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Shortest Day and Longest Night

Winter sunrise
Натали Хмельницкая
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Winter sunrise

This year the winter solstice takes place on December 21, when Earth’s North Pole is tilted on its axis farthest from the sun. Most of us just call it the official start of winter. It is the shortest day of the year, meaning that Boston will have just under 9 hours of daylight.

But here’s the thing: right after the Solstice, the days start to get longer. That’s right – even though it’s winter, we start seeing more and more sun a little earlier with each passing day.

Almost all of the musical sunrises we think of right away were part of composers’ larger works. Here’s a little collection to celebrate the return of the sun and longer days.

In an informal poll of my colleagues (“Quick – name me the first piece you can think of about the sun or sunrise?”), “Morning Mood” from Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) incidental music to the Henrick Ibsen play Peer Gynt was the top answer. No wonder. It has been used in countless commercials, movies and cartoons. Seems like we grew up thinking this was the official theme music of sunrise. Here’s Bjarte Engeset conducting the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.

By the way, the playwright and the play itself weren’t well received by the opening night audience, but Grieg’s music was applauded loudly several times. He was also given a standing ovation, which embarrassed him because Ibsen was not recognized with as much enthusiasm.

The gentle Prelude to Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) opera Khovanshchina belies the bloody story’s roots in Russian history. It was based on what’s known as the Moscow uprising of 1682. Before the violent story takes over the stage, there is a moment of calm, also known as Dawn Over the River Moscow. This recording is by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Grzegorz Nowak.

English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) had parents who were not supportive of his music career. They sent him to Florida to manage their orange plantation. Instead of becoming a businessman, Delius was inspired to write music about what he saw in the Sunshine State. His Florida Suite begins with “Daybreak.” Here’s Charles Mackerras conducting the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) wrote the concert overture, Helios Overture, Op. 17, in Greece. He had accompanied his wife, the sculptress Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who had been granted permission to make copies of some of the works in the Acropolis Museum. The composer enjoyed long walks around Athens and into the nearby mountains. Helios was the ancient Greek God of the Sun, driving his chariot across the sky. The Helios Overture was inspired by a sunrise over the Aegean Sea. This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

And finally, German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra and wrote his tone poem of the same title in 1896. Strauss’s composition followed the events in the book, which begins with “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” the text of which he included in the score. Just the “Introduction/Sunrise” was used at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey and has become a familiar tune as a result, often scheduled on concert programs as a standalone piece. Here is just that opening with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Elvis Presley loved the power of that Strauss sunrise so much that he used that piece to open his live concerts for years.

You’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t appreciate a sunny day. The truly blessed are the early morning people who get to see the sunrise. They understand Robert A. Walker’s poem, The Dawn, which begins: “I stood upon a street at break of day, When first the rays of sunlight pierced the clouds, And banished frosts and mists of night away, And with them all the fears that night enshrouds.”

CODA: If you do a search of the importance of the sun to human beings, there is no end to articles on the subject. Solar energy makes life possible, necessary for everything from providing heat to helping us build strong bones, from making vegetation possible to making water potable. What there don’t seem to be enough of, however, are articles that describe George Harrison's joy at seeing the sun rise again. “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.”