miscellaneous poems. There I read the work of Basho and other poets. I checked out books of Japanese artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro. The emphasis on nature and the desire for ever simpler ways to express complex ideas had a profound impact on me. Here’s a sumptuous one by Basho:

The butterfly is perfuming
It’s wings in the scent
Of the orchid.

The reigning clique in our dorm–the one that hung out in Mark Z***’s room–respected Andrea, though she was a bit too outdoorsy and down to earth to be a full time member. She also had some odd habits. One day near the end of the semester, a number of us got a bottle of gin, several more of tonic, and a bunch of limes and went down to have a “garden party” on the lawn by the banks of the creek. It was a warm, overcast day, and we were drinking like fishes and carrying on. Suddenly, the window to Andrea’s room flew open.  She stuck her head out and yelled at us: “Would you people shut up. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. People are trying to sleep!” We laughed at this odd notion and invited her down, but she slammed the window back down. End of party.

After that, Andrea was somewhat cooler to me. She left the dorm the next year to live with her boyfriend, an outdoorsy type who always seemed to be wearing shorts and hiking boots.  I guess I identified with the woman in “Auf Dem Anger.”

“do I not charm you?
Make love, good men and gracious women.
Love will ennoble you.”

Buy CD or Download MP3s from Orff’s Carmina Burana

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in F Major, L. 188

Today, since it’s Sunday, I’m taking a break from the A-Z challenge and doing a longer post.

Spring started officially almost a month ago here in Washington, DC.  But it didn’t really take hold until this week.  Usually theirs a progression–crocus, daffodils, tulips, magnolias, cherry blossoms, azaleas and so on.  This week everything seemed to pop at once. Tthe magnolias are in full (and fragrant) bloom, and the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Blossom peaked on Thursday, April 10.

I moved to DC from the Maryland suburbs in 2007. When I lived in Maryland and my daughters were growing up, we had a dog named Freckles that I’d walk every morning before work while my daughters were getting ready for school. These walks were not at all burdensome in the Spring as almost every day another different flower, bush or tree would start to bloom.

I marveled at how evolution and selective breeding has spread blooming out over a period of months. That meant I would get to see a Technicolor marvel every morning. If they all bloomed at once, there wouldn’t be enough insects around to pollinate them all. And here is something more amazing: while we stand and admire their beauty from a distance, tiny little creatures are walking up and down their stalks and in and out of the blossoms. They carry on the process of fertilization. At the same time, flies, bees, moths, and butterflies ply the skies, dropping in for a sip of nectar and carrying the pollen to other plants, which ensures a hearty gene pool. If not for these critters, life on earth would cease. The biomass of insects is estimated to far outweigh that of all other life on earth!

I once saw Deepak Chopra give a lecture. This was before he became an Ayurvedic, New Age, Erroneous Zone, Mega-Motivational, PBS Pledge-Drive speaker. He said that, chemically, we are not the same person we were just a few days ago. We’ve eaten food, which our bodies have broken down, metabolized and used to replace existing one. Our skin sloughs off millions of cells a day and these are replaced continually by new ones created by the great engine that is our body. At the same time, we are being bombarded from outer space by neutrons, protons, electrons, neutrinos, gamma rays, positrons, and what not. These knock around and replace the sub-atomic particles that make up our own atoms. So every day, we are being reborn quite literally. And if that is happening to our physical being, if you believe existence precedes essence, then why can’t that happen to our minds, intellect and personalities as well?

This reminds me of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who about 2500 years ago said: “All is flux,” and “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  The path of the river remains constant. The definition of the river remains constant. But the water that courses through the channel is always being renewed.

Maybe this is why I like Spring so much It reminds me of the constant chore we have to break out of our old, set patterns and renew ourselves.

I also love Spring, because it reminds me to listen to the album “Horowitz Plays Scarlatti.” Today’s piece, Sonata in F Major, L. 188 is my second favorite piece on the album. It starts out with one hand launching into a very fast and bubbly melody. After about 20 notes, Scarlatti starts the same melody in the second hand. It runs after the first, chasing it like two squirrels. They carry on weaving in and out, at times one slowing while the other speeds, one rising as the other falls, sometimes in unison. This continues until all of a sudden, Scarlatti brings both hands down with a crash that jars you. Then he does it again, before picking up the melody again for a shorter span–until he does the crash again. Next he repeats the whole piece over from the beginning. After that, he plays a wonderful flourish that sparkles. In the rest of the piece, he repeats the first pattern, the second and the first again, I believe for a while in a different key. Before you know it he’s loping both his hands along into a grand finale.

Scarlatti served as the music master at St. Peter’s in Rome. Then, he was befriended by Handel, who got him a job at the royal chapel in London. His music, however, doesn’t lack the pompous courtliness of Handel’s. It has that fresh spontaneity and playfulness that is so much a part of the Italian character.

