7 Classical Composers and Compositions Inspired By Snow

Updated on February 2, 2019
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.

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.

Compositions Inspired By Snow

  1. Rimsky-Korsakov. "Opera: The Snow Maiden"
  2. Debussy. "Preludes Book 1: Des Pas Sur la Neige"
  3. Liszt. "Transcendental Study: Chasse Neige"
  4. Prokoviev. "Lieutenant Kijé: Troika"
  5. Tchaikovsky. "Nutcracker: Waltz of the Snowflakes"
  6. Sviridov. "Cantata: Snow is Falling"
  7. Vaughan Williams. "Four Original Carols: Snow in the Street"

Photograph of Rimsky-Korsakov dated 1897.
Photograph of Rimsky-Korsakov dated 1897. | Source

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.

Photograph of Debussy c1908
Photograph of Debussy c1908 | Source

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 the 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.

Photograph of Liszt, Match 1886.
Photograph of Liszt, Match 1886. | Source

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 white out 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.

Photograph of Prokoviev c1918
Photograph of Prokoviev c1918 | Source

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 a 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.

During the Ronald Reagan's presidency, his chief of staff, James Baker III, his deputy, Michael Deaver and counsellor to the president, Ed Meese were known as "The Troika".

Photograph of Tchaikovsky c1875
Photograph of Tchaikovsky c1875 | Source

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.

The Nutcracker was first staged, appropriately at Christmas time in 1892, the year before Tchaikovsky's death in 1893.

The Grave of Gyeorgy Sviridov  1915-1998
The Grave of Gyeorgy Sviridov 1915-1998 | Source

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.

Barely known outside Russia, Gyeorgy Sviridov is known mostly for choral music. A pupil of Shostakovich, he won the Lenin prize in 1960 for his Oratorio Pathetique.

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958
Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958 | Source

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 are 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.

A cadence presents itself at the end of a phrase - the full stop, or period, as it were. There are several types of cadence; the plagal cadence has the 'olde worlde' mediaevil feel of the type frequently heard in hymns, as in the carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.


1 Musicweb International

2 Cso sounds and stories

3 Bolshoi Russia

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Frances Metcalfe


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • profile image

        Frances Metcalfe 

        2 years ago

        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 profile image


        2 years ago from USA

        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.


      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, spinditty.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)