Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
Snow can be real and metaphoric, a wondrous playground and a place of impasse. Composers have found these conflicting aspects of snow irresistible, producing contrasting works which reflect these qualities.
Classical Music Inspired by Snow
- Rimsky-Korsakov: "Opera: The Snow Maiden"
- Debussy: "Preludes Book 1: Des Pas Sur la Neige"
- Liszt: "Transcendental Study: Chasse Neige"
- Prokoviev: "Lieutenant Kijé: Troika"
- Tchaikovsky: "Nutcracker: Waltz of the Snowflakes"
- Sviridov: "Cantata: Snow is Falling"
- Vaughan Williams: "Four Original Carols: Snow in the Street"
1. Rimsky Korsakov: "Opera: The Snow Maiden"
It's a Russian folk tale of tragedy. The Snow Maiden, the daughter of Grandfather Frost and Spring Beauty, begs to be freed from her icy upbringing with her parents and join humans in a nearby village.
One of the mortals in the village, Mizgir, falls in love with the Snow Maiden, even though he is betrothed to another, but as she has a heart of ice, she cannot return his love. Her mother Spring Beauty grants her the wish to feel emotion, but as she returns Mizgir's love, she melts and dies.
As with much of Rimsky-Korsakov's writing, his opera based on the Snow Maiden tale is a mixture of east meets west, oriental melodies side by side with Russian folk tunes, orchestrated in richly decorated colours and textures.
He made a four-movement suite out of the opera, the Introduction conjuring up a bright, brittle, icy panorama. Tremolando and pizzicato strings and a piccolo scrape against the sharp icicles of a frozen winter. As the scenery warms up, announcing Spring, Rimsky-Korsakov descends to the rounder, more exuberant tones of horns and cellos before petering out to wispy whispering violins.
In the second movement, Dance of the Birds, the woodwind has a field day showing off all the twitters and flutterings singing from the trees. Many composers have used birdsong in their compositions, from Ravel in Daphnis and Chloé (which owes more than a couple of bars to this Russian naval office turned composer) to Messiaen. Accompanying the trilling is a lively Russian folk tune, the filling in a delightful meringue of avian babbling.
Linking the last movement is the Cortege of the King, a short regal brassy march before Dance of the Tumblers leaps onto the musical stage. It's the most recognisable movement of the suite, another spritely Russian melody is rolled out, and the music somersaults away, vigorous and energetic, a whirling dervish to bring the work to a rousing close.
2. Debussy: "Preludes Book 1: Des Pas Sur la Neige"
Falling snow is silent, and the opening of Des pas Sur la Neige (Footsteps in the Snow) reflects the stillness of whatever the creature is, padding softly. A snow leopard perhaps, camouflaged, wary but alert, and very careful in its deliberate choice of path, watching.
The apparent unhurried simplicity belies the slightly unstable undertones. This is an animal on the edge of existence, solitary, starving. The white blanket is spread out, waiting to receive its next exhausted resident to lie down and sleep the last sleep.
3. Liszt: "Transcendental Study: Chasse Neige"
If there was ever an antidote to the carefully choreographed steps of Debussy's Des Pas Sur le Neige, this could be it. It's on a par with one of Liszt's many transcriptions of orchestral pieces, as so many of his works for solo piano are.
As I frequently wonder, surely it requires more than two hands and a mere mortal to grapple with the ferocious Lisztian difficulty, and Chasse Neige is no different. It is one of the pianist-composer's Transcendental Studies, an exercise in mastering the art of tremolandos (very rapid oscillation between two notes or chords). Demanding enough in keys with few sharps or flats, but why not raise the stakes and insist on a herculean task of the performer? Slap five flats on the stave and preclude all but the most advanced of students - or indeed established concert artists.
Even the relatively hushed opening soon moves on to a blizzard, heavy on the ear, a whiteout of sound, the chasse neige a whipping up of snow by strong winds. No dainty catching a snowflake in your cupped hands here, this is skiing to the North Pole in extreme conditions, strenuously pulling all your kit on a sledge.
