Classical Music to Welcome Summer

Summer is here!  Well, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere….  Summer is almost always portrayed as a life-affirming season, if an occasionally lazy one, where life is to be savored to its fullest.

“Midsummer Eve,” c.1908 by Edward Robert Hughes


I’m tempted to hang up a “Gone Fishin’” sign myself and run off to the lake… but instead, let me share a few classical works from a variety of genres that perfectly embody summer in all its hedonistic glory.


* * *

Argento: “Summer,” from A Ring of Time Written as an “occasional work” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Minnesota Orchestra, A Ring of Time has established a solid reputation of its own.   Following its premiere with Stanisław Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra in 1972, this work was quickly taken up by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.  The work honors the passage of time in a variety of ways, with each of the four movements celebrating a season, but giving a metaphoric nod to the life-span of a man as well as the movements of a clock.



Barber: Knoxville: Summer, 1915. James Agee wrote his rapturous prose-poem, Knoxville: Summer, 1915, in 1938 at the age of 28. It recalls the last summer he enjoyed together with his whole family before his father died—about being a five-year-old, spreading out a blanket under the star-lit twilight and taking in all the sights and sounds around him. It’s a perfect portrait of youthful wonder and innocence.  Samuel Barber ran across the poem in 1947 and was inspired.  He ultimately created a work for soprano and orchestra that brilliant captured the mood of Agee’s remembered evening, which in a way became a metaphor of America reflecting on its own age of innocence before the war.



Berlioz: Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights). This is something of an outlier in Berlioz’s output—a delicate song-cycle from a composer who usually tended to think big. Berlioz drew from the poems of Théophile Gautier to compose a work that pondered the idea of love from many different vantage points. Overall, the work is infused with melancholy, which perhaps mirrors Berlioz’s own increasingly unhappy marriage.



Bridge: Summer. This tone poem, coincidentally written in the same year that James Agee’s summer idyll is set, is lush pastoral written at a time when World War I was ripping Europe apart.  Frank Bridge was a noted pacifist, and this was one of several works he wrote during this time as a spiritual balm against the horrors of war.



Delius: Song of Summer This gorgeous tone poem was the result of a remarkable musical collaboration.  By 1928, Delius’s health had begun to fail, and blindness and creeping paralysis made it impossible to compose.  Eric Fenby, a self-taught musician, offered his services as a secretary and amanuensis, and with his help Delius was able to compose once more. Delius dictated tones and rhythms to Fenby, who transcribed them into the score. Song of Summer was Delius and Fenby’s final collaboration, and Delius’s final major orchestral work. Delius helped Fenby set the mood of the work with an evocative line: “I want you to imagine we are sitting on the cliffs of heather and looking out over the sea. The sustained chords in the high strings suggest the clear sky and stillness and calm of the scene.”



Gershwin: “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess This haunting melody, sung in the opening moments of the Gershwins’ folk opera and appearing at key points thereafter, beautifully captures the sense of a mother’s love for her child, as well as all promise of summer.



Glazunov: “Summer,” 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. Summer is a time of growth, fertility, and flowers. It begins with a musical blaze of sunlight and heat, and concludes with satyrs and fauns playing pipes to entice the Spirit of Corn.



Grieg: “Someraften (Summer’s Eve),” from Lyric Pieces. This jewel comes the tenth and last book of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, written in 1901.  While it is not Grieg’s most adventurous work, it playfully recalls the impressionism of Debussy, and creates waves of sound that suggest a babbling brook.



Haydn: “Summer,” 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.”



Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture Written when the composer was only a teenager, this eternal charmer is a perfect embodiment of Shakespeare’s comedy about fairy revels and love gone hilariously awry. The incidental music that he later wrote to accompany stage productions of the play is also worthwhile.



Piazzolla: “Summer,” 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.



Sibelius. “In the Summer,” from Suite for Violin and String Orchestra [Op. 117]. This rarity comes from the end of Sibelius’s career, during the so-called “silence of Järvenpää” when he stopped producing major new works. He was not, however, completely idle; during this time he continued to create smaller-scale pieces and revise some of his earlier ones. This suite was written in 1928-9 but not discovered until 25 years after the composer’s death. It consists of three movements with English subtitles: Country Scenery, Evening in Spring, and In the Summer.



Vaughan Williams: “Summer,” from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. Ralph Vaughan Williams had a deep and abiding love of British folk songs, which provided an endless source of inspiration for his compositions. His Folk Songs of the Four Seasons developed naturally from this love—it is, in effect, a folk song cantata for women’s voices. As many composers before him realized, the changing of the seasons provided a wonderful, varied framing device for the songs. In describing the work, he wrote: “The subject of our folk-songs, whether they deal with romance, tragedy, conviviality or loyalty, have a background of nature and its seasons.”



Vivaldi: “Summer,” 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. Originally the work was inscribed with sonnets, which help tell the story of each movement. In translation, the sonnet for summer reads:

1.Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat
men and flocks are sweltering,
pines are scorched.
We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard.
Soft breezes stir the air…but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.

2. His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning’s flash and thunder’s roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.

3. Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing grain.



One thought on “Classical Music to Welcome Summer

  1. Also, “Im Sommerwind” by Anton von Webern. Just heard it this past Sunday on MPR and I was reminded just how lovely it is. More and more, I just want to return to summers when I was a kid and had nothing to worry about but what book I’d read the next day.


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