The Academy of St Martin's in the Fields commissioned The Seasons in 1988. That year, they gave the first performance in the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.
The idea for the work crystallised after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Piero di Cosimo’s Caccia Primitiva, a frightening image of fire and destruction built around a wild and gory hunt scene, gave rise to the idea that various pictures related to the four seasons could become a metaphor for the cycles in the life of man.
In this way the first movement, Autumn, violent and destructive, stands for an impending storm, be it literal or metaphorical. One of the main musical motives includes hunting horns set against a restless background. They are eventually swallowed up by a violent tempest. In mourning, bells ring out the Dies Irae. Here the mood is depicted by Picasso’s The End of the Road.
In Winter, all is a frozen wasteland of ice and despair, but one single voice, a solo oboe, keeps a small flame of hope alive. A painting by Leutze, Washington Crossing the Frozen Delaware, prompts a distant, brief quote of The Star Spangled Banner.
In Spring the rains come, the snow melts and a 'dawn chorus' of birds heralds the moment of re-birth. The movement builds to a romantic climax, culminating in two massive chords (a quotation of the 'freedom chords' from the composer’s opera Harriet, the Woman called Moses). This dissolves to a serene cadence, where the voice of the cuckoo can be heard, Van Gogh’s The Sower comes to mind.
Summer is fulfilment and celebration. Inspired by Van Gogh’s Le 14 juillet à Paris, Jasper Johns’s Flag and Monet’s Rue St Denis, Festivities of June 30, 1878, the scene of season, place and rejoicing is reinforced in the music by the layering of the national anthems of the USA and France. And finally, the Johns painting represents George Washington’s success in negotiating the River Delaware, and here, “fulfilment” acquires another dimension: the liberation from tyranny.
Although each season clearly has its own distinct themes and mood, there are some harmonic elements that run through the entire work, tying it together. One is a single chord (C, E-flat, G, B) which appears in every movement but each time at a different octave. Eventually, this chord is incorporated into the 'freedom chords' mentioned earlier. Yet another chord, an augmented one (B-flat, D, F-sharp) also has an important role and appears in each movement.
© Thea Musgrave