Of his 550 sonata, Scarlatti wrote to the listeners: “…show yourself more human than critical, and then your Pleasure will increase.”

Horowitz has a nice comment about the Scarlatti’s sonatas, from which he chose the 12 on my old vinyl LP:

“His music is down to earth; it has human qualities and sephardic elements. Many composers of his period speak to God. Scarlatti speaks to the people, the children of God. There are instances when he does speak to God, but more often, he chooses not to.”

I am grateful that his music speaks to me across the centuries.

Biography of Scarlatti

Download MP3s or buy CD of Horowitz Plays Scarlatti on Amazon

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Major L. 424

Spring has been long coming in Washington, DC where I live.  It’s April 16 and we had snow just a week ago followed by cold.  The cherry blossom festival was rained out last weekend.  This weekend it’s been sunny but windy.  However, that’s still good.  Sun makes you feel alive.  The cherry blossoms around the tidal basin will start coming out in full force in a few days.  So rather than hold off any longer, I’m going to write today about my favorite piece of Spring music.

For decades, every year on March 20 since high school, I used to reach for an old vinyl LP called “Horowitz Plays Scarlatti” and cue up the first track.

When I first heard this sonata, originally written for harpsichord and transcribed for piano by Vladimir Horowitz, it knocked my socks off. And it still does to this day.

I remember the day I found this album at the local library. I was leafing through the classical recordings on the shelf and suddenly, there it was in my hands. Someone had told me that Horowitz–who had married Toscanini’s daughter–was one of the greatest pianists alive (Rubenstein was still around as well). I hurried home with my prize and when the piece started it was as if the music fit perfectly into the receptors of the cells that process music in my brain. What’s more I just knew this piece epitomized how I felt about Spring.

That Spring, of my senior year in high school, I listened to it incessantly. In the fall I left for Purdue University, where all my brothers had gone, to study computer science, which all my friends were going to study. I lasted three days before changing my major to English. At the end of the semester, I transferred to a local extension of Indiana University and lived at my parent’s house during the Spring semester. Scarlatti got me through that period. In the fall I transferred to the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, and ended up in a huge, hi-rise dorm. My dorm-mates were local drongos, out to get drunk, sow their seed, party till they puked, and listen to mind-numbingly loud rock music. (I’m not against Rock music, it’s just hard to appreciate it at four in the morning the day before an exam.)

In the spring semester of the next year, I transferred to a French language-speaking dorm, and I had changed majors again to French literature. This little dorm sat in the middle of a quiet little meadow through which ran a small stream. The grounds were filled with flowering dogwoods, redbud Judas, hawthorn, and quince bushes. My dorm was co-ed and my dorm mates majored in languages, music, art, journalism, dance and literature. For the first time in my life, when I turned on my classical music people would walk in and say things like “Oh, that’s nice what is it?” Or even more astounding “Oh, so you’re a fan of Scarlatti, too?

You cannot imagine the relief when, after years of feeling like a freak, I finally found a community of people who shared my tastes and interests. I was able to understand how homosexuals must feel when they move to San Francisco or XYY chromosomal men feel when they join the Navy SEALS.

Scarlatti starts the Sonata in D major with a little flourish that ends with the pianist performing an incredibly fast trill. Then it launches off into a rhythm played at a tempo to which it would be impossible to dance without bursting into flames. Sonatas (meaning “sounded” as opposed to “sung”) evolved out of dance tunes. Scarlatti drives along at this breathtaking speed and then just stops. Then he begins again, this time varying the melody a range higher, and making it sound even more meticulous. Then he pauses, before launching off in another direction. I haven’t been able to count how many times he does this, but he does it without sounding repetitious. Of course, since it is such a short piece–maybe 2 or 3 minutes–you don’t get tired of it.

At the risk of sounding a bit like Forest Gump, the pieces on this album are like a box of wonderful bon bons. Each one carries within it a short sweet musical idea that completely absorbs you for a while and then fades away, leaving you with a nice warm feeling. When she was 9, I told my youngest daughter, Simone, that this piece reminds me of Spring and she said “Oh, yes. It sounds like butterflies. Or insects running around.”

Writing this and other sonatas for harpsichord must have enlivened Scarlatti as well. In his 72 years on this earth, he managed to compose over 600! I will write about a few more during the next couple of days.

I wish there were some way of being to reach back over the centuries to talk with the people of the past. The first person I would contact, had I that power, would be Domenico Scarlatti. I would just thank him for his wonderful Sonata in D Major and tell him that like on every first day of Spring,  I listen to it again.

Biography of Scarlatti

Download MP3s or buy CD of Horowitz Plays Scarlatti on Amazon

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, Number 1 (Spring)

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
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

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in E Major, Op. 8, Number 1 (Spring)

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
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

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

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