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7 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Rivers

Updated on August 13, 2018
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Canoeing on the River Dordogne in France

The Dordogne at Chateau Malartrie at Véyzac.
The Dordogne at Chateau Malartrie at Véyzac. | Source

Who can resist taking a walk on the banks of a river hoping for a sighting of some elusive wildlife, or rowing a boat downstream, a cruise on a pleasure steamer maybe? There is an association of romanticism attached to rivers, tapped into by composers who have drawn their inspiration from them, great and small.

Modest Mussorgsky 1839-1881


1. Mussorgsky. Khovanshchina: Dawn on the Moscow River

It is magical beauty, Mussorgsky taking advantage of Russian folk idioms and weaving a expansive carpet of rafts to sail downstream. The unexpected and disquieting cymbal clashes unsteady the idyll - nothing can ever be a smooth ride - before resuming the calm breadth of the Moscow river.

Dawn on the Moscow River opens Khovanshchina, the tale of Ivan Khovansky and his army, the 'Old Believers', battling to prevent the western-looking regency from securing the throne for the young tsar Peter. The regency prevails and the Old Believers commit suicide. The Peter of the story fledges into one of the most famous of Russia's tsars - Peter the Great.

The tragedy is of Khovanshchina is all pervasive. Mussorgsky wrote the music and libretto for eight years, from 1872 to 1880, the year before his death, without finishing a potential masterpiece, neither had he got round to the much of the orchestration, mainly leaving behind the vocal lines and piano score. Rimsky-Korsakov then got his paws on it, as he did with other works of this very special Russian composer, and tinkered with it, cutting across Mussorgsky's own intentions. In 1913 ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev later requested Ravel and Stravinsky to have a play with it but the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin would have nothing to do with his venture.1

At the end of the 1950s Shostakovich threw his hat in the ring and made revisions to the Rimsky-Korsakov edition. Listening to Dawn on the Moscow River the Rimsky-Korasokov and Shostakovich orchestrations are actually very similar, not until the end of the prelude do they diverge, Shostakovich favouring fuller strings.

Of course we will never know what Mussorsgky actually intended. Nevertheless it is one of the most beautiful renditions of any dawn over a majestic river, the grand touch of imperious chimes and the swell of the rising sun blazing away the early morning mist. There is nothing like Mussorsgky for laying a hand on the soul.

Not only has Ravel's account of Khovanshchina been called into question, but also his famous orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Dazzling it may be and in the mainstream of orchestral repertory, but there are many who think his version is heresy.

Constant Lambert 1905-1951


2. Constant Lambert. The Rio Grande

There was a time when The Rio Grande was played at concerts on a frequent basis. But today, it's fallen out of favour, maybe because it calls for alto, choir and piano as well as an orchestra with a larger than average percussion section - no less than 15 instruments in that department alone. If so it's a shame since it's more than worthwhile listening to.

Based on the poem The Rio Grande, written by Sacheverell Sitwell, it's a joyful affair full of syncopation and dance rhythms and the odd echo of Gershwin.2

The poem has many references to instruments and sounds from nature - bells and birds, madrigals and the French dance, the sarabande, trumpets and a band, a marimba and timpani. Perfect for a composer to set to music.

The Rio Grande is a fun packed ride into town, ragtime is visiting, pausing now and then to take in the scenery until after all the thrill and excitement of the journey the river runs out to the sea and the music dies away.

I couldn't help noticing its decline is mirrored by the music itself, rolling along quite merrily until the last part where the mood stills and the sound pares down to nothing.

Frederick Delius 1862-1934


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3. Delius. Florida Suite: By the River

The Florida Suite is a delightful early work by Delius, full of fresh melodies without being submerged under the dense harmonies of his later style.

Written in Leipzig where Delius had moved to study composition it recalls his time spent on an orange plantation in Florida.

Free flowing, the music meanders on its restful way, an afternoon of laziness in the sun. The lilting three in a bar mirrors the rocking of a little rowing boat inviting you to step in and cast off to wend a smooth unhurried course.

Grieg, who was a friend of Delius, could well have been one of the party by this river. The simple melodic lines can be compared to 'Morning' from the incidental music he wrote for 'Peer Gynt' over ten years previously, a lush sweeping arc gracefully nudging you away from the shore, effortlessly floating back again after an untroubled excursion, to settle down once again to languorous quietude.

To read about classical music inspired by the sea click on the link.

Johann Strauss II 1825-1899


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4. Johann Strauss II. The Blue Danube

Could it be the most famous waltz ever written? Even if another pips it to the post, it's still one of the all time favourites in the lighter Viennese repertory.

