Mention “Spring” to almost any music lover, and they will immediately think of Antonio Vivaldi’s violin concerto that bears that name. Most, upon hearing the name of Vivaldi, will think of that very piece. In strictly musical terms, it is in all ways consistent with Vivaldi’s compositional practice for solo concertos. There are three movements: fast, followed by slow, followed by fast. The two fast movements are constructed according to the ritornello procedure: the orchestra opens with a series of simple musical themes, which return in various keys during the course of the movement (the “little returns,” i.e., in Italian, the ritornelli), with passages in between for the solo-violin, and concluding with a final statement of the ritornello. The slow movement is likewise typical of Vivaldi, consisting of an elaborate solo melody accompanied by the higher sections of the orchestra, without the cellos or bass.
As with many of Vivaldi’s concertos, he provides us with a descriptive title, “Spring,” which suggests the mood of the piece. But the four concertos which make up The Four Seasons also have a detailed “literary key” in the form of a sonnet whose lines are linked to specific points in the piece. The sonnets, presented in the 1725 publication, were perhaps written by Vivaldi himself. We have provided the “Spring” sonnet in its original Italian, with an English translation, on the Program page.
Giunt’ è la Primavera e festosetti
La Salutan gl’ Augei con lieto canto,
E i fonti allo Spirar de’ Zeffiretti
Con dolce mormorio Scorrono intanto:
Vengon’ coprendo l’ aer di nero amanto
E Lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti
Indi tacendo questi, gl’ Augelletti;
Tornan’ di nuovo al lor canoro incanto:
E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante
Dorme ‘l Caprar col fido can’ à lato.
Danza Pastorale. Allegro.
Di pastoral Zampogna al suon festante
Danzan Ninfe e Pastor nel tetto amato
Di primavera all’ apparir brillante.
Spring has come, and birds greet it
Festively with a cheerful song;
And with the breath of gentle breezes
Springs trickle with a sweet murmur.
Lightning and thunder, elected to announce it,
Come and cover the air with a black cloak.
Once they are quiet, the birds
Return to their enchanting song
Then on the pleasant, flowered meadow
A goatherd, with his faithful dog at his side,
Sleeps to the sweet murmur of fronds and plants.
To the festive sound of a rustic bagpipe
Nymphs and shepherds dance under the beloved canopy
At the brilliant appearance of spring.
(English translation ©1995 Eleanor Selfridge-Field)
The first eight lines (the opening octave) describe in close detail the musical ideas as they appear in the first movement. Vivaldi marks in the score exactly where each phrase of text applies.
The second movement is linked to the first three lines of the sestet (the closing six lines). The goatherd is represented by the solo-violin’s cantilena. The first and second violin sections depict the murmuring plants, and the viola part carries the line “the dog who barks”.
The closing movement is described in the final three lines of the sonnet. The sound of the bagpipes are portrayed in the drone played by the viola, cello, and bass.
Music for orchestra in Germany during the Baroque period took one of two forms, each of which was borrowed from another country: the concerto, which came from Italy, and the ouverture, from France, by which the German composers meant a suite of dance-movements headed by what we now call a French overture. The ouverture was originally created by Jean-Baptiste Lully in the 1650s as an introductory movement to his ballets, and which he later adapted for use in his operas, known as tragédies-lyriques. His overture consists of a single movement in two sections. The first is stately and majestic, dominated by dotted rhythms and chordal texture. The second is livelier and generally imitative, with sometimes a return to the stately music at the end.
German composers adopted the form enthusiastically, starting with the publication in 1695 of Georg Muffat’s Florilegium and Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer’s Le Journal du printemps (“The Journal of Spring”). Muffat learned the style directly, having been himself a pupil of Lully in Paris. It is not known how Fischer became familiar with the style, since apparently he spent his entire life in his native Bohemia and in Saxony. Most likely he learned the French style from Muffat, who was frequently in Prague for extended periods. The German adaptation of the Lullian ouverture generally included a series of dance- movements appended to the overture itself, sometimes referred to as galanteries. Each of the eight overture-suites in Le Journal du Printemps ends with a Passacaille (or Chaconne), a dance form which featured a solo-dancer alternating with the larger ensemble: it is always in three beats per measure, and is based on a repeating theme heard in the bass part.
One of the hallmarks of the last generation of German Baroque composers, including Bach and Telemann, was their blending together of French and Italian styles. In the overtures of both Bach (only four of which survive) and Telemann (whose works in this form number in the hundreds) the basic model of Lully’s overture is expanded to included passages for smaller groups of instruments within the orchestra, rather in the manner of an Italian concerto grosso. Thus, in the fast middle section of Telemann’s Ouverture Suite, the texture is often reduced from the full orchestra to a three-part solo-ensemble: two oboes and bassoon, two violins and cello, or two flutes and viola. The same kind of alternation between full orchestra and small ensemble can be heard in Bach’s Ouverture Suite in C major, although in this case the only solo-ensemble is oboes and bassoon.
Bach in his Ouverture Suite in C major used six French dance-types for the galanteries. Three of these are in triple-time: the Courante, the Menuet, and the Passepied. The Courante is in a moderate tempo, although with complex cross-rhythms; the Menuet is somewhat faster, and the Passepied faster still. Two are in duple-time: the Gavotte, which always starts with two pick-up notes ahead of the down-beat, and the Bourrée, which always begins with a single pick-up. The remaining dance-type, the Forlane, is in compound time: two beats in a measure, but each beat divided into thirds instead of halves. This example is characterized by its swirling inner parts.
Telemann’s Ouverture Suite uses a different set of galanteries, and he gives some of them imaginative titles. The first one is called “Les Cyclopes”, referring to the one-eyed giants of Greek mythology; its musical form resembles a Forlane, but this particular piece has a “galumphing” character that is perhaps explained by its title. A pair of menuets follows, and then a rondeau entitled “Galimatias”. The description “en rondeaux” means that there is a refrain to which the music constantly returns (unlike most of the dances, which are in two halves each of which is repeated). “Galimatias” is the French word for “nonsense” or “gobbledygook”. The suite concludes with a lively sailor’s dance, the Hornpipe, which originated in England rather than France.
German composers, in adopting the Italian form of the concerto, tended to use a much greater variety of solo instruments, especially winds, than the Italian creators of the form. Telemann in particular had a great sense of instrumental color, perhaps the greatest of the 18th century. His Concerto in A Major for oboe d’amore features the alto-range version of the oboe, characterized not only by its lower pitch, but also by its onion-shaped bell, like that of the English horn. This gives it a covered, more mellow (or even mournful) tone-color, which was also a great favorite of Bach. Telemann’s oboe d’amore concerto is, like many of his concertos in four movements, organized in two pairs, each consisting of a slow movement leading into a fast one.