If you attended the RPO's performance of Richard Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben" last month, you heard one of the late-Romantic era's biggest pieces of program music — music that paints pictures or tells a story. Strauss wrote plenty of these pieces, as did such 19th-century composers as Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
But if you think program music began with those composers, Pegasus Early Music will educate you with its next concert. The ensemble will feature a frequent guest, the remarkable British violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, for what you might call a "program program."
Three of the planned four works do tell detailed stories of birds, animals, and varied human pursuits, and they were all written at least a couple of centuries before Richard Strauss or Tchaikovsky. In fact, the Sunday, April 3, concert includes Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," one of the most popular, programmatic, and indestructible pieces of music ever written.
Any list of classical music's greatest hits will have "The Four Seasons" near the top. Besides being recorded dozens of times in its original version, it's been played on hurdy-gurdy, koto, surf guitar, and marimbas, and performed in choral arrangements, figure skating medleys, video games, and dance mixes.
Its origins (it was written around 1723 and published in 1725) are modest enough, as a set of four violin concertos, one-third of a set of 12. But these four concertos were accompanied by four sonnets. Each one described scenes from one of the four seasons, and the music illustrated the words in extravagant detail.
"They match so neatly that it's often assumed Vivaldi wrote the sonnets himself," says Pegasus Early Music Artistic Director Deb Fox. A particular effect in the music will have the corresponding words from the sonnet printed above it in the score. Those effects include barking dogs, drunken peasant snoring, and people slipping and falling on the ice, all imitated by the string instruments.
For Fox, it's simple why "The Four Seasons" has remained so popular, "They're virtuosic and fun to play, there are great tunes, and it's beautiful to listen to." In this weekend's performance you will also hear the sonnets, which will be read aloud before each concerto.
Fox notes that years ago, a performance of "The Four Seasons" would fill an entire concert. Historical research has led to a quicker, springier performance style — and now the piece fits neatly into one half of a concert.
For the first half of this concert, Pegasus will play three suites by three composers highly esteemed in their day. Georg Philipp Telemann wrote hundreds of "overtures," or dance suites, of which Pegasus will play a particularly agreeable example. "As always with Telemann," Fox says, "it is gracious, light music that has something quirky going on."
The other two suites represent Baroque program music long before Vivaldi. The Viennese composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's "The Fencing School" graphically depicts the parry-and-thrust of a fencing contest, and the last movement of the attentions of a Bader, a barber-surgeon, to the injured party. Heinrich Biber's "Battalia" is in a popular Baroque form, the "battle piece." The soldiers in this particular battle are a "dissolute company" (Biber's phrase), depicted in music whose various lines "have nothing to do with each other," Fox says. "It's polytonal, like Charles Ives a couple of centuries early."
Biber and Schmeltzer, not to mention Vivaldi, were eminent violinists, and their music requires the utmost virtuosity from string players. "Libby" Wallfisch has been a guest artist with Pegasus several times, and is a "a total musician," Fox says, adding that while she is perhaps best known for performing solo violin music of Bach and Biber "with incredible ease," Wallfisch has a wide performing repertoire.
"Libby rehearses in great, great detail, sometimes from note to note," says Fox, who will be playing lute and guitar in this concert. But when she is actually performing, "she is completely spontaneous and willful — in a good way — and takes risks in her playing. But they pay off. She is remarkably charismatic onstage, always reflecting confidence and joy in the music."