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Defrost In Style With These Spring-Themed Classical Pieces

Nothing puts subzero temperatures out of mind like a good spring playlist. Here are a few pieces to kick off your musical “big thaw.”

Icicle Tree

Photo: phidauex (flickr)

Melt winter away with a ray of musical sunshine.

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring
San Francisco Symphony — Copland: The Populist (RCA, 2010)
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Copland’s score for this 1944 Martha Graham ballet is beloved for its distinct Americanism—from the tender opening notes that yearn for the uncharted frontier, to the Shaker “Simple Gifts” tune that seems to affirm freedom itself. Originally calling for only 13 instruments, Copland later rescored the piece for full orchestra in a version that is now the most often performed. Surprisingly, Copland decided on the title after he completed the score, and the “Spring” in “Appalachian Spring” is more likely a water source than a season. Nevertheless, Copland’s music embodies the beauty and renewal that make spring such a welcome relief from the icy grip of winter.

Jean Sibelius: Vårsång (Spring Song)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra — Jean Sibelius: Lahti; Vänskä (Bis, 2000)
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This tone-poem, a brief but captivating journey through a Finnish spring landscape, is one of Sibelius’s lesser-known works. After he composed it in 1894, Sibelius subtitled this piece “The Sadness of Spring”. It’s by no means a tragedy (in fact, the brass-heavy ending is some of Sibelius’s most optimistic music), but there is certainly something wistful about the piece’s lyrical 16-measure theme.

Igor Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Minnesota Orchestra — Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite/Nightingale/Rite of Spring (Reference Records, 1996)
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The audience at the premiere didn’t much enjoy it, but Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet is now often hailed as one of the most influential compositions in the repertoire. Here, Stravinsky uses primal melodies and rhythms to portray a pagan sacrifice. Thanks to Stravinsky’s vast orchestral palette, the Rite has some of the most organic, earthy-sounding music ever written. He even emulates the sounds of musically untrained villagers by writing melodies in bizarre ranges for each instrument–most notably in the high bassoon solo that opens the piece. The piece concludes with a groove (albeit an unsettling, asymmetrical one) with a frenetic vitality that puts listeners on the edge of their seats.

Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in Bb Major (“Spring”)
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra — Robert Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (Arte Nova Classics, 2005)
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The composer himself perhaps describes his first symphony best in a letter to conductor Wilhelm Taubert:

I should like the very first trumpet entry to sound as if it came from on high, like a summons to awakening… I should like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air… and to show how everything to do with spring is coming to life!

While his orchestration is sometimes berated by critics, no one denies that Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony is a passionate and joyous tribute to the season.

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 for Orchestra
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra — Ravel: Orchestral Music - Boléro/Ma Mère L'Oye Etc. (Decca, 2010)
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Ravel begins this suite from his 1912 ballet with the musical image of a spring morning. As birds excitedly chirp, portrayed by the orchestra’s flute section, the morning sun rises with a crescendo that builds for nearly five minutes until it eventually overwhelms the listener with its searing light. The beginning section has some of the typical haziness of impressionism (a term often applied to Ravel, and to fellow Frenchman Claude Debussy,) but the “Danse generale” at the end of the suite reveals Ravel’s knack for brilliant clarity.

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring
San Francisco Symphony — Copland: The Populist (RCA, 2010)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Jean Sibelius: Vårsång (Spring Song)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra — Jean Sibelius: Lahti; Vänskä (Bis, 2000)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Igor Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Minnesota Orchestra — Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite/Nightingale/Rite of Spring (Reference Records, 1996)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in Bb Major (“Spring”)
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra — Robert Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (Arte Nova Classics, 2005)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 for Orchestra
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra — Ravel: Orchestral Music - Boléro/Ma Mère L'Oye Etc. (Decca, 2010)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Sam Callahan

Sam Callahan graduated from IU in 2013 with degrees in Trumpet Performance and Economics. He is now a student at Harvard Law School.

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