The poems that inspired Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons exploded into the Baroque musical establishment with ear-catching melodies, vivid harmonies and an awe-inspiring technique required of the soloist. They caused a stir then, and they somehow feel as fresh today as they would have done when they were first heard in 1723.
The concertos were radical for their programmatic depiction of the seasons, as well as for their virtuosity, and they remain among the most enduringly popular pieces of music ever written.
The pieces go beyond a simple representation of the seasons: rather they are deep musical expressions, capturing and communicating the physical and metaphysical experiences that occur as the Earth rotates and weather swirls around it.
Vivaldi’s aim was to be descriptive with his music. And while the music is wholly expressive when heard alone, he chose to accompany each concerto with poetry to reinforce the music's meaning.
It is not known whether Vivaldi penned the poems himself, or if they were sourced from elsewhere, but in one of the earlier examples of programmatic music (music written based on a narrative rather than just for its own sake), the composer's aim was to provide verbal cues to bring out the full colour and intensity of the music.
Below are English translations of the sonnets that accompany Vivaldi’s famous concertos. We can really hear the melodies as we read these…
Paesaggio con Viandanti: Marco Ricci
1. Spring (Concerto No. 1 in E Major)
Spring has arrived with joy
Welcomed by the birds with happy songs,
And the brooks, amidst gentle breezes,
Murmur sweetly as they flow.
The sky is caped in black, and
Thunder and lightning herald a storm
When they fall silent, the birds
Take up again their delightful songs.
Largo e pianissimo sempre
And in the pleasant, blossom-filled meadow,
To the gentle murmur of leaves and plants,
The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
To the merry sounds of a rustic bagpipe,
Nymphs and shepherds dance in their beloved spot
When Spring appears in splendour.
2. Summer (Concerto No. 2 in G Minor)
Allegro non molto
Under the merciless sun of the season
Languishes man and flock, the pine tree burns.
The cuckoo begins to sing and at once
Join in the turtledove and the goldfinch.
A gentle breeze blows, but Boreas
Is roused to combat suddenly with his neighbour,
And the shepherd weeps because overhead
Hangs the fearsome storm, and his destiny.
His tired limbs are robbed of rest
By his fear of the lightning and the frightful thunder
And by the flies and hornets in furious swarms.
Alas, his fears come true:
There is thunder and lightning in the heavens
And the hail cuts down the tall ears of grain.
3. Autumn (Concerto No. 3 in F Major)
The peasant celebrates with dancing and singing
The pleasure of the rich harvest,
And full of the liquor of Bacchus
They end their merrymaking with a sleep.
All are made to leave off dancing and singing
By the air which, now mild, gives pleasure
And by the season, which invites many
To find their pleasure in a sweet sleep.
The hunters set out at dawn, off to the hunt,
With horns and guns and dogs they venture out.
The beast flees and they are close on its trail.
Already terrified and wearied by the great noise
Of the guns and dogs, and wounded as well
It tries feebly to escape, but is bested and dies.
4. Winter (Concerto No. 4 in F Minor)
Allegro non molto
Frozen and shivering in the icy snow,
In the severe blasts of a terrible wind
To run stamping one’s feet each moment,
One’s teeth chattering through the cold.
To spend quiet and happy times by the fire
While outside the rain soaks everyone.
To walk on the ice with tentative steps,
Going carefully for fear of falling.
To go in haste, slide, and fall down to the ground,
To go again on the ice and run,
In case the ice cracks and opens.
To hear leaving their iron-gated house Sirocco,
Boreas, and all the winds in battle—
This is winter, but it brings joy.
English translation by Betsy Schwarm (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica).
The Four Seasons, led by Richard Tognetti with oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, tours to Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and Wollongong, 11-27 March. Click here to book tickets in your nearest city now.