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6 Classical Composers and Compositions Inspired by Storms

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

Storms have inspired many great artists.

Storms have inspired many great artists.

Haydn. Symphony 39 'Tempesta di Mare'.

Haydn has been credited with creating the Sturm und Drang style in Classical music, pushing the era onto the next stage, bridging the gap between the enlightenment and Romantic.

Sturm und Drang translates as "storm and stress" and initially originated in 1776 in German literature in a play of the same name by Abel Seyler.1

Haydn, caught up in the Zeitgeist of the late 1770s and 1780s, jumped on this revolutionary bandwagon and turned his hand to writing emotionally charged symphonies. Until that time minor keys tended to be an unusual choice for the symphonic form. Symphonies were meant to entertain in a genial, unprovocative manner. In short, symphonies didn't rock the boat and were perfect for ladies and gentlemen observing the restrained social rules of the day (at least, in public).

By unleashing orchestral works that overturned expected conventions, Haydn's target audience was provoked into reacting. Upsetting the apple cart, Haydn threw down an impassioned gauntlet. The shock of the new for the eighteenth century.

There are several symphonies Haydn wrote which can be grouped under the Strurm and Drang banner, number 39, Tempesta di Mare (Storm at Sea) being one of them. Restless and edgy it's in the key of G minor. Due to G being the bottom string of the violin, there is a deep-seated, hunkered down, feet braced on the deck grip to the music.

In the first movement Haydn shakes the music around, but due to the strong G anchor, it withstands the agitated waves whipped up by the string section.

After the first theme rushes by, Haydn plays with his astonished audience by adding hiatus, as if to say, 'Got your attention now, have I?'

After the first movement's initial storm, comes the calm. The strings bob along in the major key and everyone catches their breath, but then the minuet and trio reminds the audience that at any moment the storm might again be on the horizon. The trio provides a breather and the wind and brass are allowed to shine.

Tremolando strings in the final movement provide the scenery for more unrest as the sailors try to steady the ship. Quick string figuration unfurls wave after unrelenting wave, with only brief respites, splashing into the sea wall at the final bar.

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809. Portrait by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted c. 1791–92

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809. Portrait by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted c. 1791–92

Haydn Symphony no. 39 'Tempesta di Mare'. The English Concert Conducted by Trevor Pinnock

Johann Strauss II 1825-1899

Portrait of Strauss in 1888.

Portrait of Strauss in 1888.

Johann Strauss II. Polka 'Thunder and Lightening'

A good old rollick from start to finish is Johann Strauss's polka Donner und Blitzen or as many of us know it, Thunder and Lightening. Brief ripples in the low strings, thumps on the side drum, clashes of cymbals, it's all there setting the stage for the stormy dance through one of Strauss's enduring compositions.

Mention Strauss's name and you might immediately home in his wonderful waltz creations for Viennese society - he was dubbed 'The Waltz King' - but he wrote over fifty polkas and Thunder and Lightening is probably the most famous of them.

I rather think this is a storm to entertain, watching the jagged flashes of electricity and counting how far away the thunder is from the comfort and safety of a drawing room window, more a son et lumière than actually being outside, rushing for cover and getting drenched in the process.

It's not only the audience being amused here, at this recording of the New Year's Day concert from Vienna; the orchestra look if they're having a pretty good time too.

Johann Strauss II.. Polka Thunder and Lightening'. The Vienna Philharmonic Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

Painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1819 or 1820

Painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1819 or 1820

Beethoven. Symphony no 6 'Pastoral': 4th Movement, Thunderstorm

Programmatic music was beginning to emerge during Beethoven's tenure as eminent German composer from the end of the eighteenth century to the first three decades of the nineteenth. Beethoven himself bestowed the title of Pastoral on his sixth symphony and it includes all manner of references to nature. Bird song, babbling streams and a shepherd's song all contribute to the bucolic atmosphere.

It was highly unusual to write a programme to accompany each symphonic movement - and just to add to the eccentricity, a fifth movement was added to the conventional four.

The precursor to the storm breaks out, raining off the spritely country dancing of the third movement. After the calmness and major keys of the previous three, the key is flipped to threatening minor. Flutes are perfect for raindrops, timpani reverberate, declaring the onset of the storm, the brass indispensable as menacing clashes of thunder, accentuated by Beethoven's trademark sforzandi, stabbing at the fast travelling score. As thunderstorms go, it's one of the most famous - electrically charged spikes of lightening from the shrieking piccolo frighteningly realistic. No wonder Walt Disney visualised it in animation, it's perfectly suited to film adaptation.

The violence of the fourth movement dissipates, streamlining into a softly spoken upward scale as the flute segues effortlessly into the fifth - literally the calm after the storm. Everyone can take a collective deep breath, turning faces up to the emerging warm sun to luxuriate in its heated benevolence.

Don't be fooled into thinking this symphony is a lesser cousin to its unbending relentlessly driven fifth. The melodies are pretty rather than rhythmic, wistful, quieter, but in no way wanting and just as carefully written and developed as any Beethoven worked on. Like male and female, they are different, contrasting strengths married up to form a whole.

This in mind you won't be surprised to learn that the fifth and sixth symphonies were written in parallel, Beethoven able to switch from dark to light with apparent ease. I know musicians who play opera for a living, go home and pop Ella Fitzgerald on the CD player, not Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. A change being as good as a rest.

