MUSIC

Vivaldi’s Most Carnal and Mesmerizing Piece of Music

Figuring out why I’m so obsessed with the first movement of “Winter.”

There are days I’ll stay up all night listening to Vivaldi’s “L’inverno” (“Winter”). But just the first movement and nothing past it. Something about that specific section holds me like a warm shawl I never get tired of wearing, even out of season.

I’ll find myself searching for the best, interesting, and most unique versions of it available online. From classic orchestrations featuring solo violinists to experimental performances using only drums, no interpretation is off-limits for my curiosity.

Are some performances better than others? Yes. But no matter how weak they are, my love for the piece is endless. I’ve yet to grow tired of it. I don’t think I ever will.

So, why does this section of music cause such an obsession in me?

A Brief Bio of the Composer

Antonio Vivaldi lived from 1678 to 1741. He had red hair and was nicknamed the “Red Priest.”

He worked on and off as the violin master and director of instrumental music at a girl’s orphanage in Venice, the Ospedale della Pieta, from 1703 to 1740. The orphanage specialized in musical training for the girls who lived there.

The Pieta is where he wrote many of his compositions. Some of his earliest pieces date from his first few years at the orphanage, with printed versions of his trio sonatas and violin sonatas appearing in 1705 and 1709, respectively.

Vivaldi’s career declined in the 1730s, with his music falling out of fashion. He went to Vienna in 1740 to see a production of his opera, “L’oracolo in Messenia,” set to be performed in 1742. However, he died in 1741 without seeing it. His funeral was simple, meaning he may have died in extreme poverty.

A Brief Beat About His Compositions

There are approximately 500 surviving concerti by Vivaldi. More than 300 of them are for a solo instrument with a continuo or string orchestra. Some of the solo instruments he wrote for include violin (around 230 pieces), bassoon (40 pieces), cello (25 pieces), oboe (15 pieces), and flute (10 pieces).

He also wrote operas and sacred vocal music, but what he excelled at was the three-movement concerto, becoming one of the first composers to create the fast-slow-fast design of a concerto’s three sections.

In fact, he was the first to regularly use the ritornello form in his concerti. Ritornello is Italian for “return” or “little return” and can be thought of as a refrain. In the form, solo sections and the refrains alternate. This type of concerto movement was quite popular in the Baroque Era, and Vivaldi excelled at it.

The Four Seasons, Particularly Winter, Specifically the First Movement

Vivaldi’s most famous work, “Le quattro stagioni” (“The Four Seasons”) was written around 1720 and published in 1725. An interesting item about these pieces is they were published with accompanying poems, which Vivaldi may have written because he wanted the texts and music to relate.

Here is the poem for the first section of “Violin Concerto in F minor, RV 297” (“Winter”):

Aggiacciato tremar trà neri algenti
Al Severo Spirar d’orrido Vento,
Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento;
E pel Soverchio gel batter i denti;

This is my creative translation of it:

Wet and cold and trembling
Out in the horrible wind,
I run, stamp my feet, every moment
the overwhelming chill, teeth chattering

So, let’s get into the first movement of “Winter.”

A concerto movement is structured around key area changes. A key area is a harmonic group with a relationship to one specific note, which is called the tonic.

The F note is the tonic note at the beginning and end of this first movement. Its key area is F minor, which is the mode (a type of scale with altered notes) it’s in.

Think of F minor as home base. Vivaldi would leave there, travel around a bit, and then come home. In other words, he used different key areas in the piece to keep it from sounding monotonous and to help create harmonic variety.

It moves like this:

Ritornello 1 — F minor
Solo 1 — C minor
Ritornello 2 — F minor
Solo 2 — F minor
Ritornello 3 — E flat major
Solo 3 — E flat major / C minor
Ritornello 4 — F minor

If you listen closely, too, you can hear traces of ragtime in the piece. Or maybe it’s more fitting to say some ragtime tunes have traces of Vivaldi in them.

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, writing in The New York Times, called “Winter” the most carnal piece of “The Four Seasons.”

“Finger-trembling trills on the violin’s thin, high-pitched E-string emulate shivering and teeth-chattering,” Hindman wrote. “The violin solo runs up and down the ebony fingerboard, conjuring the feeling of feet slipping on thin ice, bodies crashing into snowy embankments.”

Great, So Why Do You Love This Piece So Much?

Maybe it’s the minor mode that appeals to me. Almost all the music I prefer, from the Cure to sad country songs my grandparents loved, is in the minor key. But as much as I enjoy “In Your House,” I don’t hit repeat and stay up till four in the morning listening to it.

Plus, there are other wonderful Vivaldi pieces in minor keys I don’t feel the need to listen to over and over again.

The first movement’s various interpretations may be another appealing aspect of it for me. After you watch so many violinists play the piece, you start to recognize who plays it best and why. It’s also fun to watch someone tackle it on a ukulele or accordion and totally nail it.

It could be that the song comforts me, as one study published in the Psychology of Music in 2018 suggests.

Niche listening may help someone develop a meaningful relationship with a specific song, suggests Dr. Fredrick Conrad, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author. One’s love of a song could persist even after being exposed to it several times over.

And maybe it persists because it deeply resonates with a person, as Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, a professor emerita at Syracuse University, told Refinery 29 in a 2018 article.

A sad song, for example, on repeat may help comfort you because you realize others in the world have suffered the same feelings you’re experiencing. Since music is often tied to emotions, a song could help you get more in touch with your feelings, Dr. Honig suggests.

Or to think of it another way, specific songs may help you figure out who you are or who you want to be.

The first movement of “Winter” begins with a slightly dissonant chord with each beat before the soloist comes in. Even while the orchestra and soloist alternate, a bass grounds the piece, giving it a solid foundation for the soloist to go off and explore.

This may be closer to the reason I love this piece so much. It’s a three-ish minute movement that mirrors the dichotomy I often find in myself: Push and pull. Leaving and returning. Introvert and extrovert. Consistency and experimentation.

Maybe it’s all of these things — the minor key, the comfort, the self-reflection — or maybe it’s none of them. Maybe I just love the piece because I love it.

Science can explain many things, but it’ll never fully explain love. And that mystery is what makes life special.

A Selection of Some of the Best and Most Interesting Interpretations of the First Movement of “Winter”

Sources

http://www.baroquemusic.org/vivaldiseasons.html

http://catalogue.pearsoned.ca/assets/hip/us/hip_us_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0205777368.pdf

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Antonio-Vivaldi

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-vivaldis-winter.html

https://news.umich.edu/play-it-again-people-find-comfort-listening-to-the-same-songs-over-and-over/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0305735617751050

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/listening-to-same-song-on-repeat

http://piccolavoce.blogspot.com/2011/12/antonio-vivaldis-four-seasons-winter.html

Just your normal musician-editor-writer-curator-performer-photographer-director-[insert profession]-artist trying to make it in the world today.

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