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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2017


Antonio Vivaldi's cycle of violin concertos dramatizing the four seasons marked a substantial shift in the way that the seasons were depicted in the arts. Moving away from religious and mythological allegory, they exemplify a growing interest in descriptive representation of nature's power and in humanity's complex physical and emotional relationship with elements beyond its control. Positing new connections to Arcadian reform ideals of verisimilitude, this article addresses important questions concerning Vivaldi's pairing of sonnets with concertos and the aesthetic factors behind his choice of narrative topics to depict in the music. The article also demonstrates how Vivaldi used diverse textures and sonorities to create powerful contrasts that heighten the emotional impact of the aural imagery while underlining recurring expressive and pictorial motifs throughout the cycle. These last aspects, in particular, provide a new understanding of the historical significance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons as a powerful demonstration of both the expressive potential of the concerto genre and the still underappreciated art of orchestration during the early eighteenth century.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2017 

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I thank Wendy Heller, Alessandro Giammei and the journal's anonymous reviewers for their assistance. An early version of this article was presented at the 2016 Meeting of the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music, held at the University of Texas at Austin, 25–28 February 2016.


1 Michael Talbot is among the few scholarly writers to touch upon the sense of novelty in Vivaldi's cycle (without, however, discussing its relationship to previous seasonal representations), noting that ‘the uninhibited and sometimes remarkably original way in which Vivaldi depicts situations permits use of the epithet “romantic”’. Talbot, Michael, Vivaldi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 122.Google Scholar

2 Ossi, Massimo, ‘Musical Representation and Vivaldi's Concerto Il Proteo, ò Il mondo al rovverscio, RV 544/572’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 69/1 (2016), 118 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Everett, Paul, Vivaldi: The Four Seasons and Other Concertos, Op. 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1824 Google Scholar.

4 See Adler, Shane, ‘Seasons’, in The Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, ed. Roberts, Helene E. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998), volume 2, 793795 Google Scholar. Everett, The Four Seasons, 77–80, hypothesizes that Vivaldi was influenced by an as-yet-unidentified link to specific ideas and imagery in Milton's poems L'allegro and Il pensoroso. However, the shared imagery is so limited, general and situated within the context of existing seasonal depictions that there is no reason to posit a specific link between Milton and Vivaldi.

5 On the musical precedents for many of the representational themes in Vivaldi's seasons see Fertonani, Cesare, Antonio Vivaldi: la simbologia musicale nei concerti a programma (Pordenone: Tesi, 1992), 339 and 63–96Google Scholar, and Strohm, Reinhard, The Operas of Antonio Vivaldi, two volumes (Florence: Olschki, 2008), volume 1, 102108 Google Scholar. Fertonani also mentions a lost ‘divertimento scenico-allegorico’ called La contesa delle stagioni, with a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capeci and music by an unknown composer, that was performed in Rome in 1698 (Fertonani, Antonio Vivaldi, 55).

6 Vivaldi's division of background and foreground elements between ritornellos and episodes in these concertos is also noted by Talbot, Vivaldi, 122.

7 For an overview of competing traditions (allegorical and genre scenes) in the later sixteenth century see Lauterbach, Christiane, ‘Masked Allegory: The Cycle of the Four Seasons by Hendrick Goltzius, 1594–95’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 31/4 (2004–2005), 310321 Google Scholar. On the multiple traditions portraying the seasons as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve, see Viswanathan, S., ‘Milton and the Seasons’ Difference’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 13/1 (1973), 127133, especially 128Google Scholar.

8 The unsupported and vague assertion, widely found on the internet and in programme notes, that Vivaldi was inspired by an unidentified or lost cycle of paintings by Marco Ricci appears to be spurious conjecture, probably based on a misapplication of general remarks drawing broad intellectual parallels between the aesthetics of Vivaldi and Ricci (amongst other Venetian contemporaries), such as those found in Burrows, David, ‘Style in Culture: Vivaldi, Zeno, and Ricci’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4/1 (1973), 123 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Vivaldi scholars have not identified any specific Ricci works that provided a catalyst for Vivaldi's concerto cycle.

9 Brover-Lubovsky, Bella, ‘ Sirocco, Borea, e tutti i venti: Wind Allegory in Venetian Music’, in Musik – Raum – Akkord – Bild: Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Dorothea Baumann, ed. Baldassarre, Antonio (Bern: Lang, 2012), 149162 Google Scholar.