To bestow it with its full title An der schönen blauen Donau, or By the Beautiful Blue Danube, it acknowledges one of Vienna's most iconic attractions. The second longest river in Europe, it springs up within the grounds of the schloss in the Black Forest town of Donaueschingen in Germany,3 broadening out to finish in a huge delta formation in Romania covering 2200 square miles.4

Every now and then, Strauss included a chorus in his waltzes as he was asked to write pieces for The Vienna Men's Choral Society, an element which tends to be dropped these days in regular concerts. They commissioned the Blue Danube waltz to lift Austria's spirits after suffering a defeat at the hands of the Prussian army.5

It was first performed in 1867 for the Paris Exhibition and it's speculated, as with The Rio Grande, that Strauss too took inspiration from a poem, one by Karl Isidor Beck, 'An der Donau' .6

The tranquil introduction brings to mind a party of waltzers hearing the undulations of the river nearby, taking it as a cue to make their way to the ballroom and find their partners for the start of the waltz proper.

What's so satisfying about this waltz is the first five notes, using them to build towards a happy anticipation of the top note it's surging towards. It's as good as any light operatic aria and it even has the added bonuses of hiatuses and rubato to grab the emotions. Why it doesn't have its heart sung out at football matches, I don't know, as I can't imagine there isn't some wit out there able and willing to marry up words with the music.

Strauss' friend Brahms had total admiration for it. Asked by Strauss' wife to sign her fan, he wrote the first notes of the waltz and the sentiment 'Alas, not by Johannes Brahms'.7

The term rubato means 'to rob time'. Essentially the player will slow down robbing the tempo of the strict beat and then moves it along faster, paying it back, as it were.

The River Danube at Donaueshingen


The Blue Danube is Austria's unofficial national anthem.

Bedrich Smetena 1824-1884

Photograph of Smetena c1883.
Photograph of Smetena c1883. | Source

5. Smetana. Vltava

Also known as La Moldau, I studied Vltava as one of the set works for music GCSE. I played violin in a youth orchestra at the time and our enlightened conductor put it on the concert list for that year so we'd get to know it inside out. The tone poem forms one part of a series Smetena called Ma Vlast, or My Homeland.

It starts at the source, tiny trickles of flutes, burbling and rippling, growing from two converging springs to a broad river. Smetana takes us on a journey down the Vltava and sought out a Czech folk melody as the river's theme. Along the way we pass by woods and fields , a wedding celebration, reminiscent of his opera The Bartered Bride, mermaids dancing in the moonlight, the flutes bubbling quietly in the background as the violins work their charms, before the river tumbles through rapids on the outskirts of Prague where it flows majestically into the city on a wave of pride.

Embracing Czech nationalism and one of its great geographical features, Vltava is a glorious musical narrative from this celebrated Bohemian composer.

Photograph of Shostkovich  at the 200th anniversary of J S Bach's death in 1950.
Photograph of Shostkovich at the 200th anniversary of J S Bach's death in 1950. | Source

6. Shostakovich. Music to the Film Encounter at the Elbe

We welcome Shostakovich once again, this time unhindered by another composer's presence.

In 1949 Shostakovich was only partially accepted back into Soviet approval. He had spent some years trying to rehabilitate his damaged reputation with the Soviet authorities - Stalin in particular who had denounced his music - as being avant garde, abstract music inaccessible to the ordinary Russian.

In spite of this, Shostakovich was called upon to write the music for the film Encounter at the Elbe to commemorate the meeting of the Russians and the United States' troops at the river Elbe at the latter stages of the second world war. A great deal of handshaking, exchanging of presents and awards, and general shows of new best friends took place. As part of the score, Shostakovich wrote the 'Song of Peace' which was incorporated into the film.8

The song presses Soviet invincible glory firmly to its heart, a peasant style melody with just enough pathos to identify with hardship overcome, the balalaikas taking the spotlight for a brief moment to labour the point.

Shostakovich probably wrote it through gritted teeth, as he did with other kowtowing pieces which meant he sidestepped imprisonment or even execution and kept himself, publicly at least, on the right side of communist dutiful expectations.

For Shostakovich films were the paths to appeasement; they were populist, projecting the Soviet Union onto celluloid as the ideal. Ideal music therefore, was composed to enhance the veneer of well-being. Dissident works, the ones with true value, the truthfully cynical and satirical, were kept under wraps until Shostakovich hoped it was safe to bring them out of hiding.

