Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vivaldi's Dog

The opening of the Vivaldi "Spring" concerto is ever present; elemental in its appeal. But this opening passage can be a distraction that overpowers a concerto with complexity and flavor beyond the famous ritornello.

Tonight I am thinking about the music in C-sharp minor that appears within this concerto in E major. The brightness of E major in the opening ritornello is the optimism of the season, it is also the key of the "danza pastorale" that closes this concerto. Both passages voice the rich third of the E major triad as a melodic focal point. By way of contrast, the central largo movement is written in C-sharp minor.

Each of the concertos of the "Four Seasons" is prefaced by a poem that many scholars believe was written by Vivaldi himself. The lines of the poem are also inscribed into the score, along with other instructions apart from normal indications. The "Seasons" are not simply programmatic; they are narrative.

The poem that describes the second movement is as follows:

"E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato (Where the green meadow flowers all around)
Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante (amid the soft whisperings of leaves and plants,)
Dorme 'l Caprar col fido can' à lato." (the goat-herd sleeps next to his faithful dog.)

This lyrical portrait is like video in sound itself. The "soft whisperings" are described by the motion of the two violin parts, and Vivaldi marks the solo part as the “Il capraro che dorme” [the goat-herder that sleeps]. It is the viola part that makes me smile. In units of two pitches each, this underlying motive is the faithful animal at the goat-herders feet, marked by Vivaldi: “Il cane che grida” [the growl of the dog]. He also marked the part to be played "always very loud" (Sempre molto forte), which is an indication that too many recordings moderate.

Throughout this movement there is a gorgeous floating tune, an alluring background of shifting figures, and a barking dog.

E major and C-sharp minor share the pitches E and G-sharp. The two keys, which also share the same key signatures, build from one another and understand one another like twins raised apart.

C-sharp minor appears in the storm interlude of the first movement and is used in the finale also. In both outer movements the ritornello appears in C# minor. This is no ordinary spring: it is the springtime of the goat-footed balloon man made famous by e. e. cummings who "whistles far and wee."

As the balloon man whistles a dog barks persistently, calling our attention to C-sharp minor.


  1. Thanks Generic,

    This is a post that I had a great deal of fun writing. You are welcome here in the labyrinth anytime!


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