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Classical Music Inspired by Rain: From Brahms to Schubert

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

Rain is a life-giver. No wonder so many composers have been inspired by it.

Rain is a life-giver. No wonder so many composers have been inspired by it.

Rain is essential for life. Without it we wouldn't survive. Deserts sustain few plants or animals except those that are extremely specialised.

However, rain also has the potential to destroy. Too much of it can cause landslides and floods, sweeping away and submerging homes. Moderate rainfall, though, is the giver of lush landscapes, lakes and seas, nurturing crops and providing drinking water, and if we're lucky, rainbows.

Frederick Chopin (1810-1849). This portrait was taken the year of his death.

Frederick Chopin (1810-1849). This portrait was taken the year of his death.

Chopin: Raindrop Prelude

Chopin wrote 24 short preludes spanning all the major and minor keys in 1838-1839 and dedicated them to another composer/pianist, Joseph Kessler who he met in Warsaw.1

Chopin organised the preludes in cycles of fifths starting with C major, which has no sharps or flats, followed by another in the relative minor, a third below, A minor, also having no key signature. The third prelude is in G major, up a fifth from G which has one sharp. Its partner is the well-known E minor prelude. It too has one sharp, and the fifth in the cycle is D major with two sharps.. And so the pattern goes on until the last prelude in D flat minor which uses all seven flats in the scale.

Ironically, Chopin had moved from Paris to Majorca to escape the damp weather which was playing havoc with his health - he had acute chest problems which most historians attribute to tuberculosis. Whilst there, staying at the unsuitably dank monastery of Valldemossa2 there were floods, and supposedly he composed the 'Raindrop' Prelude to reflect the weather conditions.

We can hear in the bass a repeated A flat as the melody waxes lyrically above. Even when it moves on to the darker and heavier middle section, the repeated note stays with it, before resuming the lighter droplets of sound once again when the opening theme returns.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918). This portrait was taken in 1908.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918). This portrait was taken in 1908.

Debussy: Estampes No 3 - Jardins sous le pluie

It bubbles. Debussy's continuous beads of rain create a summer shower. Refreshing but warm, this is a walk in the rain you don't mind and would be happy to turn your face up to the sky and feel splashes on your cheeks.

Throughout the water runs in rivulets, splashes occasionally fall from trees, plopping into puddles. Here the rain here is life-giving, it makes gardens grow.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). This photo was taken in 1961.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996). This photo was taken in 1961.

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Takemitsu: Rain Dreaming

Unlike Debussy's mildy playful rain, Takemitsu's is the spiky sort, the type that is wont to slide down the back of your neck and make you shiver. It isn't a downpour, rather the rain comes in small watery packages.

The harpsicord, an instrument where the strings are plucked by quills, befits the sound rain makes as it hits various surfaces.

Rain Dreaming is a series of rainy frames held together by held together by the opening motif, recurring throughout the piece.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Watercolour dated 1825 by Wilhelm Rieder.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Watercolour dated 1825 by Wilhelm Rieder.

Schubert: Winterreise - Flood

Schubert's flood, courtesy of Wilhelm Müller's poems, is not a purely meteorological concern. It is a psychological study in loneliness and isolation. Having lost out in love, a young man's hopeless journey through an unforgiving frozen landscape drives him inescapably towards death.

Along the one-way travelogue we encounter Flood, not of melting snow or a deluge of rain, but the traveller's own tears falling onto the ice, warm enough to break it into pieces and transform it into a stream leading to his beloved's house.

Schubert was a master at turning words into music. The pain is evident in both the piano accompaniment and the voice, although accompaniment is a misnomer, piano and voice are one complete unit - one serving the other. The piano sets the weary tone. In fact you might almost expect it to give up and stop altogether, so is the huge burden of desolation the traveller is buried under, like a heavy fall of snow. As grasses spring up there is a shift to the major key, a brief image of hope, but it falls back into despair almost as quickly, as bleak a personal landscape as you could ever hear.

At the final outburst the young man declares his tears have reached his sweetheart's house, his mausoleum, for that is where his heart will be buried.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Britten: Noye's Fludde

Noye's Fludde is a charming opera based on a medieval Chester play performed by combination of amateurs and professionals.3

Children sing the majority of the parts as the animals chosen for the ark while Mr and Mrs Noye and the Voice of God are adult roles. The audience also gets to participate during the playing of three hymns, Lord Jesus Think on Me, Eternal Father Strong to save and The Spacious Firmament.

