ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


The Four Seasons: History of a Hit

One of the best known pieces of music since its composition in 1720, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons eclipsed his other work for centuries. This film seeks to answer why these four concertos have such enduring appeal.

AIRED: March 18, 2021 | 0:52:13

[ Recording of Vivaldi's "Four Season's" theme plays ]


Male Interpreter: It's a bit like at a Rolling Stones concert

when the audience hears the first chords of "Satisfaction,"

they start screaming with excitement.

I don't know if the audience screamed with excitement

in Vivaldi's time,

but when they heard the theme of the Four Seasons,

they immediately recognized it.

[ Tapping to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" theme ]

[ Whistles "Four Seasons" theme ]

[ Vocalizes "Four Seasons" theme ]

[ Speaking French ]

Male Interpreter #2: The Four Seasons has become a sort of refrain.

Before we realized, Vivaldi was a very great musical genius.

[ Vocalizes "Four Seasons" theme ]

Male Interpreter #3: For me, Vivaldi was much more than a musician

and much more than a violinist.

Much more than a man of a theater,

much more than a man of the church and a priest.

Much more than a teacher, much more than a composer.

He was all of those things.

[ Vocalizes "Four Seasons" theme ]

-Hello. Hello? Aw. -Oui, ah, oui?



Narrator: A 300-year-old work that is still

the greatest hit in history --

millions of discs, over a thousand different versions

and dozens of new ones coming out each year.

How can this piece of baroque music,

and certain rock numbers,

rival each other in the musical charts?

And why the Four Seasons rather than any other work of the time?

It's an exceptional piece, a miracle,

an irrepressible work.

But what lies behind the Four Seasons phenomenon?



In theChâteau de Versailles, Fabio Biondi

is rehearsing with his ensemble, Europa Galante.

They rose to prominence 20 years ago

with a breathtaking disc

which enjoyed record sales at the time,

none other than the Four Seasons.

Male Interpreter #4: when you look at the score, the Four Seasons,

you can immediately see its inspirations stands apart

from the rest of his work.

And luckily, it met with great success from the moment

it was first written, that's very important.

Because Vivaldi had become more or less forgotten

and it was thanks to the Four Seasons

that he was rediscovered.

[ Applause ]

Narrator: During the month-long Venise Vivaldi Versailles

festival, four musical formations,

one after the other, play their version of the Four Seasons,

and every time they play to a packed

galerie de battaglia.





We know very little about Vivaldi's life.

We're not even certain we have an authentic portrait of him,

this caricature is considered to be the nearest likeness.


"Il prete rosso compositori d'musica."

"The red haired priest, composer of music" --

Born in Venice in 1878, died in Vienna in 1741.



Neither do we know much about the Four Seasons.

We know the four violin concertos were printed in 1725,

but we do not know either exactly

when or how they were written.

We do know one thing, though,

Vivaldi and his Four Seasons sum up one city, Venice.





Male Interpreter #3: The situation is as follows,

We know Vivaldi had already composed the seasons

before they were printed many years before,

around 1716 or 1717.

[ Continues speaking Italian ]

Many clues tell us that these concertos

already existed about eight or nine years before

Michel-Charles Le Cène printed them in Amsterdam.

[ Speaking Italian ]

The concertos had already been composed

and performed for Count Morzin.

In the dedication letter to Count Morzin,

in the printed edition Vivaldi wrote,

"Dear Count, you already know this music.

You've already heard the seasons.

But I hope they will seem to you as new

because I have added these expressive sonnets

which will explain them better."

[ Speaking Italian ]



[ Speaking French ]

Female Interpreter: The most traditional way Vivaldi imitated birds

was using the trill.

He was also very fond of the goldfinch,

which he represented by five descending notes.

[ Continues in French ]

Surprisingly, Vivaldi's birds

are not only written in major keys,

there are also more melancholic birds,

especially in the first movement.



I don't know if just one violin is very representative.

You have to try and imagine it with three violins.


[ Speaking Italian ]

To facilitate this association,

Vivaldi created a very precise,

very geometrical system of lettering --

A, B, C, D, E.

And for each verse of the sonnet or every two or three verses,

a letter features on his score.

So the musician who is playing the piece,

but also the audience reading the sonnets,

can recognize what the music is portraying.

Female Interpreter: The thunder.


But in fact, Vivaldi just wrote.

Which is a rather precise rhythm.

But I think in our ensemble,

if we stick to this precise rhythm,

lacks a bit of thunder, someone competent.

