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Painting Pictures with Sounds, a Guide to Vivaldi's Four Seasons

The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons

Vivaldi's Four Seasons is not only the composer’s most celebrated work, it is one of his most revolutionary. Likely written around 1718–20 whilst a court composer in Mantua, Italy, the work is a collection of four concertos for violin, each of which represents a season of the year in the order Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Collectively they are one of the first substantial examples of what musicologists call 'programme music.'

Programme music is where a composer attempts to represent an outside narrative with sound. The four concertos, each of which has three movements, was published with a detailed explanation, possibly written by the composer, of what they were meant to represent. In responding to this text, Vivaldi produced music of incredible pictorial power, succeeding in capturing the moods, customs, weather and wildlife that we associate with the seasons of the year.


First movement

The work begins with the words ‘Spring is Upon Us,’ the season, full of energy and new life, being represented by this exuberant and famous melody:

This movement also contains this remarkable representation of birds celebrating the return of the season with 'festive song’:

There follows the first of the complete work’s two storms:

Second movement

Vivaldi paints a pastoral scene that includes a rustling overhead, a sleeping goat-herd and, represented in the violas, a constant barking of his dog:

Third movement

The final movement of Spring bring things to a close with the ‘the festive sound of rustic bagpipes’ and the dancing of ‘nymphs and shepherds.’


First Movement

Summer is about heat, which Vivaldi makes clear in this first moment, the music seeming to move with reluctant lethargy:

Second Movement

The languor of summer continues, with mankind tired and irritated by gnats and buzzing flies. The loud interjections represent distant thunder, the coming of a summer storm:

Third Movement

In probably the most dramatic movement of the whole work, Vivaldi unleashes an exhilarating summer storm:


First Movement

Here Vivaldi celebrates the ‘bountiful harvest’ with its ‘songs and dances’ and, of course, ‘liqour’ with this joyful melody:

The revelry ends in sleep as the movement draws to a quiet close. This mood continues throughout the slow second movement, after which the revellers are drawn ‘Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment.’

Third Movement

This leads delightfully to a depiction of hunters emerging at dawn, who ‘with horns and dogs and guns depart upon their hunting.’ The scene is represented by an energetic jumping theme, perhaps evoking the feeling of being on horseback, broken up by fanfare-like interjections:


First Movement

In one of his most brilliant depictions, Vivaldi, with icy harmony and a trilling solo violin, conveys the feeling of trembling 'from cold in the icy snow, In the harsh breath of a horrid wind’:

And and there is also this famous depiction of running in the cold and the stamping of feet, perhaps to keep warm or to remove the snow from one's boots:

Second Movement

Winter is also a time of indoor comforts where, in front of a warm fire, we may ‘pass peaceful/Contented days while the rain outside pours down.’ Is there any music more homely than this?

Third Movement

Vivaldi wraps up his marvellous Four Seasons by taking us back out into the winter cold, where ‘We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.