10 It is also possible to see, in the emphasis on powerful winds in Winter, an indirect reference to Aeolus.

11 See, for example, Lauterbach, ‘Masked Allegory’, 310–313; Plomp, Michiel C.’s entries for items 105, 106, 109 and 110 in Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints, ed. Orenstein, Nadine M. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 236238 and 243–245Google Scholar; and Ward, Evelyn Svec, ‘Four Seasons Tapestries from Gobelins’, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 40/6 (1953), part 1, 113114 and 118–119Google Scholar.

12 There is a tangential allusion to the traditional depiction of the summer harvest when the Summer concerto sonnet concludes with the destruction of stalks of corn, but the theme of tending crops is no longer the focus in Vivaldi's vision of summer.

13 Fertonani sees the final portion of the sonnet as a cyclic commentary on how the full scope of humanity's relationship with nature includes both positive and negative experiences. Fertonani, Cesare, La musica strumentale di Antonio Vivaldi (Florence: Olschki, 1998), 351 Google Scholar.

14 The arguments are outlined in Vivaldi, Antonio, Le quattro stagioni: da Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione op. VIII: per violino principale, due violini, viola e basso, ed. Everett, Paul and Talbot, Michael (Milan: Ricordi, 1996), 149150 Google Scholar. The addition of citations from the sonnets made the letter cues superfluous.

15 Praz, Mario, ‘Sonetto’, Enciclopedia italiana di scienze, lettere ed arti (Rome: Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana, 1936)Google Scholar, reproduced at ‘Treccani: La Cultura Italiana’ (20 December 2016).

16 The relationship between portraits and poetry (including sonnets) is addressed in Bolzoni, Lina, Poesia e ritratto nel Rinascimento (Rome: Laterza, 2008)Google Scholar. See also the sonnets describing islands in the Aegean Sea in Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti, Isolario (Venice: Guilelmus Anima Mia, Tridinensis, c1485). I thank Alessandro Giammei for bringing these and other examples to my attention.

17 The sonnet for spring, for example, is headed ‘Sonetto dimostrativo sopra il concerto intitolato La primavera del D. Antonio Vivaldi’ (illustrative sonnet on the concerto entitled Spring by Don Antonio Vivaldi).

18 Dixon, Susan M., Between the Real and the Ideal: The Accademia degli Arcadi and Its Garden in Eighteenth-Century Rome (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006), 29 Google Scholar.

19 Dixon, Accademia degli Arcadi, 30.

20 Dixon, Accademia degli Arcadi, 30.

21 Arcadian criticisms of the importance of physical desire in operatic plots are discussed in Heller, Wendy, ‘Reforming Achilles: Gender, “opera seria” and the Rhetoric of the Enlightened Hero’, Early Music 26/4 (1988), 571572 Google Scholar.

22 See Staver, Frederick, ‘“Sublime” as Applied to Nature’, Modern Language Notes 70/7 (1955), 484487 Google Scholar, and Morgan, Luke, The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 164171 Google Scholar.

23 Michael Martin Cohen, ‘James Thomson and the Sublime’ (PhD dissertation, University of Arizona, 1971). In the same year that Vivaldi's cycle was published, Vico, Giambattista claimed, in Scienza nuova (Naples: Mosca, 1725)Google Scholar, that terror is a component of the sublime. See Costa, Gustavo, ‘Melchiorre Cesarotti, Vico, and the Sublime’, Italica 58/1 (1981), 78 Google Scholar.

24 Talbot, Vivaldi, 122, observes that ‘not the least modern aspect of The Four Seasons is their subordination of human activity to the uncontrollable play of the natural elements’.

25 Wheatley, Christopher J., ‘Thomas D'Urfey's “A Fond Husband”, Sex Comedies of the Late 1670s and Early 1680s, and the Comic Sublime’, Studies in Philology 90/4 (1990), 371390 Google Scholar; Halmi, N. A., ‘From Hierarchy to Opposition: Allegory and the Sublime’, Comparative Literature 44/4 (1992), 337360 Google Scholar; and Cohen, Michael, ‘James Thomson and the Prescriptive Sublime’, The South Central Bulletin 40/4 (1980), 138141 Google Scholar.

26 Cohen, ‘James Thomson and the Prescriptive Sublime’, 139 and 141.

27 Morgan, The Monster in the Garden, 171.

28 Huray, Peter le, ‘The Role of Music in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Aesthetics’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 105 (1978–1979), 9697 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 On ‘harmonic-rhythmic scoring’ see Nicholas Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon in Antonio Vivaldi's Orchestral Revolution: Sonority and Texture in Late Baroque Italian Music’ (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2013), 192–195. Available online at

30 Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’, 48–50.

