There’s a Danish word for that feeling we all get this time of year—that desire to put on a warm cable-knit sweater, grab a cup of cocoa, and sit by the fire as the days grow cold and the nights grow long. That word is “Hygge.” And it’s also this week’s theme. We’re exploring the crossover between “coziness” and classical music in a show we’re calling “Hygge.”
Get cozy with our comfortable playlist below.
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Messiah: Part I, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people" – Handel’s Messiah is ubiquitous this time of year—heck, we even played part of it last week on this very show—but in fact, it’s only this first part of the three-part work that Handel intended for the Christmas season. This tenor aria is the opening movement after the introductory sinfonia. It’s interesting that Handel and his librettist Charles Jennens decided to open the entire oratorio with a message of comfort. This is not exactly the kind of “warm socks and hot cocoa” comfort implied by the Danish word “hygge,” but rather a more spiritual type of comfort. The passage comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Before this passage, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the judgment and destruction that will befall the evil world. However, he follows up all of that doom and gloom with this hopeful message of “comfort,” prophesying that a Messiah will come to save the righteous.
- Jules Massenet (1842–1912), “Meditation” from Thais – If you’ve ever picked up one of those “Most Relaxing Pieces of Classical Music” CDs, chances are it had this work on it, the “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s opera Thais. It’s the kind of piece that makes you want to sit and reflect upon your life, maybe after you’ve eaten an overindulgent meal. That’s precisely what happens in the source material when this lovely intermezzo plays! Thaïs was based on a novel by the same name by French author Anatole France and premiered in Paris in 1894. In the opera, Thaïs is a courtesan priestess of Venus who lives with a wealthy man from Alexandria. After a large banquet, Thaïs meditates on her life, and comes to the conclusion (with the help of a monk) that she should take a more righteous path. The “Meditation” has since gone on to become a popular concert piece for violinists and a popular background piece for anyone wanting a little time to relax.
- Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 – There are many types of classical music that relax us and make us feel cozy, but by the Romantic Era, composers had codified a genre of cozy music that originated in the folk melodies sung to lull children to sleep. “Berceuse” is the French term for lullaby, and Chopin’s Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57 is the archetypal work in this genre. Later, Liszt and Balakirev each wrote a famous Berceuse for piano, and they borrowed heavily from Chopin, including the soft dynamic, the rocking meter in groups of threes, and the gentle melody with occasional flights of chromaticism. Chopin wrote this piece at the summer home of George Sand in the town of Nohant, a small village in central France. Starting in about 1839, Chopin would split his time between Paris in the winter and Nohant in the summer. Many of his most important works were written in Sand’s home in Nohant.
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 – A serenade can qualify as a piece that can evoke peace and comfort. After all the term “serenade” was originally derived from the Latin word serenus, the same Latin root word that brought us the words “serene” and “serenity.” And most modern serenades, including this lovely Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky, evoke this calming character. However, the serenade genre has a more complicated history. The earliest serenades from the 16th and 17th centuries were pieces written in honor of a high-ranking official, usually performed outdoors on quiet, peaceful nights. In Italy, the serenata was a vocal work whereas in Germany the serenade was an instrumental work, although the later German ständchen was a choral work for male voices. While there is no one type of serenade, certain musical elements became attached to the genre, including pizzicato strings, suggesting the sound of a guitar or lute serenading a loved one.
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Calme des nuits, Op. 61, No. 1 – This beautiful choral setting expresses a love for the calm, comforting feeling of a still, quiet night. The final two lines translate to “The bright sun, merriment, and noise amuse the more frivolous; Only the poet is possessed by the love of quiet things.” A lovely sentiment for our “Hygge” episode. The poet behind this work by Camille Saint-Saëns was, in fact, the composer himself. Over the years, Saint-Saëns set hundreds of poems, much of it in the form of secular choral music. In his choral music, he made use of a great deal of old poetry, while also occasionally setting texts by his contemporaries, for example, poetry by Hugo, Lamartine, and Boukay, but it was unusual for Saint-Saëns to write the texts himself. The simple strophic text of Calme des nuits belies its complex musical structure.
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Cantata No. 211 (Coffee Cantata) – An absolute staple of practicing Hygge is the consumption of hot drinks. In Denmark, there would be hot cocoa for the children, spiced wine for the adults, and of course: Coffee. Coffee had become a common comfort drink by the time Bach composed his Coffee Cantata. It had been introduced to Europe a century before Bach’s birth, but it was especially slow to arrive in Germany. In some locations, including Leipzig, coffee had been banned because it was considered harmful. By Bach’s time, however, the rules had been lifted and there were no fewer than eight full-time coffee houses. At one of these establishments called Zimmermann’s, Bach led performances of the Collegium Musicum. The “Coffee Cantata” may have been composed for such a performance. The piece shows Bach’s familiarity with the newest trends in Italian comic opera. The action centers around Herr Schlendrian (whose name roughly translates to “Mr. Stick-in-the-Mud”) and his rebellious daughter Lieschen, who loves to sing of her love of java.
- Edward MacDowell (1860–1908), Fireside Tales, Op. 61 – Practitioners of Hygge appreciate the warmth and comfort of a hot fire in the fireplace. Composer Edward MacDowell also appreciated a cozy fire, not only because he felt the image of a warm hearth evoked his native New England, but because he believed firesides were breeding grounds for folktales and stories; MacDowell thought of himself as a musical storyteller more than a composer, and this is especially evident in his highly programmatic collection Fireside Tales from 1902. Considered one of his best works, Fireside Tales led many critics to name MacDowell the father of American classical music. In the late 19th century, he helped establish a pastoral style of American music that was distinct from the continental European style. Late in his life, he wanted to ensure that art and music were supported in America, so he and his wife established an artists’ colony at his home in New Hampshire known as the MacDowell Colony.
- Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments": II. Allegro comodo e flemmatico ("Phlegmatic") – “Hygge,” as we’ve discussed, is a Danish word for comfort, so we couldn’t go an entire episode without playing a little Danish music. Carl Nielsen is not just any Danish composer, but basically the national composer of Denmark. He taught at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, several of his works were cited by the Danish Ministry of Culture as being among the best pieces of Danish music, and his face was even featured on their currency the Krone for a while. The four movements of Nielsen’s second symphony explored the four temperaments or “humors” of classic psychology: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. Of these four temperaments, phlegmatic is probably most aligned with the concept of “hygge.” A phlegmatic person is described as relaxed, peaceful, quiet, and easy-going, and Nielsen’s light, lilting waltz certainly captures that relaxed character.
- Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady: “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?” – When Alan Jay Lerner penned the lyrics for the hit song Wouldn’t it Be Loverly from My Fair Lady, he probably didn’t realize that he was outlining some of the fundamental characteristics of Danish Hygge. When the song appears in the show, cockney street vendor Eliza Dolittle sings about wanting a warm room with a cozy chair by a fire, a box of chocolates to eat, and how she and her loved ones would stay there all winter. It’s the mention of chocolates that really clinches the deal on the comparison with Hygge. Enjoying hot drinks and chocolates is a major tenant of the tradition, and exists in the German, Icelandic, Norwegian and American versions of Hygge as well. The connection is likely a true coincidence. By the time Lerner began working on the Broadway show My Fair Lady in 1956, Hygge was only just becoming a recognizable cultural phenomenon.