The Four Seasons Recomposed

Max Richter

One of the most famous works of the Baroque period (1600–1750) is a set of virtuosic pieces by Antonio Vivaldi titled The Four Seasons, published in 1785 within a twelve part set of violin concerti titled Il cimento dell’armonie e dell’inventione (the Contest between Harmony and Invention.) In the original format, Vivaldi called for solo violin, string quartet and basso continuo. Each musical season was accompanied by an evocative sonnet, attributed to Vivaldi. There is no other author identified, and each sonnet is tripartite and follows the form and spirit of the music. In the context of music history, these are among the earliest examples of program music — music depicting a narrative or extra-musical event.

The Four Seasons has been popular for hundreds of years, not only in its original form but also in many arrangements and transcriptions specifically for piano, a harp ensemble, jazz groups, recorders, concert band, and many other assorted groups. The work has been sliced and diced over the years to provide background music for advertisements such as Peugeot’s 308 Coupe Cabriolet in 2009.

Max Richter’s “recomposition” did more than transcribe and rearrange. He absorbed Vivaldi’s original “into his own musical bloodstream” and has noted that he discarded 75% of Vivaldi’s original work. The composer stated that “The Four Seasons is something we all carry around with us. It is just everywhere. In a way, we stop being able to hear it. So this project is about reclaiming this music for me personally, by getting inside it and rediscovering it for myself… and taking a new path through a well-known landscape.” One of his most interesting ignition points for his endeavor was the fact that he was simply “irritated” by how often he heard it. “You hear it in the supermarket regularly you are confronted with it in adverts or hear it as music when on hold…slowly you begin to blank it out.”

Max Richter is a German-born British composer who was classically trained but has become well known in post-minimalist styles, influenced by punk and electronic, and popular music of the twenty-first century. His work is well known in movies. He has composed 25 film scores since 2000, and he has written  many works for stage, opera, ballet, and orchestras. The Four Seasons Recomposed was composed in 2011, and premiered at the Barbican Centre on October 31, 2012, performed by the Britten Sinfonia.

The Four Seasons Recomposed combines Richter’s own music, electronics, with small elements (quotes and articulations) saved from the original (the violin horn calls from Autumn and the birdsong from Spring, for example) which reflect Vivaldi’s voice but with a twenty-first century spin. Richter explained that his method was “throwing molecules of the original Vivaldi into a test tube with a bunch of other things and waiting for an explosion… There are times I depart completely from the original, yes, and there are moments when it pokes through. I was pleased to discover that Vivaldi’s music is very modular.  It is pattern music, in a way, so there is a connection with the whole post-minimalist aesthetic I am a part of.” His method was “to open the original score on a note by note level, and working through it was like digging mineshaft through an incredibly rich seam, discovering diamonds and not being able to pull them out.  That became frustrating.  I wanted to get inside the score at the level of the notes and in essence re-write it, recomposing it in a literal way.” (Nick Kimberley: program notes for the Recomposed Release)

In the final result, Richter achieves his goal — respect for Vivaldi and preservation of the original, while creating a splendid evocation of seasonal dramas in our current, re-wired musical language. His intent never was to jettison Vivaldi or patronize his masterpiece. “Hats off to him!” Richter stated. “That is what I am really pleased with. My aim was to fall in love with the original again — and I have.” Answering the question; “If you could hear anyone admit they’re a huge fan of the piece who would it be?” the composer answered, “Vivaldi!” His answer is not only clever, but very much in keeping with baroque practices of a composer borrowing other composer’s works, re-arranging, and recasting musical ideas which had been generated by someone else. The Four Seasons Recomposed is not plagiarism, but a demonstration of the potential of Vivaldi’s concepts in modern discourse and imaginative outcomes for our time.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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