Beethoven. Symphony no 6 'Pastoral' 4th and 5th Movements. Apollo Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Hector Berlioz 1803-1869


Berlioz. TheTrojans: Royal Hunt and Storm

After Beethoven, Berlioz is one of the first great composers to truly to have embraced the art of programmatic music. Donning a story-telling hat and dressing up in full costume via a lavish orchestral score was part of Berlioz's raison d'être.

So what better coat hook to hang his extraordinary talents on to show off his unique approach to orchestration and harmony than his mighty opera Les Troyens (The Trojans), featuring twists and turns, jealousies and betrayals, passion and deep love? Coming from a man with a turbulent - disturbing even - private life why would he not latch on to this epic narrative?

You can imagine Berlioz sitting down at his blank sheet of paper, having a brainstorm of his own as he sets out to project a musical painting of a thunderous scene onto the empty score set before him. Right up his fantastical and visionary street.

At this point in the opera, The Royal Hunt and Storm, we are in Africa with naiads bathing in a pool. High strings and a trilling flute set up the pastoral landscape,the solo horn a soothing beauteous adjunct until the pitch starts to descend: the storm is growling in the distance. A claxon of horns announces the arrival of Carthaginian hunters, a alarming contrast to the wholesome single instrument looking on over the naiads.

The music gathers momentum, the sylph-like airiness giving way to urgency, ominous full throated brass chords superimposing agitated strings as the timpani thunders in - the storm is now full throttle. Dido and Aeneas are brought on to the stage, the storm forshadowing the disaster that is to befall Aeneas' relationship with the Queen of Carthage.

As with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the weather clears. The horn blows a gentle melody and the deluge is over.

Berlioz. The Trojans: Royal Hunt and Storm. Covent Garden Opera Conducted by Colin Davis

Aram Khachaturian 1903-1978

Photograph of Khachaturian in 1971.

Photograph of Khachaturian in 1971.

Khachtaurian. Gayaneh: Storm

The folk tunes of Khachaturian's native Armenia are the backbone of a ballet I'm very fond of. You could never say Gayaneh is the best music ever written but it has such human pathos and a big heart it's hard not to love it.

The storm takes a little time to get going, just when you think it's reached its peak it dies down only to build back up via busy strings, dissonant brass and off beat rhythms.

Staccato bassoons and rumbles in the bass bring on the onset of rain. Soon the wind arrives in cyclonic spirals, debris caught up and whirled around. Dancing Armenian music is never far away, villagers taking shelter as best they can as the cacophony of disturbing chords fall from a menacing sky.

Khachaturian's Storm doesn't have the strength of character of the Beethoven or the imaginative scoring of Berlioz's unconventional writing nor Haydn's unstoppable verve, but when it does reach it's peak there is certain satisfying, albeit naïve drama.

This is not merely a storm of nature - it's a storm between conflicting ethnic groups and between husband and wife, particularly by way of strident brass and tolling bells nearing the end.

Just as you think the storm is about to pass Khachaturian inserts questioning chords, will the storm continue or will the weather clear? Even the final bar is brutally uncompromising. What lies in store, one asks?

Khachaturian Ballet Gayaneh: Storm

Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Photgraph of Britten taken in 1968.

Photgraph of Britten taken in 1968.

Benjamin Britten. Four Sea Interludes From Peter Grimes: Storm

The opera Peter Grimes was a great success when first performed in 1945. Britten made a collection of four out of the six interludes from the opera, and both the opera and the Sea Interludes have retained their popularity.2

Could Britten's Storm be the angriest set to music? From the start Britten launches you right into the path of a maelstrom with a thunderous boom from the timpani. Britten arcs the music in terms of pitch, low climbing higher and descending again only to rise back to a screech. Sharp edges from the strings clash against snarling brass, the listener frantically holding onto the mast in a futile bid to curb rolling and sliding around the deck, slamming uncontrollably into port and starboard as the pitched battle of the elements - and instruments - do their worst. Tossing and turning the music squalls and gusts, rocking unmercifully from side to side, choleric and demented, wreaking havoc.

For the outsider, ill tempered Peter Grimes, perhaps the undeserving victim of hate crime, perhaps not, the storm is of mental and physical struggle with his own character pitted against a wall of judgement built by his own town who drive him to madness and hound him to death. Respite from the churning waves remains forlorn, the storm makes its final move. It takes no prisoners here.


1 Classics Today

2 Kennedy Center

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on May 02, 2018:

Thank you so much Chitrangada. I'm so happy you liked it. The Benjamin Britten Storm is probably my favourite in terms of the absolute rage of the sea, and the Haydn in terms of early innovative imagination and beautiful form.

Have a great day!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 02, 2018:

Wonderful, well researched, and informative article!

Loved your descriptions, the pictures and the videos. I liked your selection of classical composers and their compositions.

Thanks for sharing!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on May 01, 2018:

What a lovely comment, Flourish! I have to say I'm no better than you when you're describing your songs - such inspiring writing, so I'm honoured to have your positive input! Have a wonderful day.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 30, 2018:

What amazing descriptions of this music! I can imagine you detailing the songs to your students. How can someone not love this music and understand it better with someone as in love with it as you are? Very dramatic!

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