Water, Water Everywhere...
Summer vacation conversations when I was growing up always contained two requests: my father would say, “As long as our hotel overlooks the ocean,” and my kid sister would say, “As long as the hotel has a pool.” Those two lines, always said, every single year. You’d think we were living in a landlocked central state instead of coastal Boston, but that goes to show you that being at the water was the most important thing to my family’s summer vacation.
When we went to Venice, for example, an entire city built on water, which would have been enough for most people, my crazy family stayed at the luxurious Hotel Cipriani (technically on an island of Venice, no less), one of the only hotels there at the time to actually also have a pool.
So I get it, this fascination with water that so many composers took pains to describe. Water was the drama of the oceans and a quiet place for reflection, of storms and streams, of raindrops and fountains. Johann Strauss’s The Beautiful Blue Danube and Handel’s Water Music Suites come to mind, as does “Scene by the Brook” from (my favorite) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. There’s no shortage of evocative and inspirational water music, that’s for sure, so as the days climb into the 90’s, here is a cool collection of pieces that reflect beautifully the images of water in our minds.
There are about 500 fountains at the Medici palace known as Villa d’Este in Tivoli. (I’ve been twice and highly recommend this day trip from Rome.) Franz Liszt was inspired by the fountains he saw throughout his travels in Italy but was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers at this Renaissance “summer home,” where he was offered rooms to stay on any of his future trips to Italy. Here’s Claudio Arrau playing “The Fountains at Villa d’Este” in a Boston performance:
Felix Mendelssohn traveled to Scotland and was blown away by its rough beauty. A sea cave called “Fingal’s Cave,” in particular, inspired his Hebrides Overture. You can feel his ship heaving on the rough North Atlantic:
It took Anton Rubenstein 30-plus years to finish his Symphony No. 2, Ocean, which he dedicated to Franz Liszt. Most people, including a very critical Tchaikovsky, preferred the original four-movement version, rather than the final seven-movement version. In the original, Rubenstein describes a mostly calm ocean, with the agitated sections not lasting for long:
Antonio Vivaldi also tried his hand at water-themed music. His Flute Concerto in F is subtitled “La Tempesta di Mare,” or “The Storm at Sea.” It’s not a vicious storm, but it is a vigorous one. Here’s Il Giardino Armonico’s version:
There are a few versions of the story behind Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, “Raindrop.” One says that during a rainstorm he had a daydream in which he had drowned, with the sound of the cold raindrops dripping on his chest. When I was about 11 my piano teacher gave me the piece and told me to imagine raindrops against the windowpane. I’m sticking with that image. Here’s Lang Lang:
Images from childhood stay with us. Czech composer Bedrich Smetana remembered a small stream from his childhood that eventually joins with another to form the Moldau (Vltava) River. He goes on to imagine it flowing through Bohemia, past successful hunters, a cheerful village wedding, mysterious water nymphs bathing, and rough rapids, until it finally passes glorious castles and ends in Prague, the capital:
And since I started this blog post with a family trip to Venice...let’s end it there, too. Barcarolles are songs of the boatmen, or more specifically, songs sung by Venice’s gondoliers. In Act 4 of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman, the characters Nicklausse and Giulietta are floating in a Venetian gondola and sing the most famous tune from the opera, the Barcarolle. Here are Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca:
CODA: One more powerful piece of “water music” comes to us from the Broadway musical Showboat. Here’s my favorite version of “Ol’ Man River,” sung by the incomparable Paul Robeson: