10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Summer
The dog days of summer. A phrase to describe the time between July 3 and August 11, the hottest part of the year. Think of summer, and vacations, barbeques and gardens brimming with colourful flowers spring to mind. But summer doesn't necessarily mean happy and it not always the idyll one might imagine.
Felix Mendelssohn 1809-1847
1 Mendelssohn. Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comic Shakespearean play complete with love triangles, a band of fairies and love potions administered with unfortunate consequences topped off ludicrous twists and turns all turning out well in the end under the pretence everything should be remembered as a dream.
Perfect fare for any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, in fact, but chosen by the precocious seventeen year old Mendelssohn to write an overture based on the story. Staying true to the fairy theme the overture is playfully mischievous, light as dandelion clocks, catching a ride in on the most ephemeral rollercoaster of damsel flies, darting over a track of dewdrops. And with a flick of a tail, it disappears into the ether.
Many years later Mendelssohn wrote incidental music to accompany the whole play. It includes his famous Wedding March.
2 Eric Coates. Summer Days Suite For Orchestra
If you are in the mood for a little something to play as background music while you read a book under a shady tree out of the sun's glare, you could do worse than half listen to Coates' Summer Days Suite For Orchestra streaming out from open French doors into the garden. I'd certainly be perfectly happy.
Feet planted firmly in the easy listening category, it presents no challenges, you can let it waft over you like a gentle breeze. Set up croquet on the lawn, and be transported to days of yesteryear when time sailed gently by, and finally, use the lawn as an evening outdoor dance floor. Here's old fashioned party music to whisk your partner round to, before the rigours of twenty-first century living catches up with you once more.
Hector Berlioz 1803-1869
3 Berlioz. Les Nuits d'Étés
Every time I hear this work I am refreshed, my mouth cleansed with full flavoured tropical fruits such is the luscious instrumental coating lavishly spooned over the solo voice.
The absence of percussion and brass, apart from the softer horns rids the music of any hard edges - it's easy to roll Berlioz's Nuits d'Étés around on your tongue and savour its delights.
It helps that the melodies are deliciously honeyed, and although Berlioz wrote solo versions for all the vocal pitches, I personally think this wondrous song cycle works best for the female voice - there is more lightness and I prefer a home grown French vocalist with the slightly nasal inference.
Altogether there are six songs, Villanelle, The Spectre of the Rose, On the Lagoons, Absence, At the Cemetery: Moonlight and The Unknown Island. The short Villanelle is possibly the most well known, contentedly dancing along, with a wink of coquettishness. Villanelle is followed by Spectre of the Rose, essentially a song about a ghost, but the ghost is not human, it is a rose, worn to a ball the night before by a young woman. A small smile plays upon the lips of this enraptured girl as she remembers her time at the ball, the ghostly rose speaking to her in her reverie. Exquisitely beautiful, there are touches of Tchaikovsky in the repetitive flute writing
Absence is naturally longing, beginning with a rise up to top G, the touchstone note she winds the sustained melody around, reaching for it time and time again.
Sur les Lagunes has nothing of Offenbach's Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman, mourning the death of a beloved woman, singing a lonely romance and lamenting returning to sea without her to come back to. The top G has its role to play here, too, the focal point of the anguish caused by the death of the woman, then plunging down into the depths of despair.
At the Cemetery: Moonlight tells of a tomb in the shadow of a yew tree (also known as the death tree)1 from which a dove sings. The thoughtful solo voice is always just on the very edge of disquiet, the occasional flecks of light bitterness detectable in the underlying orchestration.
Lastly we arrive at L'IIe Inconnue, The Unknown Island. Having been moored at the previous destinations, the wind takes a deep breath and exhaling, pushes the music along its exotic breezy way to a land of immortality. Fresh and youthful it's an all-embracing song with which to end this engaging cycle.
To read about classical music inspired by the night click here.
Which season is your favourite?
George Gershwin 1898-1937
4 Gershwin. Porgy and Bess, Summertime
Adroitly pitched between classical, jazz and African-Amercian folk music, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is enduring appealing. It truly is the people's opera.
Summertime has been reinvented in so many guises it must be nigh on impossible to count them all. It makes several appearances during the opera, opening the action by new mother Clara singing to her baby, reappearing as a heartbreaking lullaby sung by Bess to the baby after Clara and her husband die in a hurricane.
The lyrics are bright and optimistic, but there is nothing bright and optimistic about this vicious and hard-nosed tale of characters living on the edge. The blues harmony drifts as easily as the living, or so it seems, they are deceptively confined to a tight depressed circle, never leaving sight of the fact that eyes are focussed downward, the rocking tug of decline and unachievable hope ever present: this is music that doesn't look up to take in a limitless expanse, even though the lyrics suggests that the baby will 'take to the sky'.
Beyond sad, it's the inevitable knowledge that when the chips are down in the sleazy underbelly of life, something will come along to steal the meagre leftovers away.
Antonio Vivaldi 1678-1741
5 Vivaldi The Four Seasons, Summer
The Four Seasons has bee ubiquitous for decades, used for background music almost ad nauseam, and the range of recordings is mind boggling with all manner of musicians from every genre making use of it. It's a pity as there are so many other fantastic works which could be chosen, and the fatigue I now experience would be eliminated, because, despite its endless treatment, The Four Seasons is a very special work from the Baroque era for solo violin.
