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8 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Ice

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

Icicles and ice formations on a granite cliff in Gåseborg, Sweden. The "growth rings" or banding on the icicles occurs as the water in the soil above the cliff thaws during the day and freezes during the night.

Icicles and ice formations on a granite cliff in Gåseborg, Sweden. The "growth rings" or banding on the icicles occurs as the water in the soil above the cliff thaws during the day and freezes during the night.

The last ice age finished around 11,700 years ago, and when you think of ice, what comes to mind? The never-ending stretches of the polar regions, ice floes on frozen seas, the entertainment of ice rinks, or the chink of ice cubes clinking into a cold drink to make it even colder?

Whatever it is, man is drawn to frozen water of one kind or other, whether the extreme of the poles or the joys of skating out onto a lake and composers have taken inspiration from it to write profoundly moving and inventive music.

Sergei Prokoviev 1891–1953

Sergei Prokoviev 1891–1953

1. Prokoviev: "Alexander Nevsky - Battle of the Ice"

Beginning with ice-tingling clarity, Prokoviev's Battle of the Ice warns of the bloodshed to come.

Alexander Nevsky, taking his name from the river Neva, was the thirteenth-century prince of the Russian principality of Vladimir. He repelled the oncoming Swedes and Germans and forged a working relationship with the Mongols who dominated northern Russia.

The Battle of the Ice became famous in Russian history when in 1242, Alexander heavily defeated the opposing forces, entrapped on the ice at Lake Peipus on the border between Russian and Estonia, ensuring his place as a Russian hero.1

Rasping from the violins bring up goosebumps as the two warring factions prepare for battle in extreme conditions. Prokoviev's military four beats in a bar drives and swipes, you can hear the scars on both ice and man. The chorus becomes overwhelmed by the orchestra as the cavalry engagement hurls forth.

It's rather an unusual gambit to include women's voices in what was very much the men's domain at the time, but they add to the screaming morass. The middle section, in typical lighter Prokovieven mood, might be seen to urge the troops into creating a curiously optimistic atmosphere where, in the minds of Alexander's men, the only outcome can be victory.

As trumpets lord it over the icy battlefield, wounds are open and plain to see, then Nevsky's army withdraws from a glistening gory scene. There is much of Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet here, tragedies, both in their own ways. As Wellington said, "Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained."2

Franz Schubert 1797–1828 (watercolour of Schubert c1825)

Franz Schubert 1797–1828 (watercolour of Schubert c1825)

2. Schubert: "Winterreise - Frozen Tears, and Turned to Ice"

A young man's heart, so broken, he is unable to see any way to repair it. Moving away from the place of his former love, he takes himself off on a journey of self-destruction.

Wilhelm Müller's poems are brimming with wintry metaphors. The coldness of the sweetheart who betrayed his heart infects his, and he trudges towards a whiteout of a horizon where we are not totally privy to the traveller's ambiguous intentions at the end of the cycle.

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The third and fourth of the 24 songs are Frozen Tears and Turned to Ice. The traveller's tears have frozen on his face in the third song. If he cannot feel them running down cheeks, perhaps he can forget his pain. Unlikely, as he recalls his girl's icy coldness.

The piano part is not an accompaniment but integral to the cycle and is a real scene setter. A background of staccato chords serves as frozen tears dropping from the man's cheeks. The mood changes in the second verse, starting with 'Ei Tränen, mein Tränen' (Ah tears, my tears) chromatically worked, accusing and bitter as he remembers her cooling towards him, opening out into a lyrical anguished gush when he contrasts hers with his own hot feelings in the last verse, finishing with the solo piano droplets from the beginning.

Moving on to Turned to Ice, the traveller searches in vain for his erstwhile sweetheart's footprints in the snow. Instead, all he will see is the ground exposed by his tears penetrating through the ice.

The piano's rapid figuration are a frantic quest to recreate their former idyllic walks through the meadow when life was green, and so, one assumes, was he, searching everywhere for signs of her tracks. Sobs come uncontrollably, just as he had no control over the girl's feelings for him. Schubert directs his music to A flat major and the piano and singer duet, just for a brief time, pretending to be together once more.

