Classical Music Inspired by the Wind
Passive, aggressive and everything in between, there is rarely a time when wind cannot be detected in the air.
The Greek god of wind, Aeolus lent his name to an instrument, the Aeolian harp, strings threaded between two wooden blocks, hung up to allow the vibration of the wind to produce random sounds, and there are hundreds of different wind instruments throughout the world. Even the most basic—the wide blade of grass held flat between fingers—is one such instrument, and it is known that bird bones drilled with holes were used 40,000 years ago to create tunes. Click on
Wind has helped to shape our planet through erosion creating some of the word's most well known—and to some—sacred natural sculptures. Monument valley in Utah looks like giant hands have fashioned towering structures and deep valleys. Uluru, or as some refer to it, Ayres Rock, is an iconic wonder, protected by the Anangu people of Australia, influencing their culture and traditional beliefs from Dreamtime.1
Monument Valley Featuring the 'Totem Pole'
Frederick Chopin 1810-1849
Chopin. Étude Op25 No 11 'Winter Wind'
You know something extraordinary is coming from the first deceptively simple statement, when the bass falls as the lead in to a great whirlwind of virtuosity. Winter Wind's strong dotted theme is passed to the bass clef for most of the work, while the right hand's work-out is a cyclone of activity swirling over the top.
Cascades of arpeggios and scalic runs stream through the air, billowing and puffing, an étude indeed to leave you catching your breath.
Coordination between the two hands is a given. Digital dexterity, finger and wrist strength and a sense of arching form is required to push this tormented study to the extremes ends of the Earth; powerful control of mind and body brought together as one.
As the American critic James Huneker quipped "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it."1
The first anticipatory bars of this étude were added on the advice of Chopin's friend Charles Hoffman.
Karol Szymanowski 1882-1937
Szymanowski. The Love Songs of Hafiz -The Infatuated East Wind
Rapturously wreathed in golds and silvers, Szmanowski's The Love Songs of Hafiz shimmer and glint with a swooning langour.
First written with for solo voice with piano accompaniment in 1911, he orchestrated the piece three years later allowing him to colour in the exoticism of the middle east. Having travelled to these alluring climes in the 1900s he became interested in the poems of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz.2
The songs are suffused with influences from peer composers - Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy, and while the cycle may be sumptuous there are small delicacies on offer that are reminiscent of Berg.
The second of the eight songs, The Infatuated East Wind blasts in with a thump from the timpani. As it pulses it mixes tenderness with opulence, winding in a romantic solo violin before blowing itself out.
Libyan Saharan Sand Dunes Sculpted By the Wind
Michael Burritt. Scirroco
Michael Burritt is a percussionist and composer who features the marimba heavily in his work. He has been commissioned to write for the World Marimba and the Paris International Paris Competitions.3
Scirocco was written at the request of virtuoso marimba player She-e Wu.4 The Scirocco is the desert wind whisked up from the Sahara flying over the Mediterranean and Southern Europe and can occasionally reach up as far as Great Britain, carrying with it the sand from its origins - I know - my car was covered in it when I lived there after a storm.
Scirocco swoops up and down, curling over the dunes, the rather hard timbre of using bare wooden sticks suiting the emery feel of the grains of sand. Heat radiates from the lower pitches of the marimba, a mirage of reverberation under the intense sun.
There are many names for windstorms - Chinook in northwestern United States, zonda in the Andes, khamsin in the Arabia peninsula and is known as a foehn in the European Aps.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Debussy. Preludes Book I - Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West Wind Has Seen)
Debussy's direction is 'animé et tumultueux' - lively and tumultuous. Restless from the start, the hushed arpeggios build and recede. Lurching and searching out like a predator, slaloming between trees, it is an unstable phenomemun, whipping a snake-like tongue, and one to be feared.
Gusts threaten stability, pushing, pulling, before the Zephyr grabs hold and the air is buffeted and a final hold-onto-your hat swipe floors the listener and the wind stamps triumphantly on its prey.
As an element, wind is not confined to Earth. Uranus and Neptune are subject to immensely strong winds, reaching supersonic speeds. Neptune's are the fastest travelling in the solar system and can blow up to an astonishing 2400 kilometers (1500 miles) per hour.
Toru Takemitsu 1930-1996
Takemitsu. And Then I Knew T'Was Wind 1930-1996
Takemitsu's windy observations are in direct contrast to Debussy's perilous and menacing westerly.
Using the instrumentation Debussy chose for the second sonata of his planned six, flute, viola and harp, Takemitsu delves into a bare and rather opaque sound world taking a rising motif from the Debussy sonata and weaves it into his own.
