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Noon Edition

Spring Fever: Classical Works About Springtime


Ether Game is a restless as a willow in a windstorm this week, because it might as well be spring! We're looking at some springtime favorites from the classical canon. Check out our playlist below:

  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), The Four Seasons: Spring ("La Primavera") –  "Springtime is upon us." Thus begins the poem that opens the first of Vivaldi's famous "Four Seasons" concertos. It continues: "The birds celebrate her return with festive song, and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes. Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven, then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more." In the original publication of the Four Seasons, a sonnet was printed alongside each concerto. Although the author of the poems was not credited in the original publication, scholars have good reason to think it might've been Vivaldi himself. Specific indications, printed in the score itself, let the performers know what's happening in the "plot" of the piece - singing birds, sudden thunderstorms, and rustic bagpipes all appear directly in the manuscript!

  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Song Without Words Op. 62, No. 6: "Spring Song" – Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words includes eight volumes with six pieces each, composed over a wide period of the composer's life. The pieces were intended primarily for amateurs as the piano became a dominant fixture in the 19th-century home. This particular song without words, Op. 62, No. 6, became one of Mendelssohn's more enduring melodies. Today, it's primarily known as "Spring Song," although it also goes by the name "Camberwell Green" after the location in London where Mendelssohn composed the song. In 1931, the melody served as the backing track to a short animated film by the Chinese-American animator Cy Young. That film caught the attention of Walt Disney, and as a result, Disney hired Young to help with the design for his first feature-length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" was also admired by other tunesmiths-it was adapted in the 1909 Tin Pan Alley song called "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune!" by Irving Berlin.

  • Johann Strauss II (1825–1899), Voices Of Spring Waltz – In the 1870s, Johann Strauss Jr., the "Waltz King" of Vienna, began to ignore the musical genre that made him king in favor of the operetta. The idea came from the theatre directors of Vienna, who turned to Strauss (the best-known Viennese composer) to provide them with some new productions. At the time, Offenbach was the king of the Vienna stage, but the rights to perform his works came at an extortionate price. So Strauss began composing operettas, premiering fourteen in Vienna over the next several decades. While he never fully abandoned writing waltzes during this time, his waltzes became increasingly intertwined with his operettas. Many of Strauss's late waltzes were based on his operetta themes. And this particular late waltz, the "Voices of Spring Waltz," was written with an optional soprano melody. It's sometimes even inserted into Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus as a showpiece.

  • Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Appalachian Spring – Appalachian Spring was the third of Aaron Copland's great American ballets, and the first written for famed choreographer Martha Graham. Copland did not know the plot of the ballet when he began work on it, but simply knew that Graham wanted something with an American theme. Originally called Ballet for Martha, the ballet ended up being about a group of Shakers, a religious sect in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, and their springtime celebrations after building a farmhouse for a young married couple. The original ballet music from 1943 was for a chamber ensemble of 13 musicians. In 1945, Copland excised about 10 minutes of the ballet to create an orchestral suite for both chamber ensemble and full orchestra. In 1954, at the request of conductor Eugene Ormandy, Copland orchestrated the full ballet.

  • Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires: Spring – Although later assembled into a suite, the four movements which make up Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were all originally written as separate works. "Spring in Buenos Aires" was written in the mid-1960s, when Piazzolla's music was still not universally accepted in his own country. Many conservative music fans were highly suspicious of his attempts to fuse the tango with jazz and Western classical music. According to the composer, his music was so unpopular that he occasionally even had difficulty getting taxis to stop for him! Although bossa nova, a similar adaptation of traditional dance music, had recently taken off in Brazil, Piazzolla's tango nuevo (or "New Tango") was only belatedly accepted. Although Piazzolla's "Spring" was not intended as a direct homage to Vivaldi, he does make reference to Vivaldi's famous "Four Seasons" - by quoting the "fall" concerto! The seasons are, after all, reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Frederick Delius (1862–1934), On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring – One of Delius's most popular works, "On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring," an ode to the familiar springtime minor-third call of the cuckoo, was composed in 1912. Although it seems clear that Delius's idyllic tone poem celebrates an encounter with nature in the spring, where this spring is actually taking place is debatable. Although the Yorkshire-born and raised composer is often considered an English composer, his national identity is much harder to pin down. Born to German parents, Delius studied music in Germany, eventually settled in Paris for much of his life. He even lived in Florida for a while, after taking a managerial positionfor a family-run orange plantation. Being a "citizen of the world" meant his musical influences were equally varied, drawing from Debussy, Wagner, and Edvard Grieg.

  • Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Spring Symphony – In 1949, Benjamin Britten was struggling to complete a commission for Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Entitled Spring Symphony, this work was not a symphony in the traditional sense, rather, it was a collection of songs using texts from various poets, including John Milton, Edmund Spenser, William Blake, and W. H. Auden. Britten experienced a great deal of what he referred to as "doubts and miseries" while in the process of completing this work. It is not surprising, then, that the struggling composer was thrilled to be interrupted by another project called Let's Make An Opera. Let's Make an Opera was characterized as an "entertainment for young people," and included four songs for the audience to sing. The first two acts are a play describing the creation of the opera, while the third act was the opera itself, titled The Little Sweep. Britten found this work restorative, and was able to complete Spring Symphony soon afterwards.

  • Ned Rorem (b. 1923), Spring Music – Ned Rorem, born in Richmond, Indiana, has lived two parallel artistic lives. On the one hand, he's the Juilliard-trained, Pulitzer-prize winning composer, known for his 500+ songs, 10 operas, and countless other works. On the other hand, he's the famed essayist, whose published diaries have given readers an inside look at the often licentious lifestyle of the contemporary creative artist, his travels, and the celebrated people he met along the way. Rorem has commented that fans of his literature are often not even aware of his music, and vice versa. His diaries were originally presented as a kind of series: there was the Paris Diary, followed by the New York Diary. Spring Music, written for the Beaux Arts Trio in 1991, also comes from a larger series, which also includes the seasonal works The End of Summer and Winter Pages.

  • Vernon Duke (1903–1969), "April In Paris" – Yip Harburg, the lyricist of "April in Paris," had never been to Paris when he was asked to write the words for this tune. Instead, he went to a travel agency and picked up a few Parisian brochures for inspiration. The composer Vernon Duke, however, had been to Paris. In fact, he had had a whole career there before becoming a Broadway composer. Vernon Duke was born Vladimir Dukelsky in Russia, where he studied composition with Reinhold Glière at the Kiev Conservatory. Prior to delving into the realm of popular music, he had composed a piano concerto for Anton Rubinstein, and had a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev at the Ballet Russes, the same ballet company that premiered works by Stravinsky and Debussy. Shortly thereafter, Vladimir Dukelsky settled in New York. There, he Americanized his name, becoming "Vernon Duke," at the suggestion of composer Jacob Gershovitz...better known as George Gershwin.

Still feeling the spring spirit? Check out our spring podcast from last week!

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