Arranging The Four Seasons for solo harp

Keziah Thomas
Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Harpist Keziah Thomas talks us through recreating Vivaldi's evocative imagery on her own instrument

Keziah Thomas, whose arrangement of the Four Seasons for harp is available now (photo: Cat Arwen)
Keziah Thomas, whose arrangement of the Four Seasons for harp is available now (photo: Cat Arwen)

As a child of the 80s, my first encounter with The Four Seasons came from my favourite cassette in my grandfather’s meticulously indexed drawer of classical music albums, 'Hooked on Classics'. Vivaldi’s music already sparkles with energy but with the addition of Louis Clark’s disco beats, I was (as K-tel intended) indeed hooked!

Fast forward 25 years and I am sat behind my harp during a recording session of Max Richter’s ‘Recomposed: Vivaldi The Four Seasons’. Struck by how well the looped material from Richter’s harp part fits under the harpist’s fingers and how satisfying it feels to be a part of such an iconic piece of music, I started itching to play some of the solo lines alongside the harmony.

Through my experience of coming to The Four Seasons via arrangements and reworkings, it felt entirely natural to pick up the score and explore the music using my own voice; the harp. I spent a year with the music, arranging each concerto during the relevant season immersed in Vivaldi’s music and his (presumably self-penned) sonnets alongside my own relationship with the cycle of the seasons.

Starting in Winter, the arrangement was influenced by the music I was working on for Christmas concerts such as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. In the seventh carol, This Little Babe, Britten creates energy and incredible rhythmic drive with repeated chords which the harpist plays with alternating hands. This can be challenging for the player to pull off without catching their nails on vibrating strings but if timed just right and with energetic fingers, the result is exhilarating, and this was just the effect I was searching for to recreate Vivaldi’s picture of stamping feet in in the cold, which you can hear in the track below.

Repeated notes played between two hands also feature later in the movement but with a much softer and lighter effect. I used the harp technique of bisbigliandi (whispering) to represent teeth chattering in the cold alongside harmonics to highlight the shifting harmonies. Besides the glissando, harmonics are the most popular harp technique due to their ability to add unique colour to a special moment.

In the first movement of Autumn, as the peasant starts to drift off to sleep after partying, I chose to play the melody line in harmonics to give the effect of other worldly hallucination.

I also found harmonics a very practical tool to enable me to successfully play fast repeated notes in the violin line because a harmonic sounds one octave higher than the string it is played on such as in the third movement of Summer.

From an audience perspective, there is nothing more virtuosic than seeing a harpist use the entire range of the instrument at speed. In the third movement of Summer, the physicality of the arms and hands coming away from the strings and moving elsewhere within the presto pulse creates a hypnotic dancing energy and a real edge of the seat moment for audience and player alike.

My artistic mission in this arrangement was to really exploit the imagery from the sonnets and some of Vivaldi’s musical illustrations work so beautifully that they could have been written for the harp. Take the birdsong in the opening of Spring for example, this is displayed with trills in the highest octaves of the instrument.

Some parts of the text provided me with the opportunity to use my imagination to find the perfect colour on the harp. In Autumn, I searched for a gunshot to sound during the hunt and found it by ricocheting off my soundboard ...

... and how I could depict claps of thunder on a sweltering summer’s night? By bouncing the palm of my hand on the wire strings in the bass octaves of my harp.

By taking inspiration from the composer’s imagery and exploiting the breadth of the harps’ colour palette, I challenge the listener to hear the Four Seasons in even more vivid colour.

 

Keziah Thomas's arrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for solo harp is out now on Convivium Records. You can enjoy the complete album below via Apple Music, and can also see her play her arrangement at forthcoming concerts throughout the UK, including at the Forest arts Centre, Hampshire on July 14, and at the World Harp Congress in Cardiff on July 24: find out more here

 

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