Journey across our great country with the small singers of École Agnes Davidson School, and then experience the dark. dramatic, and impassioned piano before cruising down the romantic Rhine!
Please click here to download and print these programme notes (pdf version).
Series 6 – The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most revered and influential composers of the Baroque era. His contributions to Western music are found primarily in the style and form of the Baroque concerto. 500 concerti composed by Antonio Vivaldi survive and the Four Seasons, in which each three-movement concerto is designed to depict a season of the year, is easily his most famous and universally celebrated work. Vivaldi’s innovations would have a profound influence on European composers in his own lifetime and beyond. He was one of the pioneers in the usage of the ‘ritornello’ form, in which a repeated orchestral refrain is separated by episodes featuring a solo instrument. He is also credited with the development of the three-part ‘fast-slow-fast’ organization of movements within the concerto. Most notably, Vivaldi was a major influence on Johann Sebastian Bach who transcribed many of Vivaldi’s concerti and successfully absorbed his style.
It is believed that the Four Seasons was inspired by the countryside around Mantua, Italy where Vivaldi spent some time as ‘Maestro di Capella’ for the governor. The earliest publications were accompanied by poems for each movement of the concerti, also presumably written by Vivaldi, which included all of the imagery that he intended the music to evoke. This is one of the earliest and most significant examples of ‘program music’ (music composed to directly imitate and depict narrative elements that are usually written and distributed in the concert program), which is a style of composition that would not become commonplace until the Romantic era many decades later.
In ‘Spring’, after the initial melody is presented we hear birdsong in the violins and then trickling water. Later a storm approaches and thunder and lightning can be heard. In the second movement a sleeping goatherd played by the solo violin is accompanied by his barking dog in the viola. The third movement is a rustic dance. In ‘Summer’, more birdsong is followed by gentle breezes in the violins, which become stronger winds. At the end of the first movement, the solo violin portrays a village boy weeping at an approaching storm. Flies and wasps are heard buzzing past during the second movement and the third represents the violent weather of summer.
‘Autumn’ begins with a village dance, where a drunkard played by the solo violin stumbles and eventually falls asleep. In the second movement we hear the sounds of the partygoers who have now fallen asleep. The third movement is a great hunt with horns, rifles, dogs, and a beast who flees and eventually dies. ‘Winter’ begins with the solo violin playing the sounds of a horrid wind, stamping feet, and chattering teeth. The second movement is a cold rain and in the third movement, the violins play the sounds of a person walking precariously on ice who slips, falls and then runs away before the ice cracks. Sounds of blowing winds close the piece.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
Jean Sibelius is widely considered, both at home and abroad, to be Finland’s greatest composer. Sibelius became a national hero who rose to fame during Finland’s struggle for independence from Russia. He is best known for his tone poems and seven symphonies, of which the most popular and often recorded is his Second.
Sibelius was born in Russian-occupied Finland on December 8, 1865. His father was a doctor who died of typhoid when Jean was only three years old. After he and his mother moved in with his widowed grandmother, Sibelius’ uncle began to teach him the violin and encouraged him to compose. He soon set his ambitions on becoming a great, virtuosic violinist. After graduating high school and abandoning his brief attempt at studying law, Sibelius entered the Helsinki Music Institute where he studied until 1889. He continued his studies in Berlin and then Vienna before returning to his home country where his music was met with success and acclaim. The premiere of Sibelius’ First Symphony in 1899 would coincide with Tsar Nicholas II tightening the Russian grip on Finland and Sibelius’ music was seen as defiant and patriotic. This would elevate him to the status of national hero. Sibelius began touring internationally and was again met with enthusiasm and admiration.
In 1901, after the great success of his tone poem Finlandia, a piece evocative of the national struggle against Russian oppression, Baron Axel Carpelan, a friend and supporter of Sibelius, sent him to live for a time in a mountain villa in Rappalo, Italy for inspiration and to absorb some of the Italian style. Sibelius began composing his Second Symphony there, and a little over a year later, on March 8, 1902, it was premiered in Helsinki and Sibelius’ work was again met with great acclaim. The piece was considered to be a strongly political work, to the point that it was nicknamed the ‘Symphony of Independence’ (although some believe that Sibelius denied this). Sibelius called his Second Symphony ‘a confession of the soul’ and many scholars believe it to be a deeply personal work.
The symphony consists of four movements and the first movement establishes the motif from which the whole work grows. Listen to how the first three notes permeate, develop and return throughout the work until the triumphant, climactic finale. In his original sketches, Sibelius intended that the second movement begin with an ominous bassoon passage meant to depict the ghost of Death in the castle of Don Giovanni. He labeled the second theme in this movement ‘Christus’, which is presented as a counterbalance to the main theme and perhaps represents the resurrection of the imagined character, or possibly Finland. The third movement is a frenetic and blistering scherzo followed by a slow, lyrical trio after which the scherzo is repeated. The Finale is a massive, triumphant culmination which features many of the themes heard throughout the piece brought together in such unity and victorious perfection that some historians have wondered if Sibelius composed this movement first and then worked backward. This is not supported by the notes made by the composer, but the assumption highlights the unique organic unity that Sibelius was able to achieve.