Was it only static landscape paintings that inspired The Four Seasons? Or was there more behind Vivaldi's timeless masterpiece?
March 1, 1718 - Mantua, Italy
THE WIND AND RAIN were unusual for the first day of March. Only yesterday the sun was so strong that he had spent a good part of the day writing outside, basking in the warmth he missed so keenly during the grey months of the cold Mantovan winter. Yesterday’s bright rays had raised his spirits with the first blush of spring in this little northern Italian town, snugly protected from its enemies by the three sparkling lakes that surrounded it.
Not that 41 year-old Antonio Lucio Vivaldi had much time to celebrate the weather. As he hurried back to his flat near the Piazza Sordello with fresh cheese and bread for breakfast, he thought about the aria he had just finished scoring this morning. It involved Manlio and Servilla, two of the characters in his new opera, Tito Manlio.
“Non mi vuoi con te, o crudele,” he sang as he skipped through the square.
He'd spent four long days and nights working on the new opera, written to celebrate the marriage of his patron, Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, the governor of Mantua province. One more day, Antonio thought, and I can get back to my real work - the new concerti he was itching to start.
“Don Antonio!” a voice called out.
Antonio turned to see the the town’s wig maker, carrying a large box with his shop’s crest, Girò, affixed to one side. His young daughter, no more than ten years old, stood beside him. She stared up wide-eyed.
“Signore Girò how can I help you?” Antonio asked stiffly, looking at the young girl who watched him closely.
“I am so sorry to bother you,” Girò replied. “But I heard you have a new opera, and I wondered if you would let me fit you for a parrucchino - a powdered one, like all the new wigs this year.”
“I see,” Antonio replied, brushing long red locks away from his forehead. He hated the heavy hairpiece he was forced to wear for performances or whenever he visited with Prince Philip. But such was the protocol of the prince’s court and the fashion of the opera house.
Antonio noticed the young girl was still staring at him. “Your daughter?”
“Sì signore,” Girò replied. “I know it’s foolish, but Anna thinks she can sing in the opera. She’s always practicing. My petite prima donna.”
Antonio laughed. Young Anna fixed with him a serious gaze. “I’ve heard your music, maestro,” she said. “Someday, I will sing for you.”
He grinned. “Someday? Why not today?”
“It would be my honour,” she replied with a bow.
Her father took her hand. “Anna! No, no!”
I know it’s foolish, but Anna thinks she can sing in the opera.
“It’s fine, really,” Antonio replied. “Try this, Anna. ‘E la mia fede, ò ingrato? E l’amor mio?”
The girl glanced at her father and then back to Antonio. Her face turned serious. She took a deep breath and sang in a high soprano tone: “E la mia fede, ò ingrato? E l’amor mio?”
Antonio froze. Although her small voice was not yet fully formed, her talent was obvious.
“Bravo!” he exclaimed and then turned to Girò added, “I will take one of your wigs, Signore, but only if you spend your fee on getting a tutor for this little one.” He pointed to Anna. “She belongs on the stage.”
Father and daughter beamed at his comments as he left them standing in the middle of the piazza. Antonio made his way back toward his flat with the sound of young Anna’s voice still ringing in his head.
He stopped by a vendor setting up for the morning with rows of fresh cut flowers, and small pots of purple and white crocuses, bursting open to greet the morning. The rain had stopped now and bright rays of sunshine began to warm the square.
He picked up the potted crocuses, admiring their fragrance and colour. He looked back at the wig-maker and his young daughter. Anna was still singing, perfecting the delivery of the words he had given her. Her father applauded her impromptu street performance.
Listening to Anna and holding the crocuses, Antonio suddenly felt old. The colourful flowers that had just bloomed, contrasted against his pale, weathered hands. Their beauty was announcing to the world that winter was over. He looked again at young Anna, singing with the joyful exuberance of youth. He touched his chest, weak with asthma and slowed by his tired bones.
In a tree behind the vendor a small blue bird landed and began to chirp with jubilation. Antonio could see the notes of the bird's song in his mind, arranging themselves neatly on his treble clef. He closed his eyes and listened.
