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Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Four Seasons

Inside the Music: The Four Seasons

The brilliant virtuoso violinist and conductor Joshua Bell brings his orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, to Bristol with a programme to show off their versatility. Covering music from three centuries, they begin with the 18th-century and Vivaldi’s astonishing survey of the seasons. Next, Beethoven starts to push symphonic boundaries with his Symphony No. 2, completed in 1802, and a new work by bluegrass double bassist Edgar Meyer brings everything bang up to date – in pure American style.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

10 things you didn’t know about… Vivaldi

  • Almost immediately after Vivaldi was born in Venice, the city suffered an earthquake  – the boy was taken home to be baptised and had to wait until May for his church baptism.
  • Vivaldi was ordained in 1703 – because of his red curly hair, he was nicknamed the ‘Red Priest’
  • The same year, Vivaldi was appointed as violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an organage for young girls. Much of his instrumental and choral music was written for the school.
  • He wrote over 400 concertos for various instruments, more than half of which were written for his instrument, the violin. He also wrote 46 operas.
  • JS Bach was such a fan of Vivaldi’s concertos, that he arranged several of them for organ, and rewrote the Concerto for Four Violins, RV 580 into a Concerto for Four Harpsichords.
  • Vivaldi died penniless in Vienna, despite having amassed the equivalent of £1.6 million in today’s money during his lifetime. His grave is now sadly lost.
  • Vivaldi’s music fell out of favour for several centuries after his death. It’s only now that many of his pieces, including the operas, are being rediscovered for the masterpieces they are.
  • Vivaldi’s most famous work, The Four Seasons, sets music to poems by an unknown author. Some scholars believe they were written by Vivaldi himself.
  • The English loved Vivaldi’s music – much of his business came from shipping new scores across the Channel for aristocracy to perform.
  • The French loved his music too – one of his cantatas, Gloria e Imeneo, was written for the wedding of King Louis XV.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on the history of the Orchestra

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

5 key moments to listen out for

Vivaldi: Four Seasons
From the start of the second movement, the viola’s barking dog is keeping watch over the sleeping goatherd. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of descriptive music.

After a languorous start in ‘summer’, nature starts to awaken in nervous anticipation of the coming storms about a minute into the first movement. It’s all brilliantly suspenseful.

Freezing, frosty winter comes life in music of sparkling beauty. The opening movement to the last concerto includes perhaps Baroque music’s most famous passage in the shivering chords of the full orchestra.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2

In the first movement, Beethoven is constantly challenging our expectations, both in terms of melody and rhythm. Around five minutes in, Beethoven turns normal rhythmic emphasis on its head, surprising us with jolting phrases that intentionally interrupt the work’s natural flow.

The final movement starts with a giant hiccup. It’s a masterstroke that in anyone else’s hands would sound ridiculous. But out of it, Beethoven creates one of this most inspired movements – joyful and carefree.

Delve deeper: Vivid Vivaldi and a Beethoven not beaten

It’s normally thought that the symphonic poem, with its links to literature, drama and human experience, was dreamt up by Berlioz and Liszt in the heady Romantic years of the late 19th century. But just over 200 years before, Vivaldi was painting vivid portraits of a fresh spring day, the suffocating heat of the Italian midday sun, autumn’s wild winds and winter’s frozen landscapes. The four concertos that make up The Four Seasons are each masterpieces of musical description, unlike anything that had come before. Although the concertos were published with accompanying poems (probably written by Vivaldi himself), it’s thought they were written after the event, to help players understand the themes and moods of each concerto.

Vivaldi, the son of a musician and barber, was a prolific composer, writing huge amounts of instrumental and vocal music, nearly 50 operas and over 500 concertos. He spent most of his working life in Venice, where he worked at Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls, one of the city’s many institutions that placed music right at the heart of its everyday life. And it was in this orphanage that The Four Seasons would most likely have been performed.

Spring opens the set, with birdsong, babbling brooks and gentle breezes. A thunderstorm interrupts the peace, before the birds begin their songs again. The second movement depicts a sleeping goat-herd, his dog, here scored for viola, keeping watch. A final pastoral dance heralds in the summer.

Summer begins in sultry, almost unbearable heat. Gradually, nature wakes up, birds begin to sing, the wind rises, and thunder and lightning dissipate the oppressive heat. But the cooler weather brings a curse – the storms have battered the crops.

Autumn brings the good news that the harvest has been saved, celebrated with dancing and a good deal of wine… The second movement is spent in something of an alcoholic haze. The third movement heralds in the hunting season, with the sounds of horns, dogs and guns. And a hunted animal dies at the end of a long, exhausting chase.

Winter descends quickly with biting winds, chattering teeth and stamping feet, while the slow movement brings warmth courtesy of the roaring fire. The final movement sees fun in the freezing cold, people sliding and slipping on the frozen ice, taking care not to break it as they go.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was written during a period of intense frustration and anguish as the composer was forced to come to terms with his growing deafness. But it seems Beethoven was determined not to let his affliction get the better of him – it’s full of energy and rhythm, almost as if Beethoven is shaking off the Viennese politeness of his First Symphony. Yes, there is grace and charm in the second movement, but the feeling is much of mischief and revelry, the final movement confounding expectations at every turn, orchestration lurching this way and that, party guests running here and there, laughing, drinking, forgetting life’s troubles… The Second Symphony was the start of where Beethoven was heading – he was starting to carve his own musical path, away from Haydn and Mozart and towards Mahler and Bruckner.

So – what to expect from a new commission from superstar American bluegrass double-bassist Edgar Meyer? If his Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn in 1999, is anything to go by, it’ll be an intensely beautiful, folksong-inspired work, with a distinct streak of Americana. Perfect for the all-American in Joshua Bell.

Words: Oliver Condy

Academy of St Martin in the Fields perform The Four Seasons on Thursday 25 January 2018. Click below for more information and to book 

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