So we are a little more.


Something like this, a little free-er.






[ Speaking Italian ]

Male Interpreter #3: He had a profound perception of nature, life, and things.

And this program music illustrates that well.

But Vivaldi goes beyond the simple description of nature

that already existed well before him.

Since the 16th century, musicians had already been

describing birds running streams,

thunder and lightning and storms at sea.

It was easy to do.

Vivaldi took things further in the Four Seasons.

The descriptions of nature feature alongside

the descriptions of man's soul searching in the face of nature.

Female Interpreter: The violin is next to the fire,

which is represented by the cello that crackles,

jumping around the octaves like this.


In the key of E flat major,

which is a very welcoming key with lots of flats

which are like lots of cushions,

outside the violins make the sound of rain

on the window panes.

On the cello score is written "fortissimo."

A very generous fire.

The instruction on the violin scores isforte

big drops of rain.


It's really rather intense, and the solo violin and viola

are always the character.

The human character,

who is in the middle of all that atmosphere.

It's powerful because the rain is intense

and the fire is crackling.

But it's also very, very welcoming.

There's a contrast with indoors where the shepherd is so content

to be inside and hear the melody

is less narrative than in other movements.

It's not so much a story in that part,

but a feeling, I think.



[ Speaking Italian ]

Male Interpreter #3: In that respect, Vivaldi reveals

a capacity for introspection and insight

and his vision of the world,

which is not just that of a musician,

an instrumentalist, or a violin virtuoso,

but rather that of a man who has something more to say

to the people of his time and also to future generations.


Narrator: In one of the rare letters that has survived down to this day,

Vivaldi wrote,

"Soon after I was ordained a priest,

I said Mass for a year or so, then stopped,

as I had to leave the altar three times

without finishing due to the oppressive illness

I have been afflicted with since birth.

Because of that, I live at home almost constantly

and only venture out in gondolas or in carriages.

I cannot walk because of a tight feeling in my chest,

any good I do, I do at home and at my desk."

Male Interpreter #5: Vivaldi was a genius

who lived in a particularly inspiring city.

What's interesting is that this man who was totally urban,

if only for health reasons,

could hardly go out and could hardly move,

although he did have rather a hectic life all the same.

But still, this was due to the very structure of Venice,

which is both such a compact city

and it is so open onto the water,

onto the night sky and onto everything

that can ripple around a particularly compact city.

Vivaldi captured all that and wanted to put it

all into a play that would be more

or less cosmic representing the entire world.

And this was to become the Four Seasons

because these Four Seasons form a cycle.

And he wanted to contain the whole world in this music.



Narrator: In fact, the aspect of Vivaldi's life

we know most about was the work he carried out for 40 years

as a teacher in the Venetian hospices,


[indistinct] rehearses in the salon of one of these hospices.

Female Interpreter: Another thing I love about Vivaldi

is that he didn't just write for himself,

he also wrote for others.

He worked at theHospitaler della Pietá.

He gave lessons to a great number

of very talented young ladies

who he taught violin to, most of them.

That must have been such a very great opportunity

for those young ladies to have Vivaldi as a teacher.


Female Interpreter #2: As Vivaldi have this orchestra of young ladies

at theHospitaler della Pietá, if you can call it an orchestra,

as it was really an ensemble of singers and musicians,

he could test out his music a long time in advance,

especially with the finest players

among the young ladies like Anna Maria, for example,

whom we know was an outstanding violinist

of international caliber.

So he could experiment on his concertos

using musicians who had the same advanced level of violin

as himself, before sending the scores to print.


Male Interpreter #5: In other words, at this rather miraculous sort of conservatory

which he'd created in Venice, everything his students

could produce in the way of sound he mixed and structured,

says to obtain a sort of general panorama.

And what is so extraordinary is that Vivaldi,

inadvertently, of course, had created

the modern orchestra and orchestration.

That doesn't mean he used 60 instruments.

It means he was capable of obtaining a maximum

of surprising original effects

with a minimum of instruments.

So the Four Seasons, an extraordinary example of that

as they were written for strings and using these strings alone,

he obtained effects of transparency,

nocturnal effects, anxiety and exuberance

with an absolutely extraordinary variety of colors.







Male Interpreter #4: I think he also wanted to prove something

as he was criticized at the time

for a certain mediocrity in his writing.

So I think that with the Four Seasons

he set out to prove he was a highly accomplished musician.



The first movement of Autumn is very complex.

It's difficult to find music that has such different rhythms.

[ Continues in French ]

There is a freedom, which, uh, how shall I put it?

You never find all those changes of tempo

in a concerto movement.








I'm pleased to see that people understand

the primary animal spirits of the rhythm.

[ Continues in French ]

Because the most moving aspect of Vivaldi's work is this drive.

[ Claps ]







Female Interpreter #2: You have to think of Vivaldi's music

as something that was improvised,

and was experimented on constantly with the audience.

Unfortunately, we have very few traces

of how Vivaldi actually did this.

[ Continues in French ]

But the few very rare comments we do have,

for example, come from a young German man, Uffenbach,

who was staying in Venice in 1715,

who frequented the theaters and heard Vivaldi.

Uffenbach said that his technique was extraordinary,

that he had never heard anything as prodigious

as his technical feats.

To such an extent,

it was almost unpleasant to listen to.

Female Interpreter: When the violin is being used in all its splendor,

there's a little temptation for composers to showcase that,

to show what the violin is capable of.

Of course, the violinist is also on show.

But what really comes through is the pride in the instrument.


Vivaldi and his peers must have had great fun with that.


I think that, more than wanting to dazzle people,

or wow them,

virtuosity was first and foremost a game.

A game they played with the instrument

and it was also a question of energy.






Narrator: The Four Seasons reflect the incredible vitality

of 18th century Venice,

Venice was the place to be at the time,

the whole world in one city,

the leading capital of the culture industry

which exported its productions all over Europe,

such as Vivaldi's music but also Titian's and Tupelo's paintings

and Goldoni's plays.

[ Speaking French ]

Female Interpreter #2: You have to bear in mind that during Vivaldi's time,

Venice was already undergoing transformation,

as a city of tourism.

Venice had become a sort of industry,

both of images and sound.

And it was really around this time that the myth began.

The myth that still lasts today of Venice

being a highly esthetic city.

[ Continues in French ]

The Four Seasons are really the emblem

of the Venice of the Carnival, or the period in which

Venice was turning into a city of tourism,

and which formed a sort of European trend

of the gallant style.










[ Applause ]

Narrator: A strangely contagious fever spread to France,

the composers Chédeville, Corrette,

and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an amateur musician,

all produced their own version of Spring.


Female Interpreter #2: You could say that France was really the country

in which the Four Seasons became firmly established

as they were played constantly in Paris from a 1728 to 1760.

[ Continues in French ]

They were played every year at the publicConcert Spirituel.

[ Choir sings to Vivaldi ]


Narrator: This French trend still persists today,

as exemplified in Versailles.

Male Interpreter #4: Connections between Venice and Paris

have always been very strong.

[ Continues in French ]

I think it's wonderful that we are lucky enough

to be able to play in places like this.












Female Interpreter: Towards the 1730s Vivaldi left Venice.

He was no longer in demand in his own city.

And was no longer employed in the smallSant' Angelo theater

where he started out.


Narrator: After the phenomenal success of the Four Seasons,

how did Vivaldi subsequently experience

such rapidly changing fortunes? And in Venice of all places?


Male Interpreter #4: It was a century in which music

quickly dropped out of fashion.

So, I think, that all composers lived with the idea

that work was doomed to slip into oblivion.

I'm sure that poor Vivaldi thought that

when he died in Vienna,

he would very quickly be forgotten.

The concept of the propagation of music,

of its universality is typically romantic.

During his time, it just didn't exist.

And I think that Vivaldi in particular

was often anxious about developments in language

as he couldn't really adapt to them.

[ Faint opera singing ]

Female Interpreter #2: His decline was attributable

to the arrival of the Neapolitans in Venice.



The Venetians were absolutely bowled over

by this new trend that came from southern Italy

by these singers that were a totally new phenomenon.


When you put Vivaldi into the context of his era,

you can say he no longer fitted.

His music no longer corresponded to what people wanted.

[ Sad music plays ]



Male Interpreter #4: He was a product of the old generation

and he witnessed the arrival of the Neapolitans.

He saw how styles were evolving and suffered from the thought

his music would no longer be played.

And that explains the mystery of his death in Vienna.

Vienna was the only city in Europe

that appreciated his music at the time.

It's totally logical that he was in Vienna

trying to sell an opera and other music.

[ Speaking French ]

Male Interpreter #2: He died in Vienna, in near poverty.

The service was held in Vienna Cathedral,

where there was a choir of six young people, young boys.

