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Classical Music Inspired by Lakes

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

Lake Garda in Italy

Lake Garda in Italy

There is something charming about lakes, the reflections we can see in them adding to the sense of mystery and magic of what might lie below the surface. Is it any wonder that composers have been compelled to write about these watery wonders, whether it's a relaxing afternoon by the lakeside or the bewitching draw of the lapping sound? With this music, you can explore the unknown beyond the horizon where the natural and perhaps the unnatural meet.

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872–1958 (photograph of Vaughan Williams c1954)

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872–1958 (photograph of Vaughan Williams c1954)

1. Vaughan Williams: "The Lake in the Mountains"

Using the pentatonic tone scale for his short atmospheric piano work, Vaughan Williams envelops the listener in a gauze of misty calm and contemplation. You could lie in a shallow boat and slowly drift away from the shore into the distance. The sustaining pedal melts the notes into one another, feathering the sound transported on a barely perceptible breeze.

Anatoly Lyadov 1855–1914

Anatoly Lyadov 1855–1914

2. Lyadov: "The Enchanted Lake"

Lyadov described The Enchanted Lake as 'the shift in colours, 'chiaroscur', the malleable silence and seeming immobility'.1

The waves, depicted by the oscillating strings, are gentle. Occasional swells and magical forays into the centre of the lake take place by way of arpeggiated harps and flutes but Lyadov's wonderful orchestration is kept submerged, never fully. Shadowed lush themes subtly rise and fall away and all we are left with is water lapping on the shore.

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky 1840–1893 (photograph of Tchaikovsky c1875)

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky 1840–1893 (photograph of Tchaikovsky c1875)

3. Tchaikovsky: "Swan Lake"

The first of Tchaikovsky's famous ballets, the tragic tale of Odette, is Swan Lake.

The evil sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart, has tried to kill Odette, but protected by the crown given to her by her grandfather, she is transformed by day into a swan, regaining her human form by night. Only sworn undying love and marriage can release her from this curse.

The prince Siegfried has come of age and must marry. A ball is arranged and he is bidden by his mother to choose his wife that very night. Having fallen for Odette after meeting her at the lake the previous evening he vows to marry her at the ball. Sadly, the Baron introduces his daughter, Odille, a look-alike, at the dance,

Siegfried asks for Odille's hand in marriage, and too late spots Odette at the window. As Siegfried begs her forgiveness at the lakeside, her stepmother whisks off her crown disguised as an owl. Odette dies in Siegfried's arms and as a storm whips up they are both engulfed by the lake.

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For more classical music inspired by sorcerers click here.

Most of us know the ballet by way of the suite that was compiled from the music and starts with the mournful oboe theme, yearning and reaching out only to turn into an ominous full orchestra overbearing predicting the tragedy that is to befall the unhappy couple.

Tchaikovsky was very much taken with the music of Adolphe Adam, who composed Giselle. 2 The different numbers are very much in that vein, only more full bodied and richer in texture and with sweeping melodies.

Eric Coates 1886–1957

Eric Coates 1886–1957

4. Eric Coates: "Summer Days Suite - On the Edge of the Lake"

On the Edge of the Lake's oboe solo is in sharp contrast to that of Tchaikovsky's nervous and tragic Swan Lake.

Coates paints a pastoral scene, a picnic laid out by the lakeside. When the music awakes from its lazy afternoon nap, it turns its head towards the magnificent vista and a grand panoramic view.

The summer idyll, an idealised depiction of the countryside, was written hard on the heels of the first world war in 1919.

Ola Gjeilo 1978– (photograph of Ola Gjeila in 2011)

Ola Gjeilo 1978– (photograph of Ola Gjeila in 2011)

5. Ola Gjeilo: "The Lake Isle"

Norweigian composer Ola Gjeilo is fond of writing for choir and string orchestra, In this case he has set WB Yeats' poem The Lake Isle for the medium and added guitar and piano to affect a folk music feel.

Gjeilo's warm and simple contemplative writing fits the rustic nature of the poem of someone wishing for solitude, happy to live a simple life in a cabin tending beans and bees.

6. Thea Musgrave: "Loch Ness - A Postcard From Scotland"

For the 2012 London Proms Season's youth weekend, Thea Musgrave was commissioned to write a work connected to Scotland. She chose the famed Loch Ness as her platform, at the same time bringing the tuba into the limelight.3 In effect, Loch Ness - A Postcard From Scotland is a tuba concertino.

Rising as if from the depths to the sound of the gong, is the tuba in the guise of the Loch Ness monster. Rather than a creature to be feared, Nessie's comically cumbersome body swims inelegantly through the turbid lake, while the orchestra appear to die laughing whist trying desperately to retain their professionalism. They barely manage it. No wonder. The tuba, that favourite buffoon, lurches from one part of Loch ness to another, eventually disappearing back down to its enormous depths.

View of Loch Ness

View of Loch Ness

Alan Hovhaness 1911–2000 (photograph of Alan Hovhaness in 1975)

Alan Hovhaness 1911–2000 (photograph of Alan Hovhaness in 1975)

7. Alan Hovhaness: "Lake Van Sonata"

The twentieth century composer Alan Hovhaness believes in simple beautiful melodies and in nature. Many of his works allude to natural themes - mountains and Lake Van is no exception.

Originally in Armenia, where Hovhaness was born, Lake van is now in Turkey.

From the start it is evident that Hovhaness is embracing his Armenian roots by way using the Eastern-facing folk songs. He has ensured they are standing out with only the lightest of accompaniments. The stark tunes wind round and round as if the lake's water remains unchanged, capturing the endless ebbing and flowing.

Akhtamar Island on Lake Van Featuring the Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Akhtamar Island on Lake Van Featuring the Cathedral of the Holy Cross

8. Robert Farnon: "Lake of the Woods"

Robert Farnon's misty, hazy Lake of the Woods, drawn with drifting harmonies not a world away from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe and Delius are mixed in with heady ambiguity.

It swishes in opaque waters up to the final chord worthy of a Beatles ending to one of their songs - not quite fixed, an unspoken hiatus, a moment taken before the tide washes the lake out once more from the edge of the wood.

To read more about classical music inspired by the sea and rivers just click on the links.


1 Oslo Philharmonic

2 Limelight Magazine


© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on November 30, 2018:

Hi Linda. Yes, the tuba is firmly in tongue in cheek mode in Thea Musgrave's concertino! Good fun, as you say.

Frances Metcalfe on November 30, 2018:

Hello Bede. I too am a lake lover, we live in the Limousin in France which dotted with thousands of lakes and we have one a ten minute walk from our house which is fed by the river Dronne, so we are privileged to see a lot of wildlife. Glad you liked the article.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2018:

This is another interesting and informative article, Frances. I loved your description of the Loch Ness piece. What an amusing concertino!

Bede from Minnesota on November 29, 2018:

An enjoyable article, Frances. I spent my childhood near the Great Lakes and Minnesota has lovely lakes as well. It’s safe to say I’m a lake-lover. I liked Ola’s work – I hadn’t heard of him before. It’s quite elevating with so many layers.

I see that you have an article on rivers - I can’t pass that one by…

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