Music Inspired by Poetry - "Spring"

Apr 14, 2016

It's National Poetry Month, and here's another story of the words behind one of my favorite pieces of music.

"Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song, and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes,
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven;
Then they die away to silence and the birds take up their charming songs once more..."

This is the beginning of the sonnet Antonio Vivaldi wrote to describe the season of renewal. He wrote sonnets to describe summer, autumn and winter as well, and the liner notes of many more recent recordings of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons have included the full texts than in earlier CDs and vinyls. My guess is that Vivaldi personally loved "Spring" the most out of the seasons, just based on how he described it in the sonnet.

It's National Poetry Month and we're looking at some well-known classical pieces based on poetry.  We don't know for sure which Vivaldi wrote first, the sonnets or the music, and there are musicologists who will argue both ways. We do know that, in 1725, he published a collection of 12 concertos, 7 of which contained very descriptive titles: The Storm at Sea, The Hunt, Pleasure, and The Four Seasons. That was fully 100 years before composers experimented with the new idea of "tone poems," or "symphonic poems."  

His choice of poetic language was so precise that it was a trailblazer - these are among the very first pieces that are considered "program music," (i.e. music with a story). He also wrote the sonnets to reflect the form of the Baroque concerto (fast-slow-fast). If you follow along with the four poems while the music is being played, even if in English versus the original Italian, you can still get the idea of the musical form.

Here's something else that increased Vivaldi's poetry "cool factor":  Once audiences understood that there were accompanying poems, the music became all that much more understandable, and thus, more popular. In fact, Louis XV liked it so much that on a whim he would order that Spring be played. Kings can do that! This far out idea Vivaldi had to link poetry to the violin concerto (or vice versa) was so well received that it helped him make a very good living as commissions flowed from Versailles. 

This is my favorite recording of Spring from The Four Seasons, with violinist Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.: