Masterworks V: “Picture Perfect”
Antonio Vivaldi 1678-1741
Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi
Fall and Winter from The Four Seasons

Beginning in 1703 and intermittently for many decades, Antonio Vivaldi served as music factotum at the Pio Ospedale della Pietá in Venice, an institution devoted to the care and education of abandoned, orphaned and indigent girls – mostly “inconvenient” children of upperclass parents – with a special emphasis on musical training (no Dickensian work house or Dotheboys Hall this). In addition to his duties as virtuoso violinist, violin teacher, orchestra director and instrument purchaser, Vivaldi served as resident composer, producing hundreds of works for various instruments and ensembles, including nearly 450 concerti, usually at a rate of more than two per month. The resident girls were trained in both string and wind instruments, including the organ, and as part of their training Vivaldi composed concertos for every instrument and instrument combination. Many of them were apparently written with specific girl soloists in mind.

What is often overlooked, however, is that Ospedale also housed boys, teaching carpentry, blacksmithing and other trades. We have no idea whether the boys’ program was as successful as the girls’ since the names of the artisans who worked in Venice’s palaces and churches are generally unknown.

Vivaldi saw to it that his music reached far beyond the boundaries of Venice. Around 1711 an Amsterdam firm issued his first published concertos as Opus 3, entitled L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Fancy), a set of 12 concertos, four each for one, two or four violins, and four with added cello. They are at the boundary between the old tradition of the Sonata da chiesa (church sonata) with its stately slow-fast-slow-fast movements, and the newer three- movement concerto form (fast-slow-fast). L’estro armonico was a sensation, becoming the most influential music publication of the first half of the eighteenth century. J.S. Bach admired these works and transcribed some of them as harpsichord concerti.

The four concerti known as The Four Seasons are part of a group of eight violin concerti published in Amsterdam in 1725 as Op. 8. Vivaldi provided sonnets, probably his own, to head each of the four concerti. It is clear from the detailed notes Vivaldi made on the score that he enjoyed composing these concertos as well as performing them.

Vivaldi attempted to make the music as programmatic as possible, marking with capital letters sections of the sonnets and their corresponding music.

Concerto in F major, Op. 8, No. 3, Autumn
The peasants celebrate with dance and song
The joy of a successful harvest.
With Bacchus’ liquor liberally drunk,
Their festivity ends in slumber

They leave behind the song and dance
To seek the pleasant mild air.
The season invites more and more
To savor the joy of sweet sleep

The hunters leave for the hunt at dawn
With horns and guns and hounds they go
The quarry flees, but they pursue

Bewildered and exhausted by the great noise
of guns and hounds, the wounded prey
Nearly escapes, but is caught and dies.
The concerto begins with the rhythmic dances and songs of the peasants, followed by uncertain lurches by the solo violin to depict their drunkenness, which gets wilder and wilder, alternating with the dance music. Example 11 With a sudden shift to Larghetto, some of the revelers go to sleep while the dances continue. Example 12 In the second movement, the muted strings become increasingly gentle as the slumber becomes deeper and deeper. Example 13

Violins imitate the hunting calls in the third movement. Example 14 A wild melee in the orchestra describes the confusion of the hunt, the fleeing prey and its death, with the strings imitating the baying dogs. Example 15

Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4, Winter
Frozen and shivering amid the chilly snow
Our breathing hampered by the horrid wind
As we run, we continually stamp our feet
Our teeth chatter with the awful cold

We move to the fire and contented peace
While the rain outside comes down in sheets.
We walk on the ice with slow steps
Careful how we walk, for fear of falling

If we move too fast, we slip and fall to the ground
Again treading heavily on the ice
Until the ice breaks up and dissolves

We hear from behind closed doors
Boreal winds and all the winds of war.
This is winter, but one that brings joy.
The strings, with trills in the violins, describe the shivering in the winter cold. Swift arpeggios and scales by the solo violin describe the whipping of the wind, while a series of abrupt chords suggest stamping feet and running to get warm. But rapid tremolos show that all this activity is useless, since the teeth continue to chatter. Example 16

Violin pizzicati depict the falling raindrops, after which a warm melody on the solo violin describes the pleasant indoors with its roaring fire. Example 17

The Finale opens with sliding phrases by the violin - walking and slipping on thin ice. Example 18 The orchestra joins with a slower rhythm to indicate the hesitant steps and fear of falling. Example 19 But then we are back indoors, enjoying the warmth while the winds howl outside. Example 20
Paul Hindemith 1895-1963
Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith
Symphony Mathis der Maler

Note: To access full and detailed views of Mathis Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece, click on
At the bottom of the page are further links to the images themselves.

Born in Hanau near Frankfurt, Paul Hindemith was a child prodigy who started music school at age 12. He quickly became proficient on many instruments, but especially the piano, violin, viola and clarinet. In his 20s he prided himself on being able to play every instrument of the orchestra, although as he said himself, some with more facility than others. In later years he became a known teacher, a best-selling author of books on harmony and musical training and a good conductor.

