After coming in from one of my woodland hikes recently, (and defrosting with hot chocolate), I realized that despite its challenges, winter has its supporters (ok, and its detractors) in music. Here are a few winter themes to listen to while, maybe, your body is wrapped in a thick wool blanket, and a cup of something warm is by your side.
The most famous winter music is probably the “Winter” concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. As he did with the other three, Vivaldi wrote a sonnet describing the season, although it is still unclear whether the poems came before or after the music was written. When Etienne Roger published the scores in 1725, markings were included in the sonnets to indicate which part of the music correlated to which part of the sonnets.
L'Inverno (Winter) Op. 8, No. 4, in F minor
I. Allegro non molto
Frozen and trembling in the icy snow, In the severe blast of the horrible wind, As we run, we constantly stamp our feet, And our teeth chatter in the cold.
To spend happy and quiet days near the fire, While, outside, the rain soaks hundreds.
We walk on the ice with slow steps, And tread carefully, for fear of falling. If we go quickly, we slip and crash and fall to the ground. Again we run on the ice, Until it cracks and opens. We hear, from closed doors, Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds in battle. This is winter, but it, nonetheless, brings joy.
My favorite rendition of Vivaldi’s “Winter” (and all The Four Seasons) was recorded by violinist Gil Shaham with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Sound familiar? If you’ve been watching the Netflix series, “Wednesday,” based on the character Wednesday Addams (from The Addams Family), you heard “Winter” in Episode 3. The emotionless teenager with psychic powers plays it on her cello!
175 years later, Alexander Glazunov wrote the score to a ballet called The Seasons, scripted by the great Russian choreographer Marius Petipa. It was to be an allegorical ballet, with winter being described as “sleepy” before giving way to spring’s rebirth. It’s hard to think of winter as sleepy, and especially when the ballet dancers portray characters called “Frost,” “Hail,” “Ice,” and “Snow.” Here’s Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The celebrated ballerina Anna Pavlova danced the role of “Frost” at the ballet’s premiere in February 1900. The entire Royal Court was in attendance at the Imperial Theatre of the Hermitage, despite having attended another ballet premiere there just three days earlier. Both were acclaimed by the Court.
It seems that snowflakes evoked little dancers in the air for other composers as well. For example, Jacques Offenbach was asked to write a ballet based on Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. The fairy-opera (operas based on fairy tales) premiered in 1875 and featured an odd scene where the temperature of the moon drops to -50 degrees and snowflakes begin to dance. Here’s Neeme Järvi leading the Orchestra of the Swiss Romande.
And while Claude Debussy’s “Snow is Dancing,” from his 1908 Children’s Corner Suite, was not written as dance music, you understand what he’s describing. You can just picture a child looking out the nursery window at falling snow and imagining the snow is dancing. It’s played here by Seong-Jin Cho.
While some composers saw winter snowflakes as inspiration, Sergei Prokofiev thought winter was well-represented by a sleigh ride. “Troika,” about a common Russian 3-horse sleigh, was written originally as part of a score for the 1934 movie Lieutenant Kijé. It’s often heard as a stand-alone piece in Christmas holiday concerts. Antal Doráti conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
Staying with wintry movie music now, there seems to be some confusion as to which came first: a 1947 movie score, or a symphony inspired by the movie’s story. Ralph Vaughan Williams was asked to write the score for Scott of the Antarctic. His wife Ursula later wrote that he was immediately so taken with the epic of the ill-fated expedition that he envisioned writing a symphony which would be worked into the movie score. Whichever came first, the Sinfonia Antartica’s third movement, subtitled “Landscape,” allows the listener to picture what Ursula described as “great white landscapes, ice floes, the whales and penguins, bitter winds and Nature’s bleak serenity...” André Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.
Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica, is a five-movement symphony that ends with the difficult final words written by a dying Robert Scott: “I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.”
Vaughan Williams’s Antartica inspired another “Antarctica” 50 years later. In 1997 the British Antarctic Survey commissioned Peter Maxwell Davies to write a new piece to honor the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s score. Davies, a known conservationist, agreed to the commission, and to the requirement that he travel to Antarctica before composing. He spent three weeks there, which also inspired a book based on his diary, Notes from a Cold Climate. Unlike other symphonies with distinct movements, Davies’s Symphony No. 8, Antarctic, is a single movement with five sections, his way of paying homage to Vaughan Williams’ piece.
This blog post began with a sonnet about winter, so I think it’s appropriate to end with another winter poem from one of my favorite American poets, who coincidentally has a last name that fits with the theme! Robert Frost wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in 1922 at his home in Vermont. In 1959 Randall Thompson was commissioned by the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, to write music for the town’s bicentennial that year. Thompson chose to set seven of Frost’s poems in a collection he titled Frostiana. Here’s the Turtle Creek Chorale with the Dallas Wind Symphony.
These are just eight different views of winter, (out of 34 that I’ve collected so far), but a tidy little collection to start you on your winter’s journey. And I’ll end this with one of my favorite quotes about the season: “Welcome winter. Your late dawns and chilled breath make me lazy, but I love you nonetheless.” ~Terri Guillemets
CODA: How about a fun mashup to put a smile on during this season of chills and icy spills? Vivaldi’s “Winter” woven in with Disney’s “Let It Go” from . . . Frozen. Of course!