Antonio Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos. Today, most people know four of them. But those four — commonly known as “The Four Seasons” — have become part of our cultural fabric. They may not even be his best concertos, but they’re ubiquitous. Even if you don’t know classical music, or think you know them, you’ve heard “The Four Seasons” — in movie soundtracks, on TV ads or playing on Muzak loops.
There’s a weird alchemical process involved in the crowning of cultural icons. Why have “The Four Seasons” prevailed when equally strong Vivaldi works are far less known? They’re good music, certainly. They sparkle. They’re filled with catchy tunes that propel the music forward and never overstay their welcome. They are also among the first examples of program music, illustrating the world around them: This is a cold winter wind, this is a spring cuckoo. For those uncertain about what they are supposed to be listening for in so-called classical music, concrete illustrations are a welcome point of orientation.
Another part of the alchemy is the urge to replicate: The creative cells continue to divide. Composers and performers try to make the piece their own, not only by playing it, but by answering it, changing it, creating new works in its image. Nigel Kennedy, Mark O’Connor, Philip Glass, Max Richter: All have written responses to the “Four Seasons” in recent years in the form of new violin concertos. There are a lot of iconic classical pieces and a lot of attempts to modernize them (remember the disco-era “A Fifth of Beethoven?”), but I can’t think of another work that has inspired so many direct spinoffs.
Perhaps it’s because we love the music so much we play the meaning out of it, then back into it, like a word you repeat over and over until you’re briefly uncertain of its sense. “Many people fall out of love, because you hear it all the time,” says Richter. “It’s a paradoxical situation: It is a beautiful piece of music, but you end up sort of hating it.”
Richter says “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons” (released on CD in October) is the result of “a voyage of discovery — I reclaimed it by thinking my way through it.”
Richter’s piece sticks closest to its model of any of the recent Vivaldi responses. It follows Vivaldi’s outlines while diverging from the specifics. At some points, you can hear the original music clearly through a windowpane of slightly different sound — a veneer of electronics, a slight reshaping of the line. At other points, the whole piece takes off in such a different direction that Vivaldi is no more than a distant inspiration, while the music shimmers in splinters of Baroque-like ostinato.
“The thing about Vivaldi,” Richter says, “is that it’s constructed in a way that really lets you in. The movements are quite concise, but on a micro level it is modular music, made of these little atoms. You can pull them apart easily, sort of like a Lego kit.” It would be more challenging to re-imagine, say, a Romantic piece with long expressive lines, like the Mahler 10th.
Everyone who loves art has known the impulse to enter into a piece: to memorize the poem, to want to buy the painting, to grasp some element of the work so it will never be lost. But it isn’t only sheer love of the music that inspires contemporary artists to emulate it. It also has to do with packaging. “The Four Seasons” is a tour de force for a violin soloist — Vivaldi himself was a mean violinist whose improvisation awed one observer who felt that “such has not been nor ever can be played.” Violinists are eager for other works that can offer the same kind of plum showpiece.
The violinist Robert McDuffie approached Philip Glass to create a contemporary pendant to Vivaldi’s opus, and took the resulting piece — Glass’s second violin concerto, subtitled “The American Four Seasons” — on tour around the world. (Glass rose to the occasion by writing an amiable piece that had clear links to its antecedent while remaining firmly Glassian.) He managed better than the violinist Nigel Kennedy, whose “The Four Elements” tried much too hard to be funky and pop-tinged, without offering the ear a lot of interest on its own.
For the violinist/composer Mark O’Connor, “The Four Seasons” served more as a general model for a showpiece concerto with an extra hook. O’Connor’s “The American Seasons” are tailored to his own mastery of a number of violin idioms — not only classical, but also bluegrass and jazz. The skill is commendable, but the piece itself was an easy-listening pastiche.
The allure of packaging also extends to composers. Living composers tend to inhabit a world focused on new music, inhabited by ensembles and performers interested in contemporary sounds. Orchestral audiences are resistant to new works — but not, possibly, to new works that incorporate something familiar. In 2010, when McDuffie brought Glass’s “American Four Seasons” concerto to Strathmore, the audience whooped and hollered, not the usual response to new music at an orchestra concert. And Richter’s “Recomposed,” with violinist Daniel Hope, has brought a classical mainstream recognition — including a CD on Deutsche Grammophon, classical music’s “gold label” to a composer better known for more indie-style projects.
With some canonical classical works, talking about packaging might sound like sacrilege. With “The Four Seasons,” it’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the music. These concertos first appeared as part of a set of 12, published under the title “The contest between harmony and invention,” but Vivaldi would hardly have minded their appropriation. He was writing at a time when music was functional, turning out dozens of concertos was not unusual for a working musician, and composers routinely borrowed from each other. And with “The Four Seasons,” he wasn’t seeking to bare his soul. He was seeking to write something that would delight.
Nearly 300 years on, the struggle between harmony and innovation seems to be continuing unchecked, and both “The Four Seasons,” and contemporary responses to it, are rare in transcending the dichotomy, for better or worse, and representing a fusion of both.