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7 Pieces of Classical Music About Rivers

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

Rivers, large and small, are one of nature's most beautiful gifts. Many classical composers have been inspired to write music that celebrates the ebbing and flowing, unique sounds and heart-wrenching emotions rivers produce.

Rivers, large and small, are one of nature's most beautiful gifts. Many classical composers have been inspired to write music that celebrates the ebbing and flowing, unique sounds and heart-wrenching emotions rivers produce.

Looking for a Lovely Classical Song About a River?

Who can resist taking a walk on the banks of a river, hoping for a sighting of some elusive wildlife? Who doesn't enjoy rowing a boat downstream or a cruise on a pleasure steamer? There is a sense of romanticism attached to rivers great and small, from which these seven classical composers drew their inspiration.

  1. Khovanshchina: Dawn on the Moscow River by Modest Mussorgsky
  2. The Rio Grande by Constant Lambert
  3. Florida Suite: By the River by Frederick Delius
  4. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II
  5. Vltava by Bedrich Smetena
  6. Music to the Film Encounter at the Elbe by Dmitri Shostakovich
  7. Aïda by Giuseppe Verdi
Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

1. Khovanshchina: Dawn on the Moscow River by Modest Mussorgsky

It is magical beauty, Mussorgsky taking advantage of Russian folk idioms and weaving an 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 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 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 exceptional Russian composer, and tinkered with it, cutting across Mussorgsky's 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 revised 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 truly 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.

Constant Lambert (1905–1951)

Constant Lambert (1905–1951)

2. The Rio Grande by Constant Lambert

There was a time when The Rio Grande was played at concerts frequently. 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

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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)

Frederick Delius (1862–1934)

3. Florida Suite: By the River by Frederick Delius

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. It's 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.

Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)

Johann Strauss II (1825–1899)

4. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II

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 River Danube at Donaueshingen

The River Danube at Donaueshingen

5. Vltava by Bedrich Smetana

Vltava is 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 seeks 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 dance in the moonlight, the flutes bubble 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 Shostakovich (1906–1975) at the 200th anniversary of J S Bach's death in 1950

Photograph of Shostakovich (1906–1975) at the 200th anniversary of J S Bach's death in 1950

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

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)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)

7. Aïda by Giuseppe Verdi

Contrary to 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 a 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.

Citations

1 Wikipedia

2 Pristine classical

3 deutsche-donau.com

4 romaniatourism.com

5 Vienna Sightseeing

6 wikimonde

7 Aurevlis

8 rbth.com

Canoeing on the River Dordogne at Chateau Malartrie at Véyzac in France

Canoeing on the River Dordogne at Chateau Malartrie at Véyzac in France

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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe

Comments

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

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 from Minnesota on November 30, 2018:

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 (author) from The Limousin, France on June 07, 2018:

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 (author) from The Limousin, France on June 07, 2018:

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.

RTalloni on June 06, 2018:

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.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 06, 2018:

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 (author) from The Limousin, France on May 31, 2018:

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 from USA on May 30, 2018:

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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