Antonio Vivaldi wrote the four violin concertos comprising The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) sometime before 1725, when they were published in Amsterdam as part of a larger set of 12 concertos called The Contest Between Harmony and Invention (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione). Amsterdam was known for its high quality and well connected music publishers, and Vivaldi had released editions there since his L’estro armonico collection in 1711. Born in Venice in 1678, Vivaldi rarely traveled outside Italy, but thanks to his Dutch publishers’ newspaper ads and mail-order services (plus an illicit trade in pirated manuscripts), his music was widely available across Europe and gained special popularity in German-speaking regions.
The Four Seasons was dedicated to Count Wenzel von Morzin, a Bohemian aristocrat whom Vivaldi served as “master of music in Italy” (an early example of remote work). Vivaldi was concurrently the director of secular music for the Governor of Mantua while also keeping his regular employment at the Ospedale della Pietà, a music school for orphans and the illegitimate daughters of noblemen in Venice.
The concertos themselves were not brand new when published—they were probably first performed by Vivaldi himself in Mantua or Venice. So to create fresh and more elaborate versions for Count Morzin, Vivaldi added descriptive sonnets, which he probably wrote himself. They appear both as a preface to the solo violin part and in excerpts scattered throughout the orchestral parts, showing the exact correspondence between the poetry and music. This was cutting edge at the time—rarely if ever before had instrumental music so vividly depicted real-life scenes.
In “Winter,” you can hear the icy snow coming down in the orchestral introduction, and with the entry of the solo violin, the “harsh breath of a horrid wind.” The iconic tutti refrain is foot-stamping in the snow (those left-right-left octaves), while the soloist’s quick double-stop passage in the upper register represents chattering teeth. The lyrical second movement evokes coziness before a warm fire. The finale ventures back outside after the storm has passed, but the roads are covered with ice, prompting a slip and fall. But “this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.”
Vivaldi’s music fell out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, but began to be rediscovered in the mid-19th century following the revival of J.S. Bach. (Bach admired and sometimes arranged Vivaldi pieces, so research on one led to the other.) The Four Seasons only regained popularity in the late 1940s before becoming almost ubiquitous in concerts and recordings—its vivid colors and concise scene-setting seem almost modern.