Reality kicks in again as the ground reminds him the flowers are gone, and the greenness of the grass has bleached from the snow. The piano drives this song and the singer to the edge, one reinforcing the other. Desperately he keeps her picture, icily frozen in his heart. His dilemma is: if he allows his heart to melt, then also does her picture.

Winterriese takes on a whole new meaning knowing Schubert poured all this out as he was dying at the age of 31 in this song cycle of indescribable grief, having just months to live.

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

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872–1958

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872–1958

3. Vaughan Williams: "Symphony Antarctica"

Vaughan Williams' "Symphony Antarctica" took its name from the film Scott of the Antarctic.

Each movement is preceded by a literary quotation. The third, Landscape, quotes from Coleridge, summing up all that ice has to offer in such a desolate place:

Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain / Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!

The orchestra is vast and includes a wind machine and a wordless women's chorus and soprano solo to express the whipped up unbearable whistles of the impossible conditions.

The first movement relays a stoic grandeur. String pizzicato, harp, and the celesta suggest icicles melting, and the solo soprano's wail penetrates like bitter wind.

A hearty attempt at optimism is the jaunty dotted theme in the second movement while the third, entitled is other-worldly, simultaneously glinting and rumbling at the same time. The music creeps forward as if cautiously feeling for crevices, lumbering and encumbered with the big freeze. An organ chord announces finding such a crack in the ice, at once majestic and fearful.

The plaintive oboe solo takes on the modal folk tune model. It could well be thoughts of far-off England interplaying with the reality of a man-made situation struggling to survive in a vast natural landscape. A resigned dissonance registers the aching strides and the burden of pulled sleds.

The disembodied solo voice returns to haunt in the final section, the wind machine whooshes in, and the music bows out.

Émile Waldteufel 1837–1915

Émile Waldteufel 1837–1915

4. Waldteufel: "Skater's Waltz"

It's something of a relief after "Sinfonia Antarctica" to hear music flowing with elegance and designed to enhance a winter pastime—as long as you are steady on your skates. It assumes the skaters are experienced, gliding along on blades in long heavy coats, hats, and gloves, a romantic presentation of the cold.

The Skater's Waltz is Waldteufel's most well-known piece, played at concerts such as the one held on new year's day in Vienna, dedicated to composers associated with the Austrian capital. It follows a well-used format, a slow introduction before gliding into the waltz proper. Divided into many sections, you can imagine little jumps on the ice and long flowing lines.

Henry Purcell 1659–1695

Henry Purcell 1659–1695

5. Purcell: "King Arthur - Frost Scene"

Generally categorised as a semi-opera, King Arthur with the libretto by poet John Dryden was first staged in 1691 at London's Dorset theatre. These spectacles were elaborate affairs that could draw large audiences marvelling at moveable scenery and theatrical wonders. Characters appeared and disappeared via trapdoors, or flew over the stage. Sound effects were inventive and even fireworks were on the list of dramatic effects to woo fee-paying public.3

Perhaps with all this plus dancers to contend with, the actual plot is fanciful. Arthur is hard on the warring heels of the Saxons who are determined to secure Kent, and have captured Arthur's love Emmeline. Nevertheless, the Saxons have time to put on a sacrificial offering to Norse gods Woden, Thor, and Freya, having found six of their finest willing to step up to the plate, or in this case, altar.

Next, we encounter Merlin and Grimbald, opposing sorcerers, from whence we are shepherded through an enchanted wood to the famed Frost Scene occupied by Cupid (essential to bring Arthur and Emmeline together) and Cold Genius, spirit of winter and some Cold People who form a chorus.

Cold Genuis' aria, awakening from sleep begins with grating graduated chords from the strings. You can imagine scraping curls of ice with your fingernails. Shivering his chromatic way along his aria, Cold Genius wishes to be allowed to freeze to death. Cupid, however, persuades him otherwise and turning to the Cold People happily tells them, with the prospect of love in the air everyone can be warmed up. They too chatter their way through the chorus in stuttering style. Purcell's writing for Cupid is warm and lyrical, heightening the contrast between the two seasons, winter and spring.

Purcell's clever depiction has stood the test over time—more than 300 years—and remains a popular choice for frosty scenes.

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

Peter Maxwell Davies 1934–2016

Peter Maxwell Davies 1934–2016

6. Peter Maxwell Davies: "The Antarctic Symphony"

It was due to Peter Maxwell Davies' commitment to sustaining the environment that he was chosen to write a commemorative piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' score for the film Scott of the Antarctic.

Davies visited Antarctica before writing this, his eighth symphony, and was deeply concerned at the thoughtless amount of litter strewn around and how the continent was evolving, according to scientists.4 Hearing the extraordinary sounds produced by the ice prompted equally extraordinary percussion improvisations. A biscuit tin containing broken glass, metal scaffolding poles, and a tam-tam with a soap dish deliver the cracks, splits, and avalanches associated with the stark panorama.

It begins uncompromisingly, strident terrifying, and scarifying. There is beauty in Davies' score, but it sits alongside the ice's threatening ice floes and icebergs. The symphony is in one movement, divided into sections to reflect the ebb and flow of the ice. The final moments hark back to the opening and the cycle of freezing, ice breaking, and melting on a continent of stone, snow, and ice.

Terje Isungset 1954–

Terje Isungset 1954–

7. Terje Isungset: "Creating Ice Music"

Have you ever heard music played on instruments made from ice? Probably not, and it has to be said that those instruments tend not to have a long shelf life. Nevertheless, in 1999, Terje made ice music with trumpet, percussion, and vocals at the Lillehammer Winter Festival and by 2005 was producing music exclusively for ice instruments carved from the pure Norwegian rivers and lakes and glaciers.5

You wouldn't think Isungset would favour warm breath blown into his ice creations - not exactly compatible companions—and you can't help wondering about a well practised embouchure painfully sticking to an icy mouth piece (haven't we all experienced unmittened fingers coming in contact with iced up metal poles?)

Putting that painful memory to bed, Isungset's amazing instruments tend to have a limited ice shelf life and often last only one performance; otherwise, they have to go back into the freezer. Audiences have to be hardy—no centrally heated concert hall for an ice music concert-goer.

The sound created is akin to strange beasts inhabiting the glaciers and inhospitable lands of Norway, gentle and haunting.

George Fenton 1950– (photograph of George Fenton taken backstage at the Apollo theatre in London)

George Fenton 1950– (photograph of George Fenton taken backstage at the Apollo theatre in London)

8. George Fenton: "Planet Earth - Ice Worlds"

The BBC series Planet Earth is an acclaimed documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough featuring stunning photography enhanced by wonderfully descriptive music.

The sea moves steadily as if in oblivion, played by the strings, while underneath there is the pinging of small droplets: how the tiny can break off to merge with the vast ocean. Although the music has a fairy tale magical quality about it, climate change is warning us that the rising sea level may mean doom for our coastlines and extinction of our precious species.

Here, you can read more about classical music inspired by the Earth.


1 Biography - Your Dictionary

2 Brainy Quote

3 Wikipedia

4 Boosey/Peter Maxwell Davies

5 Ice Music

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on December 27, 2018:

Hi Linda. I'm happy to have brought back good memories for you with the Vaughan Williams. The ice instruments are definitely whacky! Hope you had a peaceful Christmas.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 26, 2018:

I enjoyed reading this article and listening to the music very much. I was happy to see a piece by Prokofiev, since he's my favourite composer. I'm familiar with (and fond of) the Vaughan Williams piece because my father loved it and played it often. The other pieces are new to me. The idea of instruments made from ice is very interesting!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on December 24, 2018:

I understand what you mean about the oboe, Flourish, it has a nasal timbre, and I have to confess not all Vaughan William's music appeals to me, but not Sinfonia Antarctica - it's so expansively beautiful. Merry Christmas!

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 23, 2018:

I especially enjoyed the Vaughan Williams piece. Usually I dislike the sound of oboes as the remind me of honking geese or ducks but this was splendid.

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