I have been writing about the changing of the seasons for a few years now and there is only so much you can say about the spring equinox, autumn equinox and the solstices of summer and winter. I try to find a new path into them and for this season I am thinking about spring in music and in the sky.
As a quick review, “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because the night and day are approximately equal in length on that day. We experience an equinox in spring and fall when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun which is vertically above a point on the Equator. An equinox actually occurs at a specific moment in time (for 2015, today, March 20 at 6:45 pm EDT), but commonly people refer to the entire day as the equinox or first day of the season.
It is very “northern” of me to say it is the Spring Equinox, because in the Southern Hemisphere this celestial observation means the start of autumn. Being that autumn is my favorite season, I have often thought that I should travel between the two hemispheres to get two autumns each year. Unfortunately, the Sun doesn’t allow me to live in a three-season world and avoid winter.
(Soundtrack to this post)
The Four Seasons (Italian: Le quattro stagioni) is a set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1720) and his best-known work. My knowledge of classical music is shallow, but I was reading about this piece and discovered a few interesting nuggets.
I like that Vivaldi provided some additional instructions with the music, such as “The barking dog” in the second movement of “Spring.”
It seems that there is some debate as to whether or not the concertos were written to accompany four poems (sonnets) or if the sonnets were written to accompany the music. It doesn’t seem to be known who wrote these sonnets,and some say that Vivaldi wrote them himself. Either by plan or coincidence, each sonnet is broken down into three sections, nicely corresponding to a movement in the concerto.
The Four Seasons is sometimes classified as “program music,” instrumental music that intends to evoke something extra-musical. For me, the four pieces, especially “Spring,” does evoke the season.
If you listen to the music tonight, I suggest that you turn your eyes to the sky and look for Arcturus. It is one of the brightest stars. Due to its northerly location on the sky’s dome, it is visible for much of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and its appearance in the evening sky heralds the coming of the spring equinox.
Like other stars, Arcturus rises four minutes earlier every day and now Arcturus will appear at dusk (instead of nightfall or early evening) which is its signal of spring in our hemisphere.
Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman. It is not one of the best-known constellations. The name comes from the Greek Βοώτης, meaning herdsman or plowman (literally an ox-driver; from boos, related to the Latin bovis, “cow”). It is one of the 48 constellations described by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, but it was first used by Homer in his Odyssey as a celestial reference point for navigation.
Homer described it as “late-setting” or “slow to set.” It is not clear exactly whom Boötes is supposed to represent in Greek mythology is not clear. The story I will go with is that he was a son of Demeter, twin brother of Plutus, a ploughman who drove the oxen in the constellation Ursa Major. The ancient Greeks saw what we call the “Big Dipper” as a cart with oxen.
It seems a nice match with the spring that one myth associated with Boötes is that he invented the plow which certainly is associated with spring and planting. If you think of him as a “herdsman,” that works too, as those who watch over a herd of cows, sheep or other animals leads a nomadic life very much guided by the seasons. Spring is the time to move to those areas that were snow-covered and the tain and melting turns the land green again.
If staring up at the big sky makes you feel small and timeless – a good feeling, I believe – then also consider this: even the equinoxes are constantly changing. They are not fixed points but move westward along the ecliptic, passing through all the constellations of the zodiac in a period of 26,000 years. This motion is called the precession of the equinoxes. And we think that the 5000 year Mayan calendar was looking at a long period of time…