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Be Cool: Classical Music’s Winter Weather Pieces

Stay cool with our wintertime playlist of some of the coldest pieces of classical music

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Photo: Pixabay

Ether Game is keeping cool with our wintertime show this week!

Feeling the chill of winter yet? Well, Ether Game has a list of pieces – some familiar, some less familiar – all about the cold, so listen and try to keep warm!

  • Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924): La Bohème – Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is a popular tear-jerker at any time of year, but it’s especially popular around the winter time. Most of the opera takes place in the cold, and it even opens on a cold winter night. In this opening scene, our two Bohemian, struggling artists Rodolfo and Marcello are just trying to keep warm—so they burn the manuscripts of Rodolfo’s failed dramas in the fire to heat up their loft. Puccini’s La Bohème has been beloved since its premiere in 1896, however composer Ruggero Leoncavallo wasn’t as lucky. Leoncavallo was working on his own version of La Bohème, adapting the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, at the exact same time as Puccini. However, Leoncavallo’s opera premiered the following year, and has since been mostly forgotten.

  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918): Children’s Corner: “The Snow Is Dancing” – Children’s Corner was dedicated to Debussy’s daughter Claude-Emma, who was also known by her affectionate nickname of Chou-Chou. The dedication read “to my daughter Chou-Chou, with the tender apologies of her father for what is to follow.” The suite includes several character pieces that depict items in Chou-chou’s toy collection. There is a lullaby for her elephant Jimbo, a serenade for her doll, and the piece we just heard, “The Snow is Dancing, which depicts snow and muted objects seen through it. The english titles of all six movements is likely a nod to Chou-Chou’s english governess. The dedication at the beginning might have to do with the fact that some of the movements, “The Snow is Dancing” in particular, are technically demanding. As we just heard, the performer is required to achieve independence from both hands, with the melody being traded around between them while also providing accompaniment.

  • “Franz Liszt (1811–1886): Transcendental Etude No. 12, “Chasse-Neige” (“The Snowstorm”) – Liszt’s twelve Transcendental Etudes are usually far too difficult for your average piano student. And believe it not, they used to be even more difficult. He first started writing these exercises when he was only fifteen, still under the tutelage of Carl Czerny, himself a composer of many an etude. About a decade later, when Liszt was at the height of his fame and skill, he turned these youthful studies into the twelve Grand Etudes, works that were so challenging, Robert Schumann remarked that only Liszt could play them. Finally, in 1852, Liszt took another stab at the etudes, making them a little bit easier, publishing them as the Transcendental Etudes, and dedicating them to his teacher, Carl Czerny. For “Chasse-Neige,” Liszt gives a programmatic subtitle: “impetuous wind which raises whirls of snow.” It is the last etude in the collection and widely considered to be the most difficult.

  • Émile Waldteufel (1837–1912): Les Patineurs Valse (“The Skaters Waltz) – Perhaps his most famous work, Emile Waldteufel’s “Skaters Waltz” from 1882 is a musical depiction of people gracefully gliding across the surface of frozen water. Waldteufel was inspired by the skaters he saw at the Bois de Boulogne, a park in the western edge of Paris. This particular Parisian park contains a small lake that freezes over every winter: a perfect place for some ice skating. Around the time that this piece was written, ice skating had become such a popular pastime that someone developed the technology so it could be enjoyed year round. The world’s first artificially refrigerated ice skating rink opened in London in 1876 and was called the Glaciarium. The London Glaciarium consisted of a 24-by-40-foot sheet of ice, kept frozen by a refrigerated solution in copper pipes underneath its surface. And that solution consisted of water, glycerin, and a little bit of ether!

  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957): Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”) – When Korngold was 11, he completed the ballet Der Schneemann, or “The Snowman,” and it was performed in the Palace of the Austrian Prime Minister before an audience of astonished adults. The work is based on a commedia dell’arte scenario that had been written by Korngold’s father. The story goes that one wintery evening, the musician Pierrot tries to serenade the beautiful Colombine, but he is rebuffed by her uncle, Pantalon. After children build a snowman in front of Colombine’s window, Pierrot gets the idea to put on the snowman’s outfit and replace it with himself so that he and Colombine may stare longingly at each other through her window. After consuming an entire bottle of wine, Pantalon drunkenly invites the snowman into his house. Pierrot enters and professes his love to Colombine, and the two run away together.

  • Henry Purcell (1659–1695): King Arthur: The Frost Scene – Purcell’s King Arthur, with text by John Dryden, is the finest of his so-called semi-operas. In Dryden’s play, Arthur’s beloved Emmeline has steadfastly refused the advances of the evil magician Osmond. Frustrated, he takes her on a journey of icy landscapes in an effort to demonstrate his magical powers. Unimpressed, she remains true to her Arthur. Catering to the French tastes of King Charles II, Purcell included many references to the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Besides the frozen environment of the third act, which is clearly reminiscent of Lully’s opera Isis, King Arthur includes many chaconnes, minuets, and other French styles. When not entertaining the Royal court, Purcell often socialized with London’s theater crowd. On one particularly cold evening, Purcell’s wife locked him out of the house, as punishment for staying out too late. It is said that his exposure to the frigid air brought on a fatal case of pneumonia.

  • Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936): The Seasons: “Winter” – Following in the footsteps of Antonio Vivaldi and Franz Joseph Haydn, Russian composer Alexander Glazunov wrote a piece in 1900 depicting the four seasons. Glazunov’s work, however, was a ballet choreographed by the famed ballet master Marius Petipa. It’s an allegorical ballet, with different weather phenomena represented by their own dance and music. Winter kicks off the ballet, with depictions of frost, ice, hail, and snow—each with their own showcase. Spring and summer follow, concluding with an autumn bacchanale after the harvest. Glazunov’s Seasons ballet was premiered by the Imperial ballet in 1900, and the performance took place at the Winter Palace, the historic home of the Russian monarchs in St. Petersburg.

  • Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016): Cantus Arcticus – Ever wonder what it sounds like near the chilly frost of the Arctic circle? Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara achieves that with his work Cantus Arcticus. It turns out, the Arctic circle is mostly quiet, except for the bird calls. Rautavaara dubbed this work a concerto for birds and orchestra, and it’s one of the most beloved pieces of contemporary Finnish music. The birdsongs heard in the work are actual recordings of wild northern birds from Finland near the Arctic circle, including migrating swans and birds from the Finnish bogland. Rautavaara, who passed away last year at age 87, was the most notable Finnish composer after Sibelius. He wrote in nearly every major genre, including ten operas, eight symphonies, eleven concertos, and various other works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, or voice. He also wrote in every major style from this time period, including neo-classicism, serialism, chance music, atonal avant-garde, modernism, postmodernism, and tonal neo-romanticism.

And just for fun…

  • Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is one of those perennial favorites around Christmas time, although it’s not really a “Christmas song.” It never mentions the holiday—just the cold weather. It was written in 1945 by songwriters Jule Styne (who pronounced his first name like “Julie”) and Sammy Cahn. The songwriting team of Styne and Cahn collaborated on a number of hits from the Great American Songbook, including the Academy-award winner “Three Coins In The Fountain.” While “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” may conjure up images of a frightful winter storm and a cozy fire, it was not what these songwriters were experiencing when they wrote it. In order to have holiday songs written and recorded by the holiday season, songwriters needed to get an early start. Styne and Cahn wrote “Let It Snow” in July, during a heat wave in California!

Don’t forget to check out our chilly podcast if you want to continue to “Be Cool”!

Music Heard On This Episode

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