By Chuck Lavazzi
Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the Baroque series of violin concerti, is a popular work with performers and audiences alike. It also has a long and significant history with the SLSO. But before we get to that, here's a bit of background. Composed around 1720 (as with many aspects of Vivaldi's life, dates are foggy), The Four Seasons was originally published as part of a set of 12 concertos titled “Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione” (“The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”). Each of the four three-movement concertos describes—often vividly—aspects of a particular season. They were even accompanied by sonnets (anonymous, but possibly by Vivaldi himself) that provide narratives for each concerto. Combine that almost cinematic tone painting with Vivaldi's gift of melody and you have music that was destined to be popular. And it was, at least during Vivaldi's time. After his death, though, that all changed. Interest in his work faded, and copies of his music were hard to come by.
“For nearly 200 years,” writes Peter Gutmann at classicalnotes.net, “Vivaldi was a historical footnote, although a somewhat influential one…His only lasting recognition came from the fervent admiration of Bach, who modeled his own concerto style after Vivaldi's and adapted for keyboard nine Vivaldi violin concerti (even though Bach devotees tended to disparage the source).” That began to change in 1926 when a boarding school in Piedmont discovered a huge cache of old manuscripts, including hundreds of works by Vivaldi. It aroused the interest of scholars and conductors, including Bernardino Molinari (1880-1952), who was then the conductor of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.
He was also, is it happens, about to become a guest conductor at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The 1962 book “Great Orchestral Music: A Treasury of Program Notes” edited by Julian Seaman (Collier Books, 1962) helps explain what happened next. Its entry on The Four Seasons is brief, but includes this provocative paragraph, attributed to the late Lawrence Gilman (1878-1939), music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune: “They [the concertos] were published in a modern edition prepared by Bernardino Molinari in 1927. Mr. Molinari gave the first American performances of the complete work with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in January 1928.” Future SLSO program notes for The Four Seasons list the first SLSO performance as February 20, 1953, with Vladimir Golschmann at the podium. But if Gilman is right, the first performance was 25 years earlier, and an American premiere to boot. Obviously some detective work was necessary to determine which account was correct. After reviewing 1928 copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the St. Louis Public Library's downtown headquarters, it became clear that both the program notes and Gilman are right, in their own way. Molinari did, in fact, conduct The Four Seasons in January 1928, but he stretched the four concertos out over an entire month—"like the magazine serial stories,” as the newspaper's music critic, Thomas B. Sherman, wryly observed in his review of the first set of concerts. “Spring” was performed in a pair of concerts on Friday and Saturday, January 6 and 7. “Summer” was the following week, and the final two concertos were performed in concerts on January 27 and 28. Sherman loved the SLSO performance, in any case, calling it “ingratiating, warm and transparent” and describing the strings as “rich and unified.” So, yes, the first performance by the SLSO of The Four Seasons in a single night was in 1953. But the orchestra had played the music much earlier than that, and apparently introduced it to the U.S.
Chuck Lavazzi is the Senior Performing Arts Critic at KDHX and has reviewed SLSO concerts since 2002.