4. Prokoviev: "Lieutenant Kijé: Troika"
What a relief after the exhaustion of the Liszt, to sit on the troika and trot over frozen ground, bridles jangling. The driver venturing out isn't on some miserable mission: this is someone going on a jolly, to a happy social gathering, a party maybe.
Prokoviev wrote the music for the film Lieutenant Kijé and made a very popular stand-alone suite from the original score. The Troika section is the most well-known in the suite, packed with a few side-stepping harmonies and a happy-go-lucky stance.
The story concerns a Russian clerk who writes out a list of soldiers due for promotion to be read out by Tsar Paul I at a ceremony. Unfortunately, the clerk creates a spelling mistake, and the tsar promotes a non-existent Kijé to the post of lieutenant.
Because it is a capital offence to contradict the tsar, the soldiers have to invent a persona for the missing Kijé and trump up a back story for an army officer who has never marched a step on any parade ground. The whole idiotic dilemma is brought to a much-needed conclusion only by announcing his death.
The clip-clop beat drives the troika - a carriage pulled by three horses side by side - the initial theme rounding off with a military brassy flourish plus a healthy dose of disrespect for the ridiculousness of the situation thrown in.
Then it's off to a full gallop, full of ironic joyful banter, the cocky trumpet having a laugh with the audience, as if the music's in collusion with the silliness of the action. Troika is a high-spirited bit of fun, thumb-nosing at imbecilic bureaucracy, something I'm sure we all can sympathise with.
5. Tchaikovsky: "The Nutcracker Ballet: Waltz of the Snowflakes"
Think of a ballet, and you might well plump for The Nutcracker. So many of its tunes are well known, even to the most disinterested person in classical music.
The music is fresh, lively and, of course dance like and if anything is likely to get the body swaying, Tchaikovsky's ever-popular ballet is likely to kindle a little spin or two.
Falling twiddles on the flutes are the descending wispy snowflakes taken up by the violins. Later the orchestration thickens as the weather worsens and develops into a snowstorm, flakes whirling and pirouetting. The harp's resonance adds to the magical quality while the wordless women's voices drift over the increasingly windy snowscape.
6. Sviridov: "Cantata: Snow Is Falling"
Based on poems by Boris Pasternak, this short cantata of around eight minutes long is a delightful short work for orchestra and female choir. Very gentle and with naïve simplicity, Sviridov infuses intimacy with the Russian orthodox chant of church music and folk tunes of his native region, Kursk Oblast.
The first movement, Snow is Falling has the almost the simplest line possible for the voices. Starting at one pitch only, the choir ascends a minor third to repeat the same uncomplicated monotonic line. They alternate in this way until the final bar.
Meanwhile, the orchestra dance around the choir, the continual ringing of a bell redolent of the drip of the coldest water forming an icicle, while underneath an ostinato-like bass is the thick layer of snow covering the earth, the flute sprinkles the next covering of snowflakes.
The chants halt without warning, a snapshot of snowy landscape cropped to size, yet leaving you conscious that the softly forming landscape extends far beyond what you can hear, into the remote unending distance.
7. Vaughan Williams: "Four Original Carols: Snow in the Street"
Using the Oxford Book of Carols as his source, Snow in the Street is the fourth of Vaughan Williams' Four Original Carols. Unlike the three proceeding hymns, serene and soothing with little rhythmic vitality, Snow in the Street opens up like a time-lapsed flower in front of your eyes. There is still no jagged edge; the mood remains genial, dressed up in its early English modal costume, and tells of the birth of Jesus during wintry conditions by a messenger.
The organ accompaniment augments the resonance of the church acoustic and choir right up to the rich A minor plagal cadence rounding off the carol.
1 Musicweb International
2 Cso sounds and stories
3 Bolshoi Russia
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on April 30, 2018:
Thanks Flourish. I see pictures anyway when I listen to music, and love to pass on what I have in my imagination,a nd that's a real joy. Glad you liked the article.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 29, 2018:
Until your description (particularly of the blizzard) I wasn’t seeing how music without words could be inspired by themes but you have a way of convincing one. It’s both your knowledge and your passion.