Quarter Century: 1700-1725
Sure, we all know how the 1st movement of “Spring” goes – and there’s a reason why. It’s not like anyone was forced to keep this piece of music alive for 300 years, but we did anyways because of the sheer beauty of the melody that reminds us so perfectly of springtime. But that’s not all, because other movements such as the 3rd of “Spring” and the 1st and 3rd of “Autumn” are also on that same level of exceptional melodic beauty and brilliance. These are some of the most well-crafted melodies ever, and they’re all in the same work. The melody is constantly soaring and presented well with both the solo violin and the backing string orchestra. There’s really only one negative in this entire work, and it happens to fall into this category. Vivaldi is obviously an exceptional composer, but a big shortcoming of his is the inconsistency of melodic energy and passion in the slow sections of his music. Indeed, I believe this why he is never really in the conversation of the greatest composer of all time with the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I see it as an overall Baroque era flaw that only Bach and Handel could really get through. In The Four Seasons, his most famous work, even Vivaldi couldn’t always come up with a line in his slower movements that matched the brilliance in his faster ones. Each 2nd movement aside from the one in “Winter’ lost a bit of sparkle and really just followed the harmonic motion. Even so, they always found a way to add some beauty and feeling into the texture.
Sequence after sequence after sequence. In case you’re unfamiliar with that term, a sequence in music is a pattern that continually repeats while moving seamlessly through different keys. You know it’s in the Baroque era if the music employs countless harmonic sequences, as was the practice of the time. It does sound cool and is a very useful compositional tool, but in many cases, this practice can easily become dull and simply rudimentary. However, Vivaldi showed incredible mastery through his use of sequences here, perhaps second only to J.S. Bach. What made these harmonies so special? Even though Vivaldi was working within some rather strict forms, the placement of his sequences came at opportune and refreshing times. It never really dominated entire movements, but it still gave a wonderful feeling of perpetual motion and acted as a nice transporter from one section of the form to the next. While it wasn’t too subtle, it did its job very well. Perhaps more importantly, what also made these harmonies special were the patterns themselves. Sequences are lame without unique rhythmic repetition. The 1st movement of “Summer” shows this perfectly. The 3rd movement of “Spring” and the 3rd movement of “Autumn” also had exceptional use of harmonic sequence. The Four Seasons is really a textbook example of how to creatively use sequences. When not sequencing, Vivaldi made wonderfully nice and playful uses of tonic and dominant, which was somewhat ahead of his time. The incredible subdominant use in the B section of the 1st movement of “Autumn” is also worth noting. Cool, consistent, and textbook worthy.
I believe that no musician has ever written for strings better than Vivaldi, and he was certainly on top of his game with this work. He beats out other great string writers such as Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, and Bernard Hermann by his complete command of the instruments in the string family and his ability to find true emotiveness through conventional and accessible tactics. I’m sure that both performers and listeners can appreciate that. These four concertos turn mastery of the instruments into unexplainable beauty that truly connect the listener with nature. Vivaldi is one of the best pre-Romantic composers at textural variance. Throughout The Four Seasons, he executes the movement between soloist and orchestra in a flawless and memorable way. While dynamics are often left up to the performer’s interpretation nowadays, it’s safe to say that Vivaldi wrote the music in such a way that left only the most obvious of interpretations, and they were nothing short of beautiful. A great example is the 3rd movement of “Summer”. While “Summer” may have been the weakest of the four concertos (not by much), timbrally it was the most beautiful and effective. This whole work is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
The Four Seasons is simply a musical staple in our history as humans. The “Spring” concerto is one of the most well-known pieces of music ever written. Only a small handful of works have risen to this level of unfluctuating popularity, and is perhaps one of the only musical works written before 1900 to still have a presence in our culture as a whole today. Plus, no other piece of music has better connected humanity to its natural surroundings. You can’t get much more influential than that.
Final Score: 171/180