While Hindemith’s early compositions followed the late romantic language of Brahms, Mahler and Strauss, following World War I he changed gears to become the chief spokesman for the German musical avant garde. It was a revolt against German romanticism, which Hindemith described as “wilted flowers,” “scented letters” and “damsels in distress.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he cultivated so-called music to order, music as craft, Sing und Spielmusik – music for song and play – which unfortunately acquired the name Gebrauchsmusik – utilitarian music, or music for use. Whatever its title, it was defined as music written for special purposes, such as radio and film, or for non-professional performers. Hindemith’s goal was to create music to be played by the enlightened amateur, rather than merely listened to passively. Gebrauchsmusik was the musical parallel of the Bauhaus movement in architecture, the search for functionality.

Hindemith apparently came to his vaunted opposition to the Nazis through the back door, and quite by accident. In 1929, his comic opera Neues vom Tage (News of the Day) included a scene of a nude woman in a bath – she actually wore a body stocking and was nearly hidden in a mass of bubbles – singing about the joys of an apartment with hot running water. As luck had it, one member of the audience was the opera lover and known prude, Adolf Hitler. He never forgave Hindemith and took his revenge when he came to power in 1933.

That same year, Hindemith was planning an opera about the love of a German woman and a French prisoner of war during World War I. But with the Nazi ascent to power he thought better of it and turned instead to a purely Teutonic subject. He settled on a story of the sixteenth century painter Mathis Gothart, also known as Neithart, who, for reasons unknown, was falsely named Grünewald by his first biographer two centuries later. During the peasant revolts, Gothart had tried to fight on the side of the peasants but found that he was not suited for combat and could contribute more to the cause by practicing his art.

Gothart’s famous altarpiece in a monastery in Isenheim in Alsace is considered one of the masterpieces of German sixteenth-century painting. By means of this subject, Hindemith intended to declare himself an apolitical artist. But Hitler would have none of it and declared the theme of the opera inimical to German Kultur. He stripped the composer of all his positions and by 1938 forced him to leave Germany. Hindemith’s music – together with that of such other luminaries as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill and Louis Armstrong – was designated by the Nazis as Entartete Musik – degenerate music.

The symphony Mathis der Maler was actually composed before the opera. The conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had requested from Hindemith a new work for the 1934 season, while the composer was working on the libretto. By that time Hindemith’s musical language had become much more conservative, leaning towards more traditional ideas of tonality but adding the wider harmonic resources of the twentieth century. The premiere was a smashing success, but the opera, completed a year later, was banned in Germany and was premiered in Switzerland in 1938.

Each movement of the symphony describes a panel from the Isenheim altarpiece. The first movement, “Angelic concert,” serves also as the prelude to the opera. The altarpiece’s inner central panel depicts three angels singing and playing to the Virgin and Child. The slow, solemn introduction opens with the organ-like instrumentation. Example 1 It is built around an old German religious song, “Es sungen drei Engel ein’ süssen Gesang” (Three angels were singing a sweet song) introduced gently by the trombones as a cantus firmus under the flowing counterpoint of the other instruments. Example 2 The movement is structured along the same sonata-allegro structure as a classical symphony, beginning with a theme in the lower register of the flute. Example 3 Added to that is a second theme that will be used later in the movement to develop a double fugue with the opening allegro theme. Example 4 A third theme, a lovely, dancing flute solo, introduces the fugal section, the development, that dominates the rest of the movement. Example 5 Hindemith's decision to make The “angelic” concert a fugue pays homage to the long tradition of fugal writing as the quintessence of intellectual and spiritual expression in music, which itself for more than two millennia was regarded as the cosmic glue that created order in the universe.

The short second movement, “Grablegung” (Entombment), is based on the bottom panels of the Crucifixion, depicting the burial of Jesus. Hindemith's is a musical image of gentle, dignified grief, a balance to the tragic violence of the crucifixion itself. Featuring four themes, introduced by the upper strings, flute, oboe and clarinet respectively, it opens hesitantly, Example 6 leading into a dirge on the solo flute. Example 7 The oboe solo begins the gradual swell to a majestic climax Example 8 while the clarinet solo initiates one of Hindemith’s most serene utterances. Example 9 Hindemith used this movement in the opera twice, as an interlude following the death of the daughter of the peasant revolt leader, and again at the final scene of the opera.

The finale, “Temptation of St. Anthony,” tries to match in music the wild, bizarre nature of the painting, in which the saint is plagued and tempted in his dream by grotesque humans and monsters – in the opera, it is Mathis himself who undergoes the torture. The slow rhapsodic introduction for the lower strings is interrupted by a sudden surprise percussion attacks, Example 10 followed by a galloping ostinato, symbolizing the demons’ pursuit of the saint. Example 11 But this is no unrelenting whirlwind of a witches' sabbath à la Berlioz or Musorgsky. There is a long slow middle section, returning to the mood and instrumentation of the opening, suggesting St. Anthony's voice. Example 12 But even within an intensified attack, in which the tempo picks up in a nattering fugue in the strings, Example 13 faith prevails. Hindemith uses a medieval chant melody, “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” (Zion, Praise the Savior) to depict this spiritual victory over the fiends, adding to it a repeated brass figure recalling the introduction. Example 14 This conclusion of the tableau relates directly to the chorale prelude that ended the “Angelic Concert,” and the promise of redemption.