The trills of the flute and viola string harmonics drop the temperature of Debussy's wind in summer, playfulness giving way to colder climes.
Apart from taking inspiration from Debussy, Emily Dickinson's poem demonstrates the effect wind has on both the auditory and the tactile, as the verse expounds:
Like Rain it sounded till it curved/And then I knew 'twas Wind/It walked as wet as any Wave/But swept as dry as sand.
Takemitsu examines the poem in minute detail, the dusty sandpaper, the screeches, the ripples on water, the patter of rain; all is here, carefully laid out yet free of the constraint of conventional bar lines and meter, a musical scroll unfurled. It is as if there is self examination, an unsettling unknowing, but by the time the music reaches its conclusion there is acceptance of itself, an internal reconciliation of sorts.
Ralph Vaughan Williams 1872-1958
Vaughan Williams. Motet The Voice Out Of the Whirlwind
Loud chords from the organ provides the dramatic impetus to spring Vaughan Williams' motet into life, the forceful whirlwind that is the response of God to Job's questioning of human affliction.
The work started out in music from Galliard of the Sons of the Morning from scene VIII of his ballet Job, and is for mixed choir and organ or orchestra. Fervent and questioning, God is taking Job to task, leading him through a series of the natural Earthly and cosmic foundations He laid down as a counter to Job's examination of suffering.
A stern, rather lecturing mood, carries the motet. Gruff chords from an uncompromising God end the work, a longer version of the opening, as if to labour the point.
Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Sibelius. Four Lyrical Pieces for Piano - No 2 Gentle West Wind
Listening to this blind I'd be hard pressed to put my finger on the who composed it.
There is little of the hunger associated with Sibelius' raw orchestral compendium, except perhaps in the first chord, tipping you onto your toes, wondering if he is whisking you off on the wind to Eastern climes.
That initial promise is immediately swept away as it rolls up and down in waves of impressionism, trying on Debussy's hat and perhaps the scarf which once wound around Schumann's neck.
The wind here is certainly very gentle, caressing the face, bringing nature to genial life. Sibelius was probably pleasing himself here. As a lover of the outdoors, his mellow indulgent play with the style of two pianistic greats was affording himself a little amusement away from his usual breadth of expansive buffeting. Why not enjoy the movement of, for once, a force in benign mood?
Solar winds can be detrimental to the Earth's power grids, causing outages by way of surges carrying magnetic fields from coronal mass ejections. Mostly we see these flares as the dancing colours of the aurora borealis reaching only the North Pole, but occasionally they are so dynamic they can strech as far as New Zealand in the southern hemisphere as it did In 200, putting a transformer out of action.
Benjamin Britten 1913-1976
Britten. Nocturne - What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?
Britten set the first stanza of Keats' beautifully wrought poem Sleep and Poetry in 1958 as the last of a cycle of eight poems, using the first line as his own title for the Nocturne.
The wind is a character visiting the occupants of nature. Flowers, trees, animals, and lovers are all touched with kindly and teasing attention from the gentle summer wind. But sleep is yet more serene yet still retaining some of the stirrings associated with a light wind, the undertone of the lullaby, and how you find that hair is tumbled in the morning.
The instrumentation for the Nocturne is airy, the solo tenor matched with the lighter tones of the string orchestra rather than the full band. In addition Britten selects seven solo instruments which usually appear singly for each poem of the cycle, but for this, the final song, two of them - flute and clarinet - flit about, mimicking birds and bees.
The strings open the song, a thin atmospheric breath travelling in from afar, carrying with it secrets from a previous visitation. They transfigure to provide soft nests of resting places as the singer tells of the joys waking from sleep, encountering sunrise and the prospect of a new day, and the cycle closes on a bed of optimism.
To read more about classical music inspired by summer click on the link.
John Luther Adams 1953-
John Luther Adams. Dark Wind
Written for the unclassical combination of bass clarinet, vibraphone, marimba and piano, the treacly vibrations that emerge from the start are all enveloping. A strong band of soft dark cloth edged with tassles and tiny bells appear to slowly and comfortably swaddle until it then drags away, taking you with it bound up inside.
John Luther Adams is a composer very much in tune with nature, having preferring the company of the snows of Alaska rather than the crowded population of New York where he now resides.4
To read more about classical music inspired by snow click on the link.
2 Edith Wharton's New York
3 Reperoire Explorer
4 Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.
5 Steve Weiss Music
6 New York Times
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe