With winter here in full force, the time is ideal to survey the best classical works about our coldest season. No matter how frigid it gets outside, these dozen frosty concoctions are sure to warm your musical heart.
Henry Purcell - King Arthur: Chorus of Cold People
See, see, we assemble
Thy revels to hold:
Tho' quiv'ring with cold
We chatter and tremble.
This is a familiar sentiment to anyone experiencing colder temperatures right now. Listen to how Purcell writes the "quiv'ring" and "tremble" into the music. It makes you wonder if Vivaldi heard this when he composed "Winter" from The Four Seasons.
Antonio Vivaldi - The Four Seasons: Winter
No collection of winter pieces would be complete without "Winter" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. There are sonnets that accompany each movement. It's not known if the sonnets existed before the music, or vice versa, or who the author is. (There's speculation around whether Vivaldi is the writer.) Read the sonnet (translated from the original Italian) below as you listen. Do you hear the piece differently this time?
Allegro non molto
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-gate house
Sirocco, Boreas and all the winds in battle:
This is winter, but it brings joy.
Peter Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 1 (Winter Daydreams)
When Tchaikovsky quit law school to devote his life to music, he started big. His First Symphony has all the markings of a storyteller, right from the title, Winter Daydreams, to the descriptors for the first two movements: "Reveries of a Winter Journey," followed by "Land of Desolation, Land of Myths." But after that, he leaves us hanging. What does the rest of the symphony mean? All we know for sure is that after a long, successful career, he looked fondly back at this first try in the genre with a "soft spot for this sin of my sweet youth."
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 4
OK, this piece has nothing to do with winter, but the sound of the sleigh bells right from the beginning certainly evokes festive winter images.
Richard Strauss - Alpine Symphony
The alps are a top destination for skiers from all over the globe. The Alpine Symphony is Strauss' depiction of an 11-hour journey ascending an alpine mountain. He clearly wasn't on a ski lift.
Carter Pann - Slalom
Colorado composer = expert skier. Carter Pann's Slalom begins with a release from a chairlift accompanied by a familiar fanfare from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, as the athletes/musicians launch through the air with velocity and finesse. Their knees sometimes bend as they negotiate tight corners, blissfully flying through spindrift, delighting in the beauty of a crystal-clear winter's day in the Rockies.
Franz Schubert - Die Winterreise
Winterreise, or Winter Journey, is one of Franz Schubert's most famous compositions. It's a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller. There are so many compelling renditions of the huge work, but this version with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and collaborative pianist extraordinaire Gerald Moore is a true classic.
Eric Whitacre - Sleep
Superstar choral composer Eric Whitactre was commissioned to set a favorite Robert Frost poem to music. It all seems an honest mistake: He'd seen several arrangements of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by other composers and felt he had the green light. But this was not the case, as he was required to secure permission from the Frost estate before composing or wait until 2038, when the poem becomes public domain. So he asked a friend, poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write new words. And somehow, the way the reworked piece, Sleep, captures the beauty of midwinter is even more sublime. (You can hear his original setting here.)
Alexander Glazunov - The Seasons: Winter
Winters in Russia are cold. Very cold. Glazunov depicts the chill, frost, ice, hail and snow so typical of Russian winters in "Winter" from The Seasons.
Jacques Offenbach - Ballet of the Snowflakes
The "Ballet of Snowflakes" is from Jacques Offenbach's bizarre operetta Le Voyage Dans la Lune. At this point in the operetta, it's snowing, the temperature drops to 50-below and this ballet music begins.
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Sinfonia Antartica
Did you know Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote film music? He composed the scores to 11 films, the most famous of which is Scott of the Antarctic. Vaughan Williams took some of the music from this film and incorporated it in to his Symphony No. 7, best known as Sinfonia Antartica (that's right no first C in "Antartica").
Einojuhani Rautavaara - Cantus Arcticus
When composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was tapped to write a celebratory piece for the University of Oulu in far northern Finland, near the Arctic Circle, he provided not the expected fanfare, but a bizarre concerto for orchestra and inhabitants of Oulu birds. It is an engrossing prayer to nature, as grand as an Imax film and as intimate as an ornithologist, alone on the tundra, binoculars in hand. Swans migrate, marsh creatures squabble and a lark that the composer calls a "ghost bird" haunts in a movement titled "Melankolia." This is one of the most extraordinary pieces you will ever hear.