But even the works that were banned may have been tempered by a terror of overstepping the permissible mark. Did Shostakovich keep one nervous ear to the ground listening to frightening rumours of outspoken critics of the regime who simply disappeared? What should have formed freely and without fear in his head perhaps never reached the stave.

Even so, had life in the USSR been liberal, how radical might Shostakovich have been? One can only speculate.

Giuseppe Verdi 1813-1901

Portrait of Verdi
Portrait of Verdi | Source

7. Verdi Aïda

Contrary for popular opinion, Aïda was not composed to hail the opening of the Suez canal, but was a commission from the Khedivial Opera in Cairo. It was Verdi's 28th opera, some of which he'd written at a rate of two or three a year to keep a roof over his head.

Verdi collaborated with librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni to create the story. Egypt and Ethiopia are at war. The Egyptians have captured an Ethiopian princess, Aïda, but Ramadès, the Egyptian commander has fallen in love with the hostage. Aïda has also fallen for Ramadès and the two of them are torn between loyalty to their respective countries and following their heart. After many twists and turns which is the tortured nature of opera, Ramadès is condemned to death as traitor, having chosen Aïda over his country and for unwittingly revealing Egypt's battle plans. His fate is to be sealed in a tomb, Aïda secretes herself with him and dies in his arms.

In Act I towards the end of scene I the chorus sing, 'Su! Del Nilo al sacro', (On! Of Nilus' sacred river), followed by' Guerra, guerra, guerra!' (War , war, war!') The music is very familiar, patriotic in feel , stirring the heart,and a great crowd pleaser.

The third act is set on the banks of the Nile. The music is much less well known, though Aïda does have a heartfelt aria as she grapples with an impossible situation.

Aïda has remained a staple of opera houses throughout the world ever since its premiere in 1871.


1 Wikipedia

2 Pristine classical



5 Vienna Sightseeing

6 wikimonde

7 Aurevlis


© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


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    • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

      Frances Metcalfe 

      13 months ago from The Limousin, France

      Hi Bede. I studied the Moldau, or as I really know it Vltava for my 'O' level music as they were then, when I was 15/16. The conductor of the youth orchestra I played in on Saturday mornings was also a music teacher in another school and that was one of the pieces we played - learning it all year. He made sure all of us taking the course knew it inside out. It is nationalistic through ad through, so yes, Hitler would have been dead against it (he was dead against an awful lot). He wasn't keen on many genres of art either, in fact anything that was culturally beyond his intellect, I'd say. Thanks for reading, it's appreciated.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image


      13 months ago from Minnesota

      This is another informative and interesting article, Frances. When I was in college, I had a music appreciation course, where we studied Smetana’s Moldau in depth. One of the interesting facts I remember is that Hitler banned its performance. Apparently, it roused volatile nationalistic feelings.

    • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

      Frances Metcalfe 

      19 months ago from The Limousin, France

      Hello R Talloni. Thank you so much for your comment. I'm gad I was able to stir up a happy memory of Florida. Maybe one day I'll travel there to see the lakes and rivers for myself. For now I'll make do with the ones here in France.

    • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

      Frances Metcalfe 

      19 months ago from The Limousin, France

      Hi Linda. Well of course I couldn't not include The Moldau or as I know it better as Vltava, having played it for almost a year as a teenager. (I still 'play' it in my head now when I hear it!) It is absolutely gorgeous and an exciting cruise down a familiar river. Thanks again for reading.

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      You had me at Delius' Florida Suite: By the River. I grew up in Central Florida freely enjoying the lakes and rivers before WDW created the incredible growth that has boxed so many of them in with magnificent boxes. Floating back in time was a beautiful experience.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I was hoping that you had included The Moldau in this article. I love this piece of music. I enjoyed the other pieces that you included, too. The information in the article was very educational, which I appreciated.

    • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

      Frances Metcalfe 

      20 months ago from The Limousin, France

      Hi Flourish, Yes Shostakovich was a very nervous individual - he spent months sleeping on the stairwell outside his flat in case he was arrested so his family wouldn't be disturbed. Very noble, and fortunately he wasn't but he did have some privileges removed for while and lost his post as professor at the Moscow conservatoire at the height of his estrangement with the Soviet authorities. Thanks for commenting! Have posted on your fan mail about something else.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      20 months ago from USA

      My favorite was the one from the orange groves which I had never heard. You continue to expand horizons!! So unfortunate that the Russian composer was under such pressure to.produce. It couldn’t have been good for his creative process or mental health.


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