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March Winds

Dandelion puff in the wind
Oliver Hahn
Dandelion puff in the wind

The wind is a natural earth phenomenon that can be felt against the skin, and if the weather conditions are right, can be heard. While no one has ever seen the wind, one can see what the wind does, how it causes clouds to move, trees to bend, and fallen autumn leaves to spiral into the air.

When I was very young, my mother gave me a picture book that taught children about the different months of the year. January’s picture was a smiling snowman on someone’s front lawn, July had the all-American family at an Independence Day parade, and so on. I don’t remember the name of the book, but I do remember the sweet pictures. For all the delightful artistry on each month‘s pages, the picture for March still stands out clearest in my mind. At the top of a gentle hill, two happy children were holding on to the most beautiful kites as pale blue swirls (indicating wind gusts) danced around their heads.

Since “reading” that book, March has always been the month of kite-lifting breezes for me. Sure enough, even as I write these words in early March, the trees around my house are bowing and dancing in the wind.

With March winds as a springboard, here are some works by composers who took inspiration from those feels and sounds.

Ned Rorem’s What Is Pink? is a set of six short choral works with texts based on poems. One piece, under a minute long, is titled, “Who has seen the wind?” from the poem of that title by Christina Rossetti. Here is Concora (Connecticut Choral Artists), conducted by founder Richard Coffey:

Rorem wrote this children’s song cycle in 1987, when it was commissioned by The American Boychoir.

Frederic Chopin’s Etude, Op. 25, No. 11, is nicknamed “Winter Wind.” When I was learning this piece, I imagined some all-bundled-up person stepping out of his home tentatively, as the first few bars of music get underway, then suddenly feeling the first bite of the “Winter Wind.” Evgeny Kissin captures the feeling:

“Winter Wind” is considered one of Chopin’s most difficult of his 24 etudes.

A 19-year-old Anton Webern was greatly influenced by the novelist Bruno Wille’s poem titled “Im Sommerwind” that was included in his 1901 book, The Revelations of the Juniper Tree.The poem takes the reader into a forest, where the wind whips through the tall pines on a beautiful summer day. It became the springboard of Webern’s first orchestrated piece. Here’s a live recording with Bernard Haitink conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

Webern never heard the piece performed; however, he did use it as an example for his students of his first youthful attempt at orchestration.

How about a gentle breeze? In his collection of Lyric Pieces, Op. 74, Jean Sibelius wrote music that seems to honor making time for self-reflection. The pieces are titled “Eclogue,” “The Pleasures of the Dance,” “In the Old Home,” and “The Gentle West Wind.” Pianist Janne Mertanen takes on the wind:

It is believed that this set of pieces launched a long period of time where Sibelius’s interests turned to exploring the piano miniature.

Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s Preludes contains the piece Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (anime et tumultueux). Notice that, adjacent to the title, Debussy alerts the pianist that this piece, a.k.a. “What the West Wind Saw in English,” is one that is “lively and tumultuous.” Debussy was inspired to write this Prelude based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, “The Garden of Paradise,” and its main character, Zephyr (the West Wind). Maurizio Pollini plays this sometimes frightening presentation of the wind:

Here’s another example of the wind inspired by a writer’s pen. It was an Emily Dickinson poem, “Like Rain It Sounded Till It Curved,” that inspired Toru Takemitsu’s 1992 work, And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind. I think it is helpful to read the poem before hearing the music:

Like Rain it sounded till it curved
And then I knew ’twas Wind —
It walked as wet as any Wave
But swept as dry as sand —
When it had pushed itself away
To some remotest Plain
A coming as of Hosts was heard
That was indeed the Rain —
It filled the Wells, it pleased the Pools
It warbled in the Road —
It pulled the spigot from the Hills
And let the Floods abroad —
It loosened acres, lifted seas
The sites of Centres stirred
Then like Elijah rode away
Upon a Wheel of Cloud.

Dickinson knows the feel of the wind, and the sounds it creates in and after a storm. Many have interpreted this poem to mean both a meteorological storm and a storm in one’s own soul. Takemitsu takes Dickinson’s interpretation of the wind and weaves it into his sparse musical style. It’s played here by the Toronto New Music Ensemble:

Another person who interpreted the wind as an element for soul-searching is the contemporary Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. Wind Song was written during the time everyone was isolating in the 2020 pandemic shutdown. This is Einaudi’s official live recording:

Every season invites the winds. The question needs to be asked: Do we float along the breezes with our kites and our dreams? And do we go boldly into the storm? Or shelter from the gusty gales?

CODA: Bob Dylan knew that “The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind...”

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.