March 30, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Spring, as they say, has sprung. This is wonderful news for people in the northeast and Midwest, who have been digging out from under one of the longest, most brutal winters in recorded history. By contrast, we in southern California have “endured” an unseasonably warm, dry winter. We’ll pay the price for our mild weather with drought conditions, but in some ways, we probably had the easiest winter in the entire country. I grew up in New York, where there are four distinct seasons. Winter brings snow; spring has rain and new blossoms; summer has humidity, fireflies, and mosquitos; fall has trees with changing leaves in various shades of gold, orange, and red. In SoCal, much of our year seems like a delightful variation on Spring with brief excursions into very hot and somewhat chilly. The weather is a constant staple of conversation, not just here but all over the world, and it’s also been the inspiration for music.
Composers have been writing about the seasons and weather in general for hundreds of years. Considering it’s something that humans have always had to contend with, it stands to reason that as long as music has existed, the weather has been a fair topic. From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1723) to Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons (1801) to the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808) to Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1964-1970) to the Santa Ana winds in Gernot Wolfgang’s Desert Winds, the quirks of the seasons are fertile ground for musical exploration.
Why are we inspired to make art out of the weather? Maybe it’s because we believe the weather and its guiding seasons have certain characteristics, certain immutable qualities that are ripe for musical evocation. The seasons seem to have personalities. Vivaldi brilliantly captured these personalities in the Four Seasons, known in Italian as Le quattro stagioni, a set of four concertos. The concerto as a genre suggests a conversation of sorts between a solo instrument and a larger ensemble. The solo instrument in the Four Seasons is a violin, a popular choice for Vivaldi who was himself a fine violinist.
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’armonica 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 hailstorm 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, harkening back to the fourteenth 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 relentlessly find its way into the house. But still, Vivaldi reminds us, winter—like all the other seasons—has its specific charms and moments of contentment.
Almost two hundred and fifty years after Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Argentinean Astor Piazzolla composed his unique interpretation of the seasons. Ástor Pantaleón Piazzola’s unique upbringing allowed him to speak many languages. Not only was the composer and musician able to speak in Spanish, English, French, and Italian, he was also conversant in two musical languages: the Western canonical tradition, and the musical language of his homeland, Argentina—especially the Tango. Born to Italian parents in 1921, he lived first in Argentina and then in New York. Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas) reflects the composer’s ability to converse in both “classical” music and the Tango.
The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñasor Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, consists of four Tangos, much like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons consists of four concertos. Piazzolla conceived these works as separate pieces, with the first, Summer (composed in 1964), making up part of a dance suite. All of the seasons, written over the course of six years, were scored for the same ensemble: violin, piano, electric guitar, upright bass and bandoneón, although other versions exist and are played more frequently. Piazzolla achieved his greatest success in writing for small chamber groups because through them, he could give a nod to the traditional Tango group, the orquesta tipica, and also expand the sound possibilities into the realms of Classical and Jazz.
Summer begins with a pulsing tango rhythm which is soon interrupted by a passionate duet featuring the violin and cello. Fall begins with energy, but there is a sense of disquiet in this Tango, perhaps a worry of the impending chill of winter. Although there are moments of serenity in Fall, the drive of apprehension seems to grow in intensity all the way to the final chord of the movement. Winter begins as a quiet affair, with a sense of peacefulness, however, an extended piano solo transforms this mood into one of longing. Winter ends with a nod to Baroque counterpoint, specifically Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It is a breathtaking break from the tango, but one that proves Piazzolla’s mastery of these different musical languages. Spring is a jaunty trip interrupted by a cello solo. The original theme returns, even more lively and intense. The movement ends with a flourish worthy of the Tango. In the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, Piazzolla uses his Nuevo tango to evoke the qualities and characteristics of the seasons. Here the four personalities of Spring, Summer, Winter, and Autumn, come to life in the tango, a never-ending dance of time and tide, year after year.