One of them was nine years old, a certain Joseph Haydn.

And Haydn wrote Seasons, too.

In the same way as the last composer or German composer

to have had direct contact with nature's potential,

before the Wagner-ian Catastrophe that is

was Beethoven with his pastoral symphony.




Female Interpreter 32: What proves that Vivaldi had been forgotten

and no longer enjoyed recognition in his own city,

after all, he had hardly been gone a year

was that there was virtually no reaction to his death.

Male Interpreter #2: he fell into total oblivion for more than two centuries.

No Vivaldi.











Narrator: So how, after lying dormant for so long,

did the Four Seasons subsequently experience

such success?

Male Interpreter #3: The Four Seasons phenomenon?

The huge popularity of the Seasons?

There's a historical reason for it.

They were among the first works to be rediscovered

and listened to again in the 20th century.


Narrator: The Seasons' resurrection in the early 20th century

was this mysterious as the oblivion

into which they had fallen.

The rediscovery of Vivaldi in the 1920s

was partly due to this unusual bearded individual,

the American poet Ezra Pound,

who was both an admirer of Mussolini

and a beatnik before his time.

It was Ezra Pound who, with his mistress,

the violinist Olga Rudge,

organized the first concerts dedicated to Vivaldi's music.


[ Speaking Italian ]

Male Interpreter #3: And then in 1943, the first real, let's say,

commercial public recording to promote Vivaldi's music

was the Four Seasons.

[ Continues in Italian ]

So the Four Seasons were recorded in 1943

in a bombed Italy

in the middle of the war with fascism on the wane

and the Allies about to arrive.

A highly talented conductor of the era,

Bernardino Molinari, conducted the recording

and it was dedicated to "Il Duce"

as Benito Mussolini was referred to at the time.

The first major Vivaldi recording,

"The Four Seasons, was dedicated to in his excellence,

Il Duce Benito Mussolini,

the architect of new and fertile social harmonies

to whom is dedicated this harmonious music

of the Italian past in order to revive its glory."

It was an emphatic and pompous dedication

in true fascist style,

whereas fascism was clearly dying out.

It didn't bring any luck, fortunately.

[ Speaking Italian ]

The Vivaldi revival, really took off in the 1950s

as a result of distribution and developments

in music studies with Casella and Malipiero, et cetera.

And also thanks to the appearance of specialized

music formations in the Baroque and Vivaldi repertoires.




Among these formations wereI Musici,

I Virtuosi di Roma,

and a group that was to become very famousI Solisti Veneti.

I Solisti Veneti started making records with Claudio Scimone.

And they met with great success

and became very popular.




[ Speaking French ]


Male Interpreter #2: Recording played an exceptionally positive role.

In his time, Nietzsche did not know where to go

to listen to live music, nobody played Mozart.

He listened instead to Bizet's "Carmen."

Stendahl recounted how he would travel for miles

trudging through the mud to hear Don Giovanni.

Today, you have 150, 200, 300 different CDs.


[ Speaking French ]

[ Speaking French ]

[ Speaks French ]


Male Interpreter #3: People people in general latch

on to something they like and neglect the rest.

The thing they have latched on to continues to be

driven forward and becomes famous, infamous even.

Today, so many mobile phone ringtones play Vivaldi's Spring,

it has become irritating and unbearable.



[ Choir vocalizes ]


[ Man vocalizes ]






[ Conversing in French ]

Male Interpreter #6: Even today, Vivaldi's associated

almost exclusively with the Four Seasons.

And that's not fair.

It's not fair because the Four Seasons are,

of course, a major masterpiece.

But there are other equally important masterpieces

in the rest of Vivaldi's Erv.

Narrator: Turin is home to the Vivaldi holy of holies,

the National Library,

which houses a unique collection of Vivaldi scores.

After the Four Seasons, the composer's vast body of work

represents an entire continent to be rediscovered.

For centuries, Vivaldi was merely a composer on paper

whose music lay dormant in the silence of libraries.

Today, his music is now played, discussed, and recorded.

After the Four Seasons phenomenon,

the Vivaldi phenomenon has arrived.

Female Interpreter #3: There are 27 volumes and they're all like this, in these boxes.

Male Interpreter #6: We can say that the majority of the rest of the Vivaldi's Erv,

450 pieces of all kinds of music have been counted,

is housed in this library.

Today we estimate the number of Vivaldi's works we know

about at about 820.

That means over half of them are kept here in Turin.

