Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: four seasons

Saturday October 17, 2009
Sunday October 18, 2009

Vivaldi Violin Concerto in E major, Op. 8, No. 1, La primavera (“Spring”), RV 269

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

Vivaldi Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 8, No. 2, L’estate (“Summer”), RV 315

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

Vivaldi Violin Concerto in F major, Op. 8, No. 3, L’autunno (“Fall”), RV 293

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

Vivaldi Violin Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4, L’inverno (“Winter”), RV 297

orchestration: solo violin; harpsichord; strings

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian”

orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

Composers sometimes find inspiration in everyday things: a familiar person, their surroundings, the weather. Vivaldi, for instance, wrote one of his most famous pieces about the four seasons, discovering that flash of creative genius in rainstorms, dogs barking on lazy hot days and the crisp freshness of spring renewal. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was often inspired by his travels, specifically a European tour he undertook in the years 1829–1831. The memories of this trip were fertile ground for the composer’s creativity, spawning the Hebrides Overture, the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, “Scottish,” and tonight’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, “Italian.”

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, known in Italian as Le quattro stagioni, is a set of four concertos. The concerto as a genre suggests a conversation of sorts between a solo instrument—or group of solo instruments—and a larger ensemble. The solo instrument in The Four Seasons is the violin, a popular choice for Vivaldi who was himself a fine violinist. We think of the typical concerto as having three movements. The first and third are lively and in ritornello form (a structure featuring recurring musical motives throughout), while the middle movement is slow, providing a much-needed contrast. At the time Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons, however, this layout was not the standard. Vivaldi’s numerous concertos, and this set in particular, exemplified what would become the typical concerto form.

The concertos were published in 1725 as part of a set of twelve. It was Vivaldi’s eighth opus, and he called it Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, or The Contest of Harmony and Invention. The concertos were inspired not just by the seasons themselves, but by a set of four sonnets written about spring, summer, autumn and winter. The authorship of these sonnets is questionable, but most historians believe that it was Vivaldi who wrote them. This makes sense because each sonnet is broken down into three sections, each section corresponding to a movement in the concerto. The Four Seasons can therefore be classified as “programmatic,” music that intends to evoke something extra-musical.

All of the concertos demonstrate virtuosic musical displays by all players but especially by the soloist. La primavera, or “Spring,” begins with the crispness and clarity of a cloudless spring day and features singing birds and murmuring streams. A sudden quick thunderstorm invades, but birdsong soon regains control. The second movement illustrates a peaceful day, the quiet disturbed only by a barking dog. The final movement is a lively dance for countryfolk who seem to be celebrating the return of life after a long winter. The first movement of “Summer,” L’estate, begins slowly, almost as if it’s too hot to move. The birds sing lazily, and the air is mostly still until a breeze whips up, a warning of a gathering storm. The most striking moment of this concerto is the hail storm that rains down in the third movement, a perfect contrast to the tranquility of the opening.

“Autumn,” L’autunno, seems to return to the clarity we heard in “Spring.” The musical themes in both first movements are similar. Once again, the countryfolk are celebrating, but this time they are rejoicing in their successful harvest. Wine is part of this merriment, and the slowing of the tempo and the quieting of the dynamics seems to reflect the peaceful sleep that overtakes some of the party-goers. The last part of the concerto illustrates a hunt with horn calls. A chase ensues, hearkening back to the 14th-century tradition of the Italian genre called the “Caccia,” songs that glorified the hunt through vocal canons (literally one voice chasing another). Finally, there is “Winter,” L’inverno. The opening sounds like a shivering person rhythmically stamping his feet to stay warm. The soloist provides the icy winds, and the ensemble responds with chattering teeth. The middle movement describes the peaceful pleasure of warming up inside by a crackling fire. In the final movement, those outdoors walk carefully on the icy paths, while those inside feel winter’s chill as it relentlessly finds its way into the house. But still, Vivaldi reminds us, winter—like all the other seasons—has its specific charms and moments of contentment.

Mendelssohn ’s joy at seeing Italy was ebullient. Such enthusiasm is obvious in the opening theme of the composer’s Fourth Symphony, known as the “Italian.” The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies is problematic, since he often worked for years on single pieces, or held back publication for one reason or another. Mendelssohn wrote a complete version of the “Italian” and conducted the premiere in 1833, although he was ultimately unhappy with the piece and would not allow publication until he had undertaken revisions. Unfortunately he did not get to complete what he felt were the necessary changes, and the work was finally published four years after his death.

The “Italian” follows the traditional four-movement structure of the traditional Classical symphony. Mendelssohn was stylistically influenced by Mozart and Beethoven, and the style he developed often leans towards convention over innovation. There are some uniquely Romantic touches in the work, most importantly the key scheme of the entire symphony, which begins with A major in the beginning and ends in A minor. The first movement is relentlessly lively and joyful. In a letter to his sister and fellow composer, Fanny, he even described his work as the “jolliest” piece he had ever written. He composed the slow movement in Naples, where he observed a religious procession, and Mendelssohn musically painted a picture of the scene. The walking bass line suggests the steps of those in the parade, while the minor mode evokes the solemnity of the occasion. The third movement draws upon the minuet and trio traditional in Classical symphonies but takes on a more Romantic flavor when Mendelssohn brings out the brass in the contrasting second part. (Use of the brass section, and indeed the section itself, had grown quite a bit in the Romantic period.) The second part of the movement calls to mind the composer’s work in more dramatic genres, heard for instance in his famous music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written a few years before the “Italian”). The final movement captures the flavor of Italy with the incorporation of two traditional Italian dances, the Saltarello and the Neapolitan Tarantella. The minor mode and the highly rhythmic nature of the themes suggest agitation, but Mendelssohn might well have described the music as animated and fiery, a tribute to the spirited and impassioned culture and people he encountered on his Italian journey.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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