Max Richter, Vivaldi: The Four Seasons Recomposed

One of the primary faults of cultures who consider themselves modern is to overestimate the extent to which their ideas, customs and preferences are in fact “modern” inventions. In the case of music, it is easy to assume that the phenomenons of remixing, sampling, and covering are contemporary interests, of use only in a world where recording is cheap and parody is a more impactful cultural statement than earnestness. However, that ignores the fact that many, of the great works of the past that we consider to be self-contained were, in fact, living and evolving entities. J.S. Bach re-used his own melodies over and over again; Handel remixed the work of other composers with a zeal that by today’s standards would probably be considered a violation of intellectual property rights; Beethoven’s sections and instrumentation were variable depending on the concert.

Vivaldi, too, was perfectly comfortable with the process of recomposing old works for new occassions– and he had plenty of occasions, as he spent most of his career at the Ospedale della Pietà, a combined orphanage, music school and professional performance outfit, where he would eventually write around five hundred concerti.

In 1717, however, he was on a relatively light schedule with the Pietà in order to allow him to spend time in Mantua, in northern Italy, where prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt offered him a prestigious position. It was in that countryside, observing nature turn over in cycles, that he wrote The Four Seasons; a set of four violin concerti giving voice to the spirits of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each concerto evokes not just a feeling but a sonnet, possibly written by Vivaldi himself; making the Four Seasons one of the first examples of programmatic music that insisted on being taken seriously by the listener.

Today, those concerti are so present in popular culture that the reality of their revolutionary style is easy to forget. “When I was a young child,” explained neo-classical composer Max Richter, “I fell in love with Vivaldi’s original. But over the years, hearing it principally in shopping centres, advertising jingles, on telephone hold systems and similar places, I stopped being able to hear it as music. It had become an irritant…so I set out to try to find a new way to engage with this wonderful material, by writing through it anew.”

Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed treads a careful path: although Baroque composers themselves were perfectly comfortable with the act of remixing music, today the genre of the classical remix is often viewed with suspicion. In a world where classical music is considered too cerebral for the general public, the logical purpose of the classical remix is assumed to be to remove the nuances that make the work interesting and create something more “approachable”; a process which could uncharitably be viewed as a “dumbing-down.”

Richter’s Vivaldi is no such thing; the recomposed work remains firmly in the tradition of concert music that it came from, but with an expanded sensibility that takes into account all of the developments in concert music over the last three hundred years. Richter, who studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in Italy with experimental luminary Luciano Berio, is too entrenched in the traditions of 20th-century postmodernism and minimalism to consider leaving Vivaldi’s music less complex after treatment than it was before. Instead, Richter’s sense of looping, repteating material weaves in with Vivaldi’s, as if not only are the instruments in conversation with each other, the composers are too. “That sounds a bit crazy,” Richter said, “but in the piece, there are sections which are just Vivaldi, where I’ve left it alone. I’ve done sort of a production on ‘Autumn,’ but I’ve left the notes. And there other bits where there’s basically only a homeopathic dose of Vivaldi in this completely new music. So I have to figure out how much Max and how much Vivaldi there was going on at every moment.”

The result is a piece of music that speaks to the passage of time on several different levels. The first level, the turning over of the seasons througout the year, is preserved by the division of the piece into the same sections as Vivaldi’s original. The passage of time on a small scale is given the intense reading that minimalist music demands; and the passage of time on a large scale is shown in the interplay between the listener’s expectations of what The Four Seasons sounds like, compared with a version of the piece that cannot put away the knowledge of all that has happened in the world and in music in between Vivaldi’s time and our own.