They're handwritten scores.

All the sacred music, all the theatrical music,

that is all the music for theater,

and eight volumes of concertos comprising about 100 concertos

for a very wide variety of instruments.

As well, two volumes of cantatas, I believe,

that makes 27 volumes of music in all.

But as I mentioned before, without the Turin collections,

and without the Faux Giordano collection,

all the sacred music and all of nearly all the theatrical music

would have disappeared.


Female Interpreter #3: It's very moving.

Male Interpreter #6: Yes, it's the very paper Vivaldi wrote on.


It's also very interesting to see how he made his corrections.

All these little clues tell us something about the man,

because, after all, we have very little

biographical information about Vivaldi.

About his illness and details of his life,

although we know he lived with his parents.


To think he wrote that,

and to see how beautifully it's written.

It's very clear.

It's very, very clear.

I think looking at it, you can imagine he was very meticulous.


There are small clues that tell us a lot.

Shedding little rays of light on his character.

Absolutely, absolutely.

This is the first page ofNisi Dominus for alto solo.

[ Operatic singing ]




Male Interpreter: He started to compose officially in 1713.

But we know that he'd already been composing

sacred vocal music.

What's interesting, when you draw a parallel

with Vivaldi's instrumental music

and his lyrical music is that, in fact,

they were written in similar styles

and had the same inspiration.

We have an example of this in one of his operas,

Dorilla in Tempe.

As soon as the curtain rises, you see the choir

of the Tempe nymphs and shepherds in an idyllic

setting with a countryside in bloom as a background

before the two heroes Dorilla and Elmiro

sitting on a carpet of flowers

and they sing the arrival of spring.


Female Interpreter#2: When you look at the museum-like aspect

of what we call baroque music, in general,

it's hard for us to imagine today

that all these works

were written exceptionally quickly.

[ Continues in French ]

Composers had to produce new material constantly.

They were under pressure, they often received orders

from several theaters at a time.

Vivaldi was an example of this.

He received an order from Florence

while he was working for Milan and for Ferah.

So it was impossible to write an entirely new opera each time.

Male Interpreter: Vivaldi, like all his contemporaries,

regularly re-used what he'd already written.

Perhaps Vivaldi more so than his contemporaries,

because he had an unparalleled feeling

for what would become a hit, for what would be successful,

for what would win the audience over.

His works were created within the 19th century context

in which a work was considered to be an absolute sacrosanct

and untouchable unit.

The context he worked in

was one of production of perpetual renewal.

The recycling of pieces was already a modern idea

at the time and was freely practiced in music.




Another example of Vivaldi borrowing

directly from the Four Seasons for one of his operas,

can be heard in one of his finest airs --

Gelido in ogni vena.

Sung by the father of the King of Persia,

or the future king of Persia, Serres,

who decided to kill his son.

Consumed with remorse,

he expresses the pain of his remorse

by translating his physical sensations.

The blood freezing in his veins.

And as a metaphor for this extremely powerful feeling

Vivaldi used none other than the openingritornello

of Winter in the Four Seasons,

with the instruments' dramatic entrance.

First the bass, then the violas, then the violins,

which describe, as you can see in the Four Seasons sonnets,

the feeling of cold that gradually takes over,

devouring and in the case of Gelido in ogni vena

very nearly killing the person who's singing it.



Male Interpreter #2: And the highlight is,

of course, the appearance of the musician.

Who lends her body, her voice, her throat, her breath,

her arms, her thighs, her feet

and her entire body to Vivaldi's music.

[ Singing from Vivaldi's "Griselda" ]




Narrator: Today, Venice still resonates to sound and music,

but what status does Vivaldi

currently enjoy in his birthplace?

In the Venice that reared him, praised him, forgot him,

rediscovered him, and exploited him?


The young musicians of tomorrow train at

its Conservatory of Music.

Here, the ensemble Le Stravagante

is about to play a sonata

that the red-haired priest wrote in his youth.








Male Interpreter: When you hear a piece like that,

you understand why people have been so infatuated for so long.

After a 50 year interval, exactly the same thing

is taking places after the Second World War,

when the Four Seasons were rediscovered.


A form of magic operates in Vivaldi's music,

which is so full of vitality and full of sadness, too.

And it's almost based on recognizable,

inimitable but recognizable, techniques,

an absolutely outstanding sense of melody

and a vitality of rhythm.

The same thing is happening in the field of Vivaldi's

instrumental music.

[ Applause ]









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