For one thing, it has a programme, which wasn't the norm - it wasn't presented as just a set of four concertos. There is a theme, each season being given its own characteristic, taking their cue from sonnets Vivaldi wrote in the score. No-one knows if Vivaldi himself wrote them, though of course, there is intense speculation on that subject. Sometimes a narrator will read out the sonnets at a concert featuring The Four Seasons so the audience can hear the word painting in the music.
I've always been surprised that Vivaldi chose a minor key to represent the brightest season, to me a fiercely bright E major would have suited the intense light. Vivaldi wishes to roll out a more sombre, darker vision; a storm is not far away, ready to rain on the parade.
After the low introduction we her the solo violin start with figuration imitating the cuckoo, and trills and coos of other birds. The music stills, the calm before the impending storm.
In the slow second movement the sustained solo violin melody is interrupted by shudders of thunder shaking both the earth and the shepherd.
With the summer comes rainstorms, the shepherd is caught in the unforgiving deluge, the corn is beaten down, great waves of scales washing down, the wind catching hold of the music and whisking up upwards again, never loosening its tight grip, until it is flung to the ground by a great flattening hand.
To read more about classical music inspired by birds click here.
Samuel Barber 1910-1981
6 Barber. Knoxville Summer of 1915
Based on a poem by James Agee, Knoxville's 1915 summer is idyllic, describing evening time on the porch of the house, familiar noises on the air, a horse clip clopping by, the twitter of birds settling down to sleep, the hum of conversation. Not all is calm, the 'stinging bell' and the 'iron moan' of a streetcar, disturb the easy interaction of the family gathering and the child storyteller. The inclusion of the car's jarring mechanics was significant - Agee's father was killed in an automobile accident in 1916.
Although it is more often performed by a soprano - Knoxville Summer of 1915 was was commissioned by American soprano, Eleanor Steber - tenors also sing it. The pastoral rocking lilt of the opening gives way to the strident bustle of noises outside the sphere of cocooned home life, disturbing the idyll, distorted harmonies warning of venturing outside the confines of domestic bliss, beckoning the listener to rejoin the family and its generous bosom, the picket fence a protection from reality.
The pastoral mood returns briefly in the oboe yet the comfort of the opening fails fully to return, even though it ends on an ascending arpeggio, suggesting confidence in the future.
Anton Webern 1883-1945
7 Webern. In Sommerwind
Mention Webern's name and immediately one thinks of the twelve tone system and atonality and the spartan orchestration of his Five Pieces for Orchestra, but Webern had a compostional life before all that took hold.
Im Sommerwind owes its debt not to his teacher Schönberg, but to that end of the Romantic era towering figure, Richard Strauss. Sumptuously and heady, Im Sommerwind is dripping with sugar syrup.
You could easily be on a Hollywood film set, no expense spared, glamorous, the heroine clad in elaborately embroidered silk as she takes in the vista, watching the wind from her veranda, heavy with scent. Solos cleanse the palette of the weighty orchestration, bird calls cut through the cloyingly rich dish, pastoral tunes that might not sound out of place in Delius appear to confirm the summery topic.
A little over-indulgent Im Sommerwind may be, but Webern was only 20 when he wrote it so one can forgive the hedonism. Shortly after its composition Webern moved on to study with the experimental Schönberg and never sought to have it published.4
Frank Bridge 1870-1941
8 Frank Bridge. Summer
Frank Bridge was the quintessentially English composer, in that he was interested in folk music of the British Isles and infused his compositions with the hues of the modes they were written in. The tone poem, Summer, then, you would expect to be laden with tunes to skip to, a Summer Is a Comyn in type jollity. Bridge's Summer, however, is no walk in the park.
The days starts off hazy, as the mist hovers over the over the ground, before the sun breaks through, but this is never a carefree day lounging about. There is something about the not-quite-resolved about it, a vague sense of a storm in the distance, and whilst trying very hard to be uplifting it's a state it can't ever quite attain. There are lush meadow moments, but they are never sustained. Written in 1915, during the first world war, one cannot help but wonder if the repeated single brassy note near the end is a tolling bell casting a ringing gunshot reminder.
9 Glazunov. The Seasons, Summer
The Seasons was a ballet written for the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg at the turn of the twentieth century.
Not having a storyline as such, the ballet is divided into the four seasons, winter, spring, summer and winter, and subdivided in tableaux.
The theme for Summer is a cornfield and all the individual sections are based on a common musical theme. After a short expansive scene-setter, the music twirls into waltz mode - you could almost believe you had entered of one of Tchaikovsky's fairy tale worlds - Glazunov was a devotee of Tchaikovsky - and it is the Russia of the well-heeled, appreciating the dainty cornflowers and poppies that are the subject of the waltz.
Next up are the naiads, satyrs and fauns, swaying and relaxing to a lilting Barcarolle followed by the eastern facing Spirit of Corn, the little twists on the melody suggesting a nudge towards the oriental , finished off with a flourish to bring summer to a close.
Frederick Delius 1862-1934
10 Delius. Summer Evening
One of three small tone poems, Summer Evening is balmy, the slightest of breezes sets the weather fair. This is rolling English countryside, the gentle slopes of the downs, odd glimpses of Brigg Fair and, unlike the Frank Bridge, nothing disturbing the peace.
A perfectly rounded melody, the pastoral ideal topped off by warm enveloping horns and all-embracing harmonies cushioning the listener from the real outside world. Music to loll about to before nestling down to sleep.
2 Poetry Foundation
3 Harvard Education
4 Bartje Bartmans
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe