The Four Seasons is the kind of music that would sound right at home in a hotel by the same name. It’s pleasant, sophisticated, and guaranteed to offend no one. To the casual listener, it might even sound a bit … bland, like a textbook case of background music.
But if you pay attention, there is a lot going on beneath the surface. A barking dog, a flowing stream, the drone of bagpipes, shots from a hunting rifle, chattering teeth, and three different species of birds – are all hiding in plain sight.
Written by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi in 1721, set to sonnets that Vivaldi himself possibly wrote, The Four Seasons is a group of four separate pieces, each depicting a different season. The first of these, “Spring,” is the one you’ve heard in TV commercials and such. In it, a viola imitates a barking dog, the orchestra undulates like a gently flowing stream, and some of the stringed instruments mimic a bagpipe. “Autumn” is the one with a hunting scene, and “Winter” – no surprise – is the one with chattering teeth.
For all its novelty, this masterpiece never crosses the line into tackiness. That’s because it can be appreciated on its own merits without regard to the back story, which most listeners won’t be aware of in the first place.
The first section of “Summer” is featured in the video below. We don’t know the folks who produced it, but they did a great job explaining what’s happening with clever animation and captions. Starting at around 1:08, pay attention to the part where a violin imitates a cuckoo, a turtledove, and a goldfinch, in that order.
Composition: Antonio Vivaldi, “Summer” from The Four Seasons, Concerto #2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315
If you enjoyed this piece, listen to The Four Seasons in its entirety (including the “barking dog” section at 3:32-6:00). See if you can follow the storyline using the sonnets that we mentioned earlier.