Swimming with Vivaldi


VivaldiToday, for an hour, I swam with Vivaldi. Not the actual composer, of course. He died in 1741 at the age of 63. Would have made a mess of the pool to dig him up and toss him in.

The “red priest,” as he was called (for his red hair), probably couldn’t even swim. Not a lot of people back then could. but he could write music, and play the violin beautifully. Almost 300 years later his music is still as powerful and moving as when he was alive.*

Rather, as you guessed, I swam with his music, the Four Seasons to be exact. Gil Shaham/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version from 1995, Deutsche Grammophon, my favourite of many versions I own. Crisp, clear and full of life, that version. And almost perfectly timed – not quite an hour long.

Composed in 1723, The Four Seasons remains Vivaldi’s most famous work. Justifiably so, in my estimation. It is instantly recognizable even by those unfamiliar with classical music, and has graced many a Hollywood production. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel over-used. But maybe I’m just a sentimental fool for it.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, a city built on the water, a city of canals and gondoliers, bridges and sweepingly beautiful architecture that towers over the water. The city permeates his music, as does – to my ears – water. The rhythms of waves, of tides. Which seems entirely appropriate for the waves I make as I swim laps.

He actually wrote his masterpiece while working out of town. In 1718, Vivaldi took a position at the court of the governor of Mantua. He moved from there to Milan in 1721, then in 1722 he moved to Rome. He didn’t return to Venice until 1725. During his absence, he wrote the Four Seasons. It wasn’t published until 1725, however.

Vivaldi’s concerto was written the year before another famous Venetian – and one of the historical characters I both admire and delight in reading – Giacomo Casanova was born. Not quite contemporaries, Vivaldi died in Casanova’s 17th year, but no doubt Casanova heard the piece – and many other Vivaldi compositions – when he lived there. The concerto has been used in TV and movie biographies of Casanova, and in my mind they are intrinsically linked.

The Four Seasons, as its name suggests, has four movements, each dedicated to a different season. It’s actually four mini-concertos linked by thematic components. Wikipedia suggests Mantua was his inspiration:

The inspiration for the concertos was probably the countryside around Mantua. They were a revolution in musical conception: in them Vivaldi represented flowing creeks, singing birds (of different species, each specifically characterized), barking dogs, buzzing mosquitoes, crying shepherds, storms, drunken dancers, silent nights, hunting parties from both the hunters’ and the prey’s point of view, frozen landscapes, ice-skating children, and warming winter fires.

But I can’t help but hear the busy plazas and streets of Venice, see the masks and the palaces when I hear it. I imagine Vivaldi sitting indoors in Mantua, writing out the notes, thinking of his Venice, not the hills outside his window.

Why it’s good music for swimming is because each section is replete with small bits of tonal exploration and excitement. Themes connect them but they can easily be heard in bits and snatches, and still enjoyed. When one is swimming, ears are often underwater, hearing interrupted. Even if you miss a piece, the rest of the concerto is wholly enjoyable and doesn’t seem fragmented.

Besides, it’s a wonderful, pleasant departure from the usual derivative pap (aka pop music, aka tediously overplayed and unoriginal dreck) pumped out at excessive volume on the radio as “ambient” sound for the pool. That stuff simply can’t compare with the rich complexity, the shifting tempos and bursts of virtuosity in Vivaldi. Imagine the genius required to craft a whole concerto in your head; all the parts, the different instruments, the rhythms, the changing volume and emphasis.**

The Four Seasons opens with an exuberant concerto for spring, so enthusiastic you can’t help but hum along. It bursts out of the speakers, refusing to be restrained by mere technology. Then it follows with summer, autumn and winter. Each part has its mode, its mood, but are connected thematically. Each is an exploration, a discovery.

