The Four Seasons*

May 7, 2010

*The ‘prequel’ to this post can be found here.

The Four Seasons, by Vivaldi, has been one of my favourite pieces of music for as long as I can remember. It’s right up there, along with Beethoven’s Fifth and Handel’s Messiah, as one of the pieces of music that come close to paradise on earth.

The trouble is, I don’t know what recording of The Four Seasons I grew up with. It was, as far as I know, a battered old LP, which we somehow converted into a battered old cassette as LPs went out of fashion. In those days, the “sophisticated” way of converting from LP to tape was by means of a cable connecting the two. It wasn’t an easy cable to find, so the alternative was the place the cassette deck slap bang in front of the record player, turn the volume but, and tell the kids and dogs to keep quiet. As you can guess, this didn’t work so well – so where Vivaldi factored in a barking dog in the Four Seasons, some music that had nothing to do with barking dogs, we got used to hear the dogs barking. That’s what artistic license is all about, isn’t it?

Sometimes we resorted to what I now realize must have been illegal means of getting music. I don’t mean buying pirated cassettes (though we did that too – back in the ’80s that was practically all you had), I mean, recording the music straight off the radio. For this we had the integrated radio and cassette player box, so at least you didn’t get the barking dogs. What you got instead was static and machine hum. It was like an additional string instrument in the orchestra, one with only one string and a persistent rattle.

So it was some such salvaged recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I grew up to, and loved. I lost track of this tape years ago and for years I have not had The Four Seasons around to listen to. (I made up for it by OD’ing on flute and recorder concertos, which are also very nice, but not quite in the same league.)

Then late last year I decided I just needed to hear The Four Seasons, so I walked out to the nearest mall and bought it. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that the recording I bought might differ substantially from the one I’d had. After all, there’s a written score, how different can it be?

Very different. Disappointingly different. Different enough so that I never listened to the whole thing even once. In parts, it was painfully different. If I could have, I would have gone out and looked for the exact same version I’d been used to… but the sad part was that I had no idea what version that was.

Meanwhile, the kids were now completely familiar with Peter and the Wolf. They’d even begun to accept, sadly, that there was no fox in the story. Their questions around the plot became fewer and answers became more “right” and less innovative. Besides, I’d had enough of Peter and his bird, cat, duck, and wolf too – especially when I realized one day that the poor duck that got eaten by the wolf was actually alive and continued to quack in the wolf’s stomach! Whaaaaaaa…?! Gross!

So I dug out the disappointing version of The Four Seasons and subjected the twins to it. They made me do a lot of talking – converting the sounds into visual images for their benefit. I know there are sonnets that go along with The Four Seasons, and I’ve read them a long time ago. I don’t remember them exactly, but I know them well enough to know the general themes. So I invented, innovated and extrapolated. I explained the seasons to them, and described how birds were singing, the stream was flowing in the forest, and kids like them had gone for a picnic.

Not that I did all the work on my own. They helped fill in the details, and Tara introduced a crocodile into the plot.

And then, of course, on the next drive, we went back to Peter and the Wolf.

But I was delighted and more than a little proud when a day or two later, first Tara and then both of them asked for Spring. The one with the rain and the picnic, they said. Wow! So it had made a bit of an impression!

Beethoven’s Fifth is probably still premature, but maybe Handel’s Messaiah can be next?

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