Inventively, Britten employed different-sized mugs hung on string and hit with wooden spoons for the sound of raindrops, and arpeggios by the violins the strings represent waves. As part of the orchestration, Britten includes recorders and handbells - easy for children to play.

It's short for an opera, just over three-quarters of an hour, but it packs a punch, starting with great stormy rumbles. Britten intended it to be staged in small churches - the first performance was in his own church in Aldeburgh It contributes to the intimate atmosphere and the demarcation between congregation and performers is broken down.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). This photo was taken in 1889.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). This photo was taken in 1889.

Brahms: Violin Sonata no 1 'Rain' Sonata

The G major sonata's main themes are taken from a song Brahms composed in 1873 called Regenlied (Rain Song). Recalling how as a child the singer stood in the rain, feeling its coolness and taking in the smells of recently drenched flowers, Brahms creates a scene of simple delight, tinged with a little sadness at the passing of innocent pleasure.

The Regenlied tune is held back until the third movement of the violin sonata, although the dotted rhythm that it starts with also opens the first movement, unifying the whole work.

While the violin wends its way down memory lane, rain patters from the piano. As the reminiscence is dreamy, so Brahms covers the music in a faint mist, and double repeated notes from the piano splash gently here and there.

Brahms Violin Sonata, Third Movement

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Finzi: Earth and Air and Rain

Taking its title from the final line of the last in the group, Proud Songsters, Earth Air and Rain is a song cycle of ten poems by Thomas Hardy. They were composed over a period of seven years, from 1928-1935, but two are often coupled together, numbers 5 and 6, Rollicum-Rorum and To Lizbie Browne.

Concentrating on these two more well-known songs in the cycle, Rollicum-Rorum, as you might expect, is outgoing and full of itself, and just a little bit cheeky. Hardy's poem is called The Sergent's Song with the refrain Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lorum, Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lay! at the end of each verse.

The sergeant pokes fun at the establishment and Napoleon in all in the same breath, saying Boney will only invade London when certain impossible things happen—such as the justice system being just!

For To Lizbie Browne there is a distinct change of mood. In classic English folk song musical style, the singer tributes a girl he used to admire in a sweet and tender musing, regretting he hadn't made a bold move to express his love and secure hers.

She made a good match with someone else, but the singer's thoughts of her are obviously still very much with him. Finzi allots Lizbie Browne her own motif, repeated throughout the song just as the singer repeatedly laments how he was reticent to declare his love. Calling her 'My Lizbie Browne', the singer remembers her as the girl he didn't marry - even if that notion was but a distant possibility.

Seemingly, this man is still on his own, as the last phrase ends on a solitary B flat by the piano. And sadly, the self-acknowledged Mr Nobody never even got to kiss her!


To Lizbie Browne

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916)

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916)

Hamish MacCunn: Land of the Mountain and the Flood

Inspired by Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn's Brahmsian Land of the Mountain and the Flood drips native folk tunes and good nature. Scott described Caledonia - the Roman name for Scotland5 as Land of the heath and shaggy wood, Land of the mountain and the flood.

Romantically viewed through rose-coloured glasses MacCunn's concert overture's jolly tunes present an heroic people unshackeld by hardship and oppression, which unfortunately was the real lot of the population unless, of course, you were fortunate enough to be bon into a rich and priveledged family.


  2. Visit Valldemossa
  3. LA Opera

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on December 12, 2018:

Hi Chitrangada. We get a lot of rain here in the Limousin - frequently stair rods, but I don't mind as it's so green and fills out artesian pond so we never have a problem watering our veg plot in a natural way. Thanks for reading.

Frances Metcalfe on December 12, 2018:

Hi Flourish. Funny you mention Satie using his umbrella(s) as an offensive weapon because he carried a hammer with him across Paris where he played in a club - just in case!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on December 12, 2018:

Great list and wonderful information!

Rain is so important for all living creatures but too much of it has the potential to destroy.

For creative people, rain is one of the favourite topic to create poems or songs. I enjoyed listening to your videos. They are all so good.

Thanks for sharing another interesting article and the list.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 11, 2018:

I especially liked the harpsichord piece and the number by Brahms. I wonder if Satie the umbrella hoarder felt the umbrella was more of a self defense weapon than a weather device? He sure did have a lot. Interesting.

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