It’s not the winter of Tchaikovsky, whose First Symphony captures the snowy Russian winter so clearly you actually shiver when listening. No, Vivaldi’s winter is more temperate, more engaging, more like a cold November here, I suspect, than the icy steppes in February. The whole work never slips into maudlin reflection. It flies, it dances, it darts and dashes. It sometimes strolls, sometimes stops to look over the hills in the haze of summer, or to see the sleeping workers under the afternoon trees of autumn, but then it carries on.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons always makes me think of light and air, of space, of piazzas and great rooms. I imagine it being played in Hampton Court, or in a cathedral, its notes echoing from the high arches.

The new aquatic centre gives me a sense of that, with its high, arched ceiling and openness. It fits Vivaldi well, I think.

There are lots of classical pieces I like in more intimate settings, of course. But in the pool, a quartet or even chamber orchestra would seem small, dwarved. You need something that reaches the metaphorical rafters.

I’ve mulled over what sort of music would pair well with swimming. A lot of the classical pieces I love are either too laid back (Barber’s Adagio or Vaughn Williams’ variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for example) and quiet (Beethoven’s piano works), or require attention that I would lose when I did some back strokes, head in water, missing some notes. Hot tub stuff, mayhap. Not workout.

Baroque seems to fit. I thought about Bach’s Brandenberg Concerti, but there are lulls in some of them in the second movement that would just fade out. Maybe one of those “Best of Bach” CDs with the mix of pieces, nothing too long. Ditto with Mozart.

Maybe Albinoni’s Adagio might be okay. Or Handel’s Water Music.

Beethoven: a bit too moody, although perhaps the 5th or 9th Symphony could work. Maybe Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies (imagine the 1812 cranked up; the version with the Russian choir and the cannons…), or Grieg’s two Pier Gynt suites. Ravels’ Bolero might suit, too.

Opera? Tough, but Puccini’s Madame Butterfly might just fit the bill. Except for that incredibly sad piece when Butterfly realizes she’s been betrayed and plans to kill herself; that always brings tears to my eyes. Don’t think crying in the pool is a good idea. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is my favourite Russian opera, but a bit sonorous and dark. Turandot? Hmmm… Nessun dorma’s good, but what about the rest? Orff’s Carmina Burana? I get goosebumps from that.

The problem with opera in this environment is that you miss the bits between the great songs. The narrative stuff, not really great for casual listening. You need to pay attention.

On the other hand… a CD of operatic hits might work. But it would be an emotional, passionate hour.

Jazz, too, might work: maybe some Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, from the 50s and early 60s. Chris Botti, early Miles Davis. Sketches or Spain or Kind of Blue. Some longer pieces that can withstand the sometimes lack of attention a water-filled ear would create.

But I’ll take Vivaldi back again. An hour with Vivaldi, pushing water as I labour up and down the lane, seems just perfect. Besides, unlike today’s over-rated pop music, one can hear Vivaldi again and again without tiring of it.

* Three hundred years would make an slow companion in the lanes. I’m not that old. No jokes, please. Sixty is the new fifty or forty or something like that.
** I like some pop music, but the majority of it today is dross. My pop listening tends to be the 50s-70s, when it was new, original and exciting. I could listen to any Beatles album or Rolling Stones (until about 1975), Van Morrison, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead… but the songs are short, and not as contemplative as classical. But I can’t stand the vacuous yattering on pop radio between their one-in-a-row songs, any more than I can stand the commercials on TV.

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  1. Edvard Grieg’s Pier Gynt Suites aren’t bad. But I like his Holberg Suite better, although it’s not very energetic.More sublime. Makes me think Smetana’s Ma Vlast might be a good choice.

    Gustav Holst’s The Planets: Bad choice. Fluctuates too much between boisterous and mellow. Besides, my enjoyment of Mars has been forever altered by John Williams.

    Vaughan Williams and Barber: hard to hear the solos or the low bit over the water noises, but calming when you can catch it..

    Electronic Bach? The Well Tempered Synthesized? Have to dig it up.

  2. Pingback: Classical music matters even more today | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

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