31 While Vivaldi was not the first composer to use the texture, he was amongst the first to feature it extensively and prominently in instrumental works (and perhaps the first to use it in concerto slow movements), helping popularize it to the extent that many imitators of his concerto style soon picked up the use of FEPM as well. For a discussion of its early history and Vivaldi's use of the device, especially in his works prior to The Four Seasons, see Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’, 47–61.

32 Levy, Janet M., ‘Texture as a Sign in Classic and Early Romantic Music’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 35/3 (1982), 507 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Parkinson, John A., ‘The Barbaric Unison’, The Musical Times 114 (January 1973), 2324 Google Scholar; Spitzer, John and Zaslaw, Neal, The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 447450 Google Scholar.

34 Quantz, Johann Joachim, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin: Voss, 1752)Google Scholar; Quantz, Johann Joachim: On Playing the Flute, trans. with notes and an introduction by Edward R. Reilly, second edition (New York: Schirmer, 1985), 311 Google Scholar.

35 Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, volume 2 (Berlin: author, 1762), 172173 Google Scholar.

36 The passage in bars 44–48 of the first movement of Autumn is not included here because parallel monophony is always heard as an accompaniment to the solo violin line.

37 FEPM is only simulated here, because the solo violin remains independent, providing overlapping cadences on sustained notes.

38 Fertonani, La simbologia, 92, also comments upon the presence of warring winds to end both Summer and Winter.

39 In addition, bar 145 of the Winter finale is almost a direct copy of bar 127 of the Summer finale, and the violin figures in bars 142–144 and 150–152 of the Winter finale invert ideas, scored as FEPM, in alternating bars in a passage from the Summer finale (bars 85–96).

40 Everett, The Four Seasons, 87, also finds that ‘the message of [Vivaldi's] Winter . . . is that man can shrug off, smile at and even enjoy Nature's taunts’.

41 The use of the bassetto and similar sonic effects probably predates the baroque era, but it began to gain (or regain) particular favour as a technique for sectional contrast in the 1670s. See James Webster, ‘Bassett (i)’, and Stephen Bonta and others, ‘Violoncello’, in Grove Music Online (24 August 2012), and Kauffman, Deborah, ‘ Violons en basse as Musical Allegory’, The Journal of Musicology 23/1 (2006), 153185 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an overview of Vivaldi's early use of the technique see Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’, 117–154.

42 E flat had already been treated as a tonal centre in the first movement (from bar 38) and home key for the second movement. However, the arrival of E flat in the first movement is extensively prepared (bars 36–38), which makes its more abrupt appearance in the midst of the third movement all the more striking. Bella Brover-Lubovsky notes that while the use of the flattened seventh degree (with major third) in minor keys was common in the seventeenth century, it is rare in Vivaldi's works. See Brover-Lubovsky, Bella, Tonal Space in the Music of Antonio Vivaldi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 249 Google Scholar.

43 Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’, 120–122.

44 Fertonani, La simbologia, 95; Everett, The Four Seasons, 89.

45 For a broader discussion of Vivaldi's scoring techniques see Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’.

46 On the full-ensemble rhythmic unison see Lockey, ‘The Viola as a Secret Weapon’, 186–188.

47 For example, Cecil Forsyth warned that writing parallel octaves for the viola and cello can, in some circumstances, create ‘a feeling of emptiness in the alto- and tenor-registers’. Forsyth, Cecil, Orchestration, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1935 Google Scholar; reprinted New York: Dover, 1982), 404.

48 See especially the opening ritornello and bars 80–86.

49 For an overview of this effect see Spitzer and Zaslaw, The Birth of the Orchestra, 464–467.

50 Dolan, Emily I., The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Dolan, The Orchestral Revolution, 9.

52 For example, the bare-fifths drone in the viola and bass that accompanies the violins’ melody in the finale of the Spring concerto, representing the rustic sound of bagpipes, has a textural precedent in the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, Op. 3 No. 8 (bars 9–12). Likewise, the layered texture of the slow movement of the Winter concerto has parallels in the slow movement of his String Concerto in D minor, rv128 (although the date of this work is not yet established).

53 Walter Kolneder was among the first scholars to draw attention to Vivaldi's use of a variety of textural and scoring devices to create diverse sonorities. See Kolneder, Walter, Performance Practices in Vivaldi, trans. Anne de Dadelsen (Winterthur: Amadeus, 1979), 8085 Google Scholar.