About this Recording
82013 - VIVALDI: 4 Seasons (The) (Gaohu) / BACH: Violin Concerto (Erhu)
English 

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 -1741)
The Four Seasons

J. S. Bach (1685 -1750)
Violin Concerto in A Minor

Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, the grandson of a baker and son of a man who combined the trades of musician and barber. He was to spend the greater part of his life in his native city, where, from the colour of his hair rather than any political inclination, he was known as "il prete rosso", the red priest. He had been ordained in 1703, when he was appointed violin-master at the Ospedale della Pietè, one of the four establishments in Venice for the education of girls who were orphans, illegitimate or indigent. The institutions were famous for their music in a city that had always attracted many visitors, in addition to its own enthusiastic musical public.

Vivaldi continued to work at the Pietà with relatively little interruption. He was able to combine his duties with those of impresario and composer at the theatre of S. Angelo from 1714, and left the Pieta in 1718 to serve briefly as maestro da camera to Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt. By 1723 he was back again at the Pietà with a commission to compose and direct the performance of two concerti a month. Meanwhile his reputation had spread widely abroad both as a virtuoso performer on the violin and as a composer. In 1730 he visited Bohemia and 1738 led an orchestra in Amsterdam for the centenary of the Schouwberg Theatre. In Italy his operas had been performed in Verona and in Ferrara, as well as in Venice, where they had continued success.

In 1740 the records of the Pieta show Vivaldi's impending departure, and the sale to the institution of twenty concerti. We next hear of him in Vienna, where there is a record of the sale of more compositions to Count Antonio Vinciguerra on 28th June, 1741. A month later he was dead, to be given, like Mozart fifty years later, a poor man's funeral. At the height of his fame he had earned large sums of money, and one must suspect that his later poverty was due not to simple extravagance but to the changes of fashion and to his involvement in the expensive and risky business of opera.

Vivaldi was prolific, composing vast quantities of instrumental and vocal music and nearly fifty operas, Of the five hundred concerti he wrote the most popular in his life-time as today were the four known as le Quattro Stagloni - The Four Seasons, works that had circulated widely in manuscript before being published in Amsterdam in 1725, when explanatory poems were added to clarify the programme of each concerto. The set was dedicated to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a cousin of Haydn's first patron. The title page describes Vivaldi himself as the Count's "Maestro in Italia', as "Maestro de' Concerti" of the Pieta, as well as "Maestro di Capella dl Camera" of Prince Philip, land grave of Hesse-Darmstadt.

The first concerto, Spring, opens with the cheerful song of the birds that welcomes the season, followed by the gentle murmur of streams fanned by the breeze: there is thunder and lightning, and then the birds resume their song, represented by the solo violin assisted by two other solo violins. The second movement shows the goat-herd asleep, while the viola serves as a watch-dog, barking regularly in each bar against the murmur of the foliage. A pastoral dance brings more activity, to the sound of the bag-pipe, interrupted by a section for the solo violin that seems to breathe the sultry heat of coming summer.

Summer itself is a time of languor - "langue l'uomo, langue '1 gregge ed arde il pino", as the introductory sonnet puts it. The music grows more energetic as the cuckoo sings, then the turtle-dove and the goldfinch. The wind rises and the shepherds are anxious, with some musical justification. In the slow movement their rest is disturbed by thunder and lightning and there are troublesome flies, and in the final movement the fears of thunder are realised as a storm batters the crops.

Autumn opens with the dance and song of the country-people, in work that has much of the artifice of the traditional pastoral convention. This is a celebration of the harvest, with an excess of wine bringing sleep at the end, to pervade the second movement. The third movement brings the hunt at dawn, with the huntsman's horn, the sound of dogs and guns. An animal takes flight and is pursued and dies in the fatigue of the chase.

The last of the seasons, Winter, brings cold winds, the stamping of feet and chattering teeth. The slow movement shelters by the warmth of the fireside, while the rain falls outside, and the last movement of this eventful history shows people walking carefully on ice, slipping and falling and running in case the ice breaks. The winds are at war, but there is sport to be had.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach in 1685, the youngest son of a town and court musician and member of a family with long musical traditions. An orphan by the age of ten, he moved to Ohrduf, where his elder brother was organist, embarking, in 1703, on a professional career as a musician. Employment as organist at Arnstadt and later at Mühlhausen was followed by a period of eight years as court organist at Weimar, and a further period from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, the social summit of his career. Bach left the Prince's service in 1723 to take up the position of Cantor at the Choir School of St. Thomas in Leipzig, where he was responsible for the music of the major city churches, and later directed the university Collegium Musicum established there by Telemann in 1702. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.

Bach was a prolific composer, his compositions corresponding very largely with his current responsibilities. Many of his works for organ were written in earlier years, while his primarily secular responsibilities at Cöthen, where the prevailing Pietism at court excluded elaborate musical activity in church, elicited a number of instrumental compositions. Initially at Leipzig he worked to meet the demand for church cantatas, later turning his attention to the repertoire of the Collegium Musicum and to the collection and publication of many of his earlier works. 

The three violin concerti that survive in their original form, the Concerto in A minor, the Concerto in E major and the Double Concerto in D minor, scored for strings and basso continuo, were all written during Bach's period of employment as Kapellmeister at Cöthen, where the young prince Leopold, a keen amateur, showed a great interest in music that was only curtailed by his marriage at the end of 1721 to a woman that Bach was later to describe as "amusa", lacking in any musical inclinations. It was this marriage, nine months after his own second marriage to Anna Magdalena, that caused his application to Leipzig and his departure. The three concerti also exist in transcriptions for harpsichord made by the composer in Leipzig, with other concerti that survive only in such transcriptions.

The Concerto in A minor opens with a characteristic figure, which forms a repeated element in the movement. There is a fine-spun melody over a repeated bass figure in the slow movement and a final gigue movement which includes brief moments of technical display by the soloist.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons In particular have provided material for other soloists, in addition to the solo violin for which the four concerti were originally conceived. While the violin may have been used in Chinese music to imitate the techniques of the er-hu, the Chinese two-string fiddle, the latter has rarely been used in classical western violin repertoire. The er-hu has a small hexagonal body of wood, the belly covered with snakeskin. There is a tubular neck and two strings are looped to the two large pegs at the top of the neck. The instrument has no finger board and the bow passes between the two strings. The player sits and holds the instrument on the knee, holding the bow under hand, as with the Western viola da gamba.


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