Classical music can be relied on to create moments of beauty, even in unexpected situations…like winter. And snow. Here are six compositions inspired by the coldest season that turn the ice and snow into sublime sound.
Vivaldi: ‘Winter’ — Concerto No. 4 in F minor from The Four Seasons
Nowadays, the idea of program music — themed or concept music — is something we all understand. When Vivaldi composed his Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni), a piece composed of four violin concerti, published in 1725, it wasn’t nearly as common. Each of the four concertos evokes the sounds of the seasons, and was accompanied by a sonnet that Vivaldi published (although there is some debate over whether he actually wrote them himself). For “Winter”, Vivaldi’s intentions were clear.
Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.
Claude Debussy: The Snow is Dancing, for piano (Children’s Corner No. 4), L. 119/4 (113/4)
Claude Debussy wrote his Children’s Corner, a suite of piano miniatures, for his daughter Claude-Emma, who he called Chou-Chou. The six movements include “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum”; “Jimbo’s Lullaby”; “Serenade for the Doll”; “The Snow Is Dancing”; “The Little Shepherd”; “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk”. His take on the snow is playful and plays up the enchanting aspect of the white stuff that falls from the sky, albeit with some more ominous sounds in the middle section. It was first published and performed in 1908, and has also been orchestrated in a version by André Caplet. Chou-Chou was only three years old when her father gifted her with the composition. His dedication reads:”A ma chère petite Chouchou, avec les tendres excuses de son Père pour ce qui va suivre. C. D.” (To my dear little Chouchou, with tender apologies from her father for what follows).
Émile Waldteufel: Les Patineurs Valse or The Skaters’ Waltz or Der Schlittschuhläufer-Walzer (German), Op. 183
If you can’t beat the winter, or get away from it, the best advice is to enjoy what you can. That advice has held true over the decades, and even centuries. In 1882, composer Émile Waldteufel was inspired by watching the people skating on the frozen River Seine in Paris. In the piece, we can hear the graceful skaters against the wind and winter weather, with bells that evoke passing sleighs. The same scenery inspired painters like Renoir and his famous Cercle des Patineurs or Rink of Skaters at the Bois de Boulogne (1868). While Waldteufel was responsible for more than 200 compositions, this remains his most beloved and performed work.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Winter Daydreams (or Winter Dreams), Op. 13
The progress of Tchaikovsky’s first symphony was anything but smooth. He wrote three versions of it before he was satisfied. He began composing it in 1866, just after he took up a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory. Wracked by insecurity over bad reviews of his recent work, and the criticisms of his mentors Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba, who refused to play earlier versions of the work, his health began to suffer. He was subject to bouts of insomnia and headaches, and at one point, became convinced he would never finish it. Finish it, however, he did, some two decades later. The final version was finally performed on February 15, 1868, to general acclaim, although it would be another 15 years before it was performed again. Tchaikovsky gave his symphony the title of “Winter Dreams”, with subtitles of “Dreams of a Winter Journey” for the first movement, and “Desolate Land, Land of Mists” for the second.
Alexander Glazunov: The Seasons Op.67 — 1. Winter
Italian composer Riccardo Drigo, a colleague of Glazunov’s, was originally destined to compose the score for French choreographer Marius Ivanovich Petipa’s ballet Les Saisons. Drigo was the director of music and chef d’orchestre to the Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. At the same time, Glazunov was to compose a score for Petipa’s Les Millions d’Arlequin. The two composers, however, decided to switch it up. The Seasons premiered in 1900, three days after Les Millions d’Arlequin, with the Russian Imperial Court in attendance. In “Winter”, the first movement, a character called Winter consorts with his pals Frost, Ice, Hail, and Snow, who play with snowflakes. A couple of gnomes enter the wintry scene and light a fire, which dispels the snowy characters.
Jean Sibelius: 5 Esquisses, Op. 114: II. Talvikuva (Winter Scene)
Jean Sibelius became hugely popular in North America, in part because he was seen romantically as embodying the idea of the north and northern climes in music. Best known for his symphonies and larger pieces, Sibelius nonetheless regularly took a break from heavier scores to compose for the piano, with pieces often designed for amateur players. His Esquisses, Op. 114, composed in 1929, evokes several natural scenes through five movements, including “Landscape”, “Forest Lake”, “Song in the Forest”, and “Spring Vision”, along with “Winter Scene”. The theme is reminiscent of Finnish folk tunes, with both a lighter and a darker side — like the winter season the Finn knew well.