He imagined himself playing the birdsong melody on a violin. Tomorrow, when the opera was done, he would begin his new concerto.
His music faded from memory for nearly two hundred years
Although the exact details behind the inspiration for Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) remains a mystery, many music historians believe it was written during the years Vivaldi spent in Mantua There are also suggestions he was inspired by the sonnets that accompany the text or by the landscape paintings of Marco Ricci. But since the work was not published until 1725, speculation abounds about its real origins.
Regardless of how they came to be, VIvalid could hardly have imagined that these violin concerti, only 4 among over 770 compositions he created over the course of his life, would define him for centuries to come.
Vivaldi spent his time in Mantua, (1718-20) working feverishly on operas, cantatas and concerto's. While he was living there, he met young Anna Girò. He was in his forties and she but a child of perhaps nine or ten. Eventually, Anna became his student and his favourite prima donna. Along with her half-sister Paolina, they moved in with him and looked after his house.
Anna debuted in Venice in 1724 and sang for Vivaldi in 1726. He said of her: “To put on the opera without La Girò is not possible, for a comparative prima donna is not to be found.”
Despite much speculation and salacious gossip about their relationship, both Antonio and Anna claimed it was purely artistic. She became a sought after operatic star, while Vivaldi worked throughout Europe with a hectic schedule of performing and composing. Some claimed his real talent in fact was as a violinist.
After his death it would take over two centuries for The Four Seasons to become widely known. It was first published in 1725 as a part of a collection that included eight additional concerti grossi. He published Seasons with sonnets that he probably wrote himself. They describe the sounds of nature that he wanted to evoke - murmuring streams, song birds, thunderstorms, soft breezes, horns and dogs, etc. He told musicians specific instructions, such as 'bark like a dog' to guide their playing.
The Four Seasons concerti, each about ten minutes in length when performed, were considered revolutionary at the time. They were among the first instances of 'program music' - compositions with a narrative element and were enormously popular, particularly in France.
Vivaldi's music also caught the attention of Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany who transcribed at least nine Vivaldi concerto's. And though he was acclaimed during his lifetime, Vivaldi died nearly penniless in Vienna in 1741 and was buried in a paupers’ grave. He music faded away, and even The Four Seasons was almost completely forgotten until the early 20th century when a treasure trove of his original manuscripts were rediscovered.
In 1926, fourteen folios of his work were found in a monastery in Alessandria, in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy. There were 300 concertos, 20 operas and 100 vocal-instrumental works, ‘autograph manuscripts’ handwritten by Vivaldi himself that had been lost for almost two hundred years.
More to Vivaldi than The Four Seasons
It’s been said there are two types of Vivaldi aficionados. Those that primarily know him because of The Four Seasons and those that appreciate the ‘true’ Vivaldi revealed only by a wider range of works including the Seasons. I admit I am more the former, but researching his life and his music, almost lost to the ages and then rediscovered almost by accident, has me yearning to dive more deeply into his story.
Like many of the greatest composers from the Baroque and Classical periods, Vivaldi's life was filled with both astounding artistic accomplishments and crushing personal failure. It was also a life of contradictions.
Vivaldi was a priest who gave up celebrating mass soon after he was ordained, though it was something he prepared and studied to achieve for many years. He complained that he was too strenuous, given his poor health and asthma. Yet, he traveled extensively, and maintained a grueling schedule of prolific composing, virtuoso performing and musical tutoring.
Though he composed hundreds of concerto's, cantatas and opera, few were published. He was known to produce new work monthly during the peak of his life, and yet most of it remained unpublished within his private folios.
After he died in Vienna, The only copies of his hand-written manuscripts journeyed around Europe, avoiding wars, floods, and fires until their accidental rediscovery in the 20th Century sent him into the stratosphere of baroque music composers.
Music is not bound by time
In the end, it is all about the music. That he lived a turbulent, complex, contradictory life, a priest perhaps with or perhaps without a mistress, and that he was boastful and even arrogant, belongs to the detectives of history.
We are left with the only truth that matters: his music. When you listen to the first movement of L'estate (Summer) in The Four Seasons, time is irrelevant.
He lives again and always will - every time we hear his music.