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky 1839-1881
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Pictures at an Exhibition (Orch. Maurice Ravel)

Modest Musorgsky, one of the wild cards of nineteenth century Russian music, left very few completed scores by the time of his early death from alcoholism. Of his meager output, the operas Boris Godunov and the uncompleted Khovanshchina, some songs, the short orchestral score St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, have stood the test of time. Although Boris and St. John’s Night are most often heard in Nikolay Rimsky Korsakov’s “corrected” version, they now are considered among the highlights of Russian music. Musorgsky was a member of the “Mighty Five” – together with Mily Balakirev, Aleksander Borodin, Cesar Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov – whose goal was to further the pan-Slavic movement and Russian nationalist music.

In July 1873 Musorgsky’s close friend, the young architect and painter Victor Gartman (The Germans mistakenly called him Hartmann, an error that has been perpetuated in much of the old literature – there is no H in the Russian alphabet), died suddenly. The following year a posthumous showing of his drawings, paintings and designs was presented in St. Petersburg. Much of Gartman’s work was fantastic and bizarre in nature, elements which held a special fascination for Musorgsky, who set out to create a musical memorial to his friend in the form of a suite of piano pieces. He depicted his impressions of ten of the pictures, portraying himself as the observer in the Promenade that introduces the work and serves as connector between the tableaux.

A striking aspect of the suite is the nearly complete absence of any subjective emotion in a work directly inspired by a great personal loss. Musorgsky gives us his personal impressions of Gartman’s art, but rarely of his feelings about Gartman’s death. Even in the Promenade, strolling from picture to picture, he portrays a cool, objective viewer rather than a grieving friend. Example 1

There is no evidence that Musorgsky ever planned to orchestrate the suite, although many of the pieces stretch the piano to its limits, crying out for orchestration. The score was not published until five years after the composer’s death, at which point other composers started its long history of orchestrated versions. The first was Mikhail Tushmalov in 1890, followed by Sir Henry Wood, Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy and many others. But the most popular and by far the most successful “recomposition” is the one by Maurice Ravel, done in 1922 under a commission from the conductor Sergey Koussevitzky.

One of the most striking features of Musorgsky’s piano version, further enhanced by Ravel’s orchestration, is the vivid tone painting that enables the listener to actually visualize the painting. And it’s a good thing too since the originals of some of Gartman’s works upon which the suite is based are either lost or inaccessible.

In addition to the Promenade the pictures that inspired the ten tableaux of the suite are:

1. Gnomus: A sketch of a little gnome on crooked legs, said to be a design for a nutcracker. Example 2

2. Il vecchio castello: A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a love song. The mournful sound of the alto saxophone was Ravel’s stroke of genius. Example 3

3. Tuileries: Children quarreling and nurses shouting in an avenue in the Tuileries garden in Paris. Example 4

4. Bydlo: A Polish oxcart with enormous wheels, plowing through the mud, approaches, passes by and gradually disappears again. Example 5

5. Ballet of the chickens in their shells: Aa design for a scene from the ballet Trilby. Example 6

6. Two Polish Jews: One rich, Example 7 the other poor Example 8 – No picture by Gartman corresponding to this tableau has ever been found. The subtitle “Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle” is a late addition, not by Mussorgsky. Ravel uses the basses and a solo muted trumpet to represent the two characters.

7. The market place of Limoges: French women quarreling violently in the market. Example 9

8. Catacombs: The interior of the catacombs in Paris illuminated by lantern light with the figure of Gartman himself in the shadows. Example 10

8a.“Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (“With the dead in a dead language”): The promenade, in the minor mode and like plainchant, constitutes the second part of the Catacombs. Example 11

9. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Baba-Yaga, the hideous old crone of Russian folklore, who lives in a hut supported on fowl legs and flies around in an iron mortar was Gartman’s design for the face of a clock. Example 12

10. The Great Gate of Kiev: Gartman’s design for a memorial gate in Kiev in honor of Tsar Alexander II. The design is in the massive Old Russian style, topped by a cupola in the shape of the helmet of the old Slavic warriors. While Musorgsky was only able to approximate the sound of the devout congregations singing old Church Slovanic chant, Ravel's sound is much closer. Example 13 But pianists simply run out of fingers imitating the deep sustained sound of the Russian churchbells, Example 14 while orchestra has infinitely more flexibility in its ability to sustain notes and create the most subtle textures and colors. Example 15 in other passages he used not only the obvious bells, but also tuba and violins to capture the combined sound of large and small bells. Example 16

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019