The Four Seasons
- April 23, 2016
The Argentine composer and bandoneón prodigy Astor Piazzolla ranks among his country’s most celebrated composers, and stands without peer in the realm of twentieth-century tango. His early classical training under Alberto Ginastera (which he pursued while also performing with the leading tango bandleader Aníbal Troilo) led him, in 1954, to study in Paris with the eminent pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Weary by this time of the tango he had grown up with, and seeking a career as a composer of “serious” classical music, Piazzolla kept his bandoneón hidden away. But on eventually hearing him play his tango Triunfal, Boulanger admonished her pupil, “This is Piazzolla! You never give it up.”
His true artistic identity validated, Piazzolla returned to Argentina, and to tango, with renewed vigor. Reflecting his extensive musical instruction and far-ranging technical expertise, Piazzolla injected traditional tango music with modern chromaticism, elements of jazz, and even fugal technique. Though at first met with disapprovingly by tango traditionalists at home, Piazzolla’s nuevo tango thrived abroad and, eventually, in Argentina as well. By the 1980s, Piazzolla was regarded as tango’s savior.
Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) exemplify Piazzolla’s brand of nuevo tango. Originally scored for Piazzolla’s Quinteto of violin, piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneón, the Estaciones Porteñas were conceived as four discreet pieces rather than as a set. Piazzolla composed “Verano Porteño” (Buenos Aires Summer) in 1965 as incidental music for Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s play Melenita de Oro. “Otoño Porteño” (Autumn) was composed in 1969, with the remaining two Estaciones completed the following year.
The Estaciones Porteñas have become some of Piazzolla’s most popular works; they frequently appear on concert stages as a full suite, and in arrangements for various ensembles, as we encounter them on this program. The Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov was the first to juxtapose them with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as is also now habitually done, arranging Piazzolla’s tangos for solo violin and string orchestra. Certainly, the Estaciones retain their irresistibility in this guise. Delighted listeners are urged to seek out, as further listening, Piazzolla’s own dazzling performances of these pieces with his Quinteto.
Patrick Castillo ©2016
Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons make a strong case as the Western canon’s most universally familiar music. Such widespread popularity is a double-edged sword: The Four Seasons’s ubiquity in popular culture has too often presented as harmless background music a fiendishly inventive work by a composer of terrific originality.
The concertos that make up The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) appeared as the first four of twelve violin concertos published as Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest between Harmony and Invention), Opus 8. Vivaldi composed them to accompany a set of four sonnets—“La primavera,” “L’estate,” “L’autunno,” and “L’inverno”—whose authorship is uncertain but generally attributed to Vivaldi himself. The sonnets’ tripartite structures align with the three movements of each concerto, which in turn provide vivid musical depictions of the corresponding text.
The Four Seasons evinces Vivaldi’s importance to the development of the Baroque concerto. His contributions to the genre, which total more than five hundred, defined the concerto form as a dialog between soloist and ensemble and established certain formal characteristics as standards in concerto writing. (They also established the concerto as a vehicle for instrumental virtuosity—fittingly so, given Vivaldi’s stature as one of the finest violinists of his generation; more than two hundred of Vivaldi’s concertos are for violin.) Vivaldi’s concertos served as significant models for no less than Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, among other major works of the Baroque period.
But of equal importance to the formal innovations manifested in works like The Four Seasons are the breadth of their dramatic character and the extent of Vivaldi’s vision in imagining the expressive potential of the concerto form. The Four Seasons concertos are remarkable for their illustration of their subject matter, whether in depicting hunting horns and guns in “Autumn” or in the chilling texture of “Winter”, mimetic of the “cold in the icy snow/In the harsh breath of a horrid wind.”
Patrick Castillo ©2016