Vivaldi's Seasons premiered in 1725 and directly express, well, the seasons. Wikipedia even adds

In addition to these sonnets, Vivaldi provided instructions such as "The barking dog" (in the second movement of "Spring"), "Languor caused by the heat" (in the first movement of "Summer"), and "the drunkards have fallen asleep" (in the second movement of "Autumn").

It seems to me this direct expression of a topic is no different to Beethoven's direct expression of a topic. They just chose different topics.

So why isn't Vivaldi the start of Romantic Music?

Edit: I'm not sure how to define a Romantic piece of music, but I guess I've always assumed it was just expressing something directly, either that by itself or by departing established form.

  • 2
    Because that's not what music theory uses that term for. Program music existed long before and after the romantic era. May 8, 2017 at 6:57
  • 2
    A corollary question is - why do we have to pigeon-hole? The answer is not 'because we can', because we can't...
    – Tim
    May 8, 2017 at 7:09
  • 2
    I'm disheartened by the downvotes; this is a perfectly fair question, I think!
    – Richard
    May 8, 2017 at 13:37
  • 1
    @Richard I didn't downvote, but IMO it's more a (misguided) question about the history of Romanticism than one about music.
    – user19146
    May 8, 2017 at 15:44
  • we can't... - That problem only bothers musicians, not academics, who make their living by 'pigeon-holing' - regardless of the correctness of those pigeon-holes.
    – Stinkfoot
    Nov 19, 2017 at 20:39

6 Answers 6


By the way you're framing the question, it looks like you're assuming "expression of a topic" is the leading impetus of the Romantic movement. It was certainly part of it, but the Romantic was so much more than that: it dealt with individuality/autobiography, a oneness with Nature, expression of the mystic/religious/supernatural, bucking conventional musical trends, nationalism, etc.

Although "Seasons" could be viewed as an early forerunner to Romantic ideas, it wasn't until about a century later that we see the confluence of all of these trends into what we've now called the Romantic Era.

With that said, remember that these boundaries between periods are always very blurry. Any bozo that tries to tell you "The Romantic Era started with the first E-flat major triad of the Eroica" is misleading you.

  • I've always heard it was Beethoven's 5th Symphony because it was the most radical departure from anything before it yet still managed to be popular. At least, that's what I remember hearing from Robert Greenberg in a Great Lecture Course. Anyway, I'm not sure what my exact definition of a Romantic piece is, but surely expression of a topic and/or departing from established form is the core of the matter? I'll try to make an edit.
    – DrZ214
    May 8, 2017 at 1:13
  • @DrZ214 and I always heard it was the recitative "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" ("O friends, no more these sounds!") from the 9th that thrust open the doors to the Romantic era. So, definitely Beethoven...
    – AakashM
    May 10, 2017 at 13:50

Just because the four seasons can be summarized as program music, i.e. containing some extra-musical narrative (found in many eras), is simply not enough, to qualify. There are some composers, which are somewhat on the boundary between two eras, but Vivaldi is none of them.

  • After baroque follows classical, and on classical follows romantic, so the eras are not even adjacent
  • The structure, the style of compositions of Vivaldi is so typical for baroque, there can be not the tiniest doubt
  • It is often said, that Schubert is somewhat on the boundary between classical and romantic. Listening to anything from Schubert makes evident, there are worlds between him and Vivaldi.

A list of typical attributes of romantic music take from wikipedia :

  • a new preoccupation with and surrender to Nature
  • a fascination with the past, particularly the Middle Ages and legends of medieval chivalry
  • a turn towards the mystic and supernatural, both religious and merely spooky
  • a longing for the infinite
  • mysterious connotations of remoteness, the unusual and fabulous, the strange and surprising
  • a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly, the frightful, and terrifying fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences
  • a new attention given to national identity
  • emphasis on extreme subjectivism
  • interest in the autobiographical
  • discontent with musical formulas and conventions

Nothing to tick for "Four Seasons" except the first bullet point.

Summarized: concluding from program music to romantic era is somewhat comparable to concluding from the maximum speed of a car, that it is a sports car.

  • Can you add exactly what is the difference between program music and romantic music? Can program music be written in the romantic style?
    – DrZ214
    May 8, 2017 at 8:10

Eras are defined by critics, not by artists, and after the fact. It's not like there is an explicit memorandum sent to every artist with instructions to stop doing one well-defined thing and start doing another.

The outliers do not define an era. It's just when everyone start doing one recognizable thing and stops doing what he did before (or becomes unpopular doing what he did before), that periods change.

The best and outstanding artists don't define an era. It's what the average does and enjoys that does it. Bach was still doing Baroque when the era was done for. There never was something like a dodecaphonic era, at best a dodecaphonic movement.

And then there is the question of influence on our current perception. People have no problem defining Bach as the defining Baroque composer when stuff like his B minor mass was unperformable in full due to social and liturgical reasons for longer after his death than he had actually been alive, when his Brandenburg concerti were rotting in some drawers after dedication unplayed until getting discovered, when many of his instrumental compositions were lost and had to be reconstructed or guessed at because nobody could be interested in them.

Obviously, he was out of his era a lot of his time.

And then there are things like Monteverdi's Vespers, a fulminant starting point of a whole new style of Baroque (or something) that never happened, bereaving the critics of declaring a new era.

  • 1
    Why was this answer flagged as 'not accepted' in review?
    – Tim
    May 8, 2017 at 7:04
  • "Bach was still doing Baroque when the era was done for." What does this mean? Was Bach somehow living in the "wrong" time? I think you are confusing labels with reality. May 8, 2017 at 9:21

Even if we accepted your definition of "Romantic", Vivaldi was far from the first composer to do this. William Byrd's eponymous "Battel" (for virginals) did the same thing more than 100 years before Vivaldi, not only with the titles of the separate sections, but sometimes with comments within each section.

There are many other keyboard pieces from the 16th century with "Romantic" titles, some of which relate to seasons of the year ("The fall of the leafe," "The Primerose," etc) and some with sections depicting weather conditions like sunshine, rain, hail, thunder, etc. Vivaldi didn't "invent" any of this!

And on the basis of the music, rather than the text annotations, you could make an argument that Byrd's "Battel" (and another Byrd piece, "The Bells") invented minimalism 350 years before Glass and Reich rediscovered it!


There's a world (or era) of difference between the terraced dynamics in Vivaldi and the subtle dynamics in, say, Chopin.


'The Seasons' uses just one device that is often associated with Romantic music - a program. Hardly the most prominent feature of Romantic music - we could argue all day over what IS, of course - or one that is exclusive to Romantic music. And an 'era' begins when the general style swings in a certain direction, not when one work does. Wagner wrote counterpoint. Does that make him a Baroque composer? Just about everyone up to 1900 (and a whole lot of people since) used functional harmony and featured key relationships. Does that make them all Classical?

But all but the most perverse of composers 'stand on the shoulders of giants'. Echoes of previous styles will always be found.

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