Winter: A Classical Listening Guide

Ah, winter.  As a season, it often gets a bum rap—while spring is a season of new beginnings, winter too often gets written off as a season of death and bleak desolation. And indeed, many people start feeling a bit stir crazy this time of year.  So, let me break the seasonal doldrums with a playlist of winter-themed classical music.  Some of the following selections are delicate, some melancholy, some dramatic… but all take winter, ice, or snow as their point of departure.  Note that I have deliberately avoided Christmas or holiday music here… Christmas music deserves its own post.

Cheers!

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Chopin: Etude Op.25 No.11, “Winter Wind.” This study for solo piano is both technically challenging and musically interesting. Essentially, the right hand has two melodies playing simultaneously—two melodies that intertwine to create a unified whole.

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Debussy: “The Snow is Dancing,” from Children’s Corner Suite.   Debussy’s famous piano work, dedicated to his daughter Claude-Emma, sets out to evoke of the magic world of childhood. Here, an enraptured child watches the swirl of falling snow through a frosted window, as it blurs the shapes and colors of the outside world.

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Debussy: “Des pas sur la neige,” from Préludes. This stunning work, “Footprints in the snow,” also depicts a wintry landscape, where the footprints of an unknown traveler are gently obscured by the falling snow. It conveys a sense of loneliness, and introspection… haunting.

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Debussy: “Yver vous n’estes qu’un vilain,” from Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans. A ran across this gorgeous set of a cappella songs in college, and have loved them ever since. The finale is a defiant snarl, “Winter! You are nothing but a villain!” But the harmonies are so gorgeous that you’re willing to let the snow hang around for just a bit longer….

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Glazunov: “Winter,” from The Seasons. This allegorical ballet premiered in St. Petersburg in 1900. It was one of the last great ballet scores written in the tradition of Tchaikovsky; a few years later Stravinsky would create a new tradition based in Paris. The work begins with Winter dancing with his companions, Hoar-frost, Ice, Hail, and Snow. Sounds like quite the party…!

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Haydn: “Winter,” from The Seasons. Buoyed by the success of his oratorio, The Creation, Haydn set to work on another large-scale choral work: The Seasons. The plot was based on a poem of the same name by James Thompson and is relatively thin… especially compared with that of The Creation; that said, many critics point out that musically it is the stronger work. Michael Steinberg, for example, argued that that the work “ensure[s] Haydn’s premiere place with Titian, Michelangelo and Turner, Mann and Goethe, Verdi and Stravinsky, as one of the rare artists to whom old age brings the gift of ever bolder invention.”

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Howells: Sir Patrick Spens. This early choral-orchestral work by British composer Herbert Howells is not widely known… which is unfortunate. The text draws from a very old, traditional Scottish ballad, which tells the story of Sir Patrick Spens, a knight who is also the kingdom’s greatest sailor. The king commissions him to make a dangerous winter crossing of the North Sea to Norway; once there, he is to complete negotiations for a royal wedding with the King of Norway’s daughter, and bring the princess back to Scotland. While Howells was much more restrained in his later music, the sound world he creates here is exuberant, lush and dramatic, and the icy tempest that ultimately dooms the ship is terrifying.

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Lauridsen: Mid-Winter Songs.   Contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen was inspired by the poems of Robert Graves, creating a shimmeringly beautiful song cycle for chorus. The poems are rich with Classical imagery and examine winter from a variety of perspectives, using it as a metaphor to explore the human experience. Absolutely gorgeous.

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Prokofiev: “The Battle on the Ice,” from Alexander Nevsky.  This work was originally written to underscore the climactic battle in Eisenstein’s movie of the same name. Later, Prokofiev adapted the film score into a cantata; several years ago I had the good fortune to perform it with Leonard Slatkin and the Minnesota Orchestra. In this movement, the charge of the invading Teutonic Knights, the desperate defense by the Russians, and the moment the ice finally breaks under the weight of the Knight’s armor—sending the invaders into a watery grave—is vividly depicted.  And I love a piece with a good choral yell.

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Piazzolla: “Winter,” from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. The great Argentine composer reconceptualized Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, fusing the earlier work with tango music to create a new work that completely stands Vivaldi’s classic on its head. Literally… as it is in the southern hemisphere, Buenos Aires has an inverted view of the four seasons and their respective allegories.

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Quilter: “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” from Three Shakespeare Songs. Roger Quilter’s Shakespeare songs are miniature marvels, and some of the finest English art songs of the 20th century.  In this, the finale of the set, Quilter shifts between a bitter verse set in a minor key, with a dance-like refrain in its parallel major key.

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Rimsky-Korsakov: The Snow Maiden. This fairy-tale opera is said to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s own favorite work. It is based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name, which details the intertwined fates of mythological characters and humans.  It also has a good helping of a common Romantic theme—the idea of fulfillment through death. At least in this country, the music is best known from the suite of dance music Rimsky-Korsakov drew from the score, especially the “Dance of the Tumblers.”

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Schubert: Winterreise. Schubert’s masterwork, which he finished corrections for only days before his death, is generally thought to be one of the greatest song-cycles ever written, and a foundation of the German Lied tradition. While some of the songs within it are occasionally performed independently, the work was designed to be performed as a whole. It is famously bleak, perhaps encapsulating the weariness of the terminally ill composer.

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Sibelius: “Diamond in the March Snow” from Songs Op. 36. Okay, I understand that for many people, it’s really pushing it to include March as part of winter. But a) I’m from Minnesota, where snow season lasts well into May, and b) come March the last thing anyone wants to think about is snow… so, I’m including my selection here. This song is a setting of a poem by Josef Julius Wecksell, a Finnish poet who wrote in Swedish, and touches on the idea of death and fulfillment. It is one of Sibeilus’s most popular songs, originally written for singer and piano accompaniment, but later orchestrated. The words tell of ice crystals who are in love with the sun, although they are melted by its heat.

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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1, Winter Daydreams. Although he went on to write far grander music, Tchaikovsky always remained fond of his first symphony—his first composition of note. Indeed, Tchaikovsky later wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that “although it is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than any of my other more mature works.”

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Tchaikovsky: The Snow Maiden. Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky approached Tchaikovsky to write incidental music to accompany play he was working on, The Snow Maiden. A young Tchaikovsky was so taken with the story that he threw himself into the music, finishing the work in three weeks—and before Ostrovsky actually finished writing the play. The play was a failure, but Tchaikovsky always remarked that it was one of his favorite compositions. Later, Rimsky-Korsakov fell in love with the story, and decided to write an opera on the subject (see above).

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Thompson: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from Frostiana. Thompson’s Frostiana was written to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst; it makes use of the poems of Robert Frost, who was one of the town’s most famous residents. The poem describes the thoughts of a lone rider, who pauses to watch the gentle falling of snow, before rousing himself with the famous lines, “I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.”

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Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No. 7). Vaughan Williams provided the music for the 1947 film, Scott in the Antarctic, which he ultimately recast into a symphony for orchestra, women’s voices and soprano soloist. The film details the tragic fate of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, which set out to be the first to reach the South Pole. The team reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition weeks before; subsequently everyone on the team froze to death trying to reach their main base. Vaughan Williams does not literally tell the story, but captures the drama and pathos of it brilliantly. Moreover, the music is completely otherworldly, describing a desolate landscape that is as alien to us as another planet.

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Vivaldi: “Winter,” from The Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is one of the earliest attempts at program music—having the music tell a specific story, and including aural effects to make the narrative clear. In “Winter,” he depicts the cracking of ice as people gingerly walk around, chattering of teeth… and in the final moments, an all out blizzard. He included the following sonnet with the score:

Frozen and shivering in the icy snow.
In the strong blasts of a terrible wind
To run stamping one’s feet at every step
With one’s teeth chattering through the cold.

To spend the quiet and happy days by the fire
Whilst outside the rain soaks everyone.
To walk on the ice with slow steps
And go carefully for fear of falling.

To go in haste, slide and fall down:
To go again on the ice and run,
Until the ice cracks and open.

To hear leaving their iron-gated house
Sirocco, Boreas and all the winds in battle:
This is winter, but it brings joy.

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Xochipilli

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