April showers bring May flowers… but it usually still brings a good amount of rain. So this week, instead of complaining about the rain, we’re going to salute the rain, in a show we’re calling “Stormy Weather.”
Get those umbrellas ready for our stormy playlist below:
- Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), The Four Seasons, “Summer”: III. Presto – “Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering,” begins the poem that opens the second of Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” concertos. It continues: “…pines are scorched. We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard. Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.” We just heard Vivaldi’s musical interpretation of the resulting storm. 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 buzzing insects all appear directly in the manuscript!
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral”: Storm – Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the “pastoral” symphony, was originally composed for a benefit concert in 1808. Alongside this work, a number of other works premiered, including unfinished portions of his Choral Fantasy and Mass in C minor, his Fourth Piano Concerto, and most famously, his Fifth Symphony. Both the fifth and sixth symphonies have all the musical hallmarks of Beethoven works, but they differ in their content. While the 5th symphony, in the dramatic key of c minor, brims with fire and passion, the 6th symphony, in the traditionally pastoral key of F major, serves as a idyllic foil. Unlike the 5th symphony, the movements of the 6th all have prosaic titles. It’s a programmatic work set in the countryside, depicting pastoral images like a babbling brook, a cheerful shepherd, a merry gathering of country folk, and in this penultimate movement, a powerful thunderstorm.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes: IV. Storm: Presto con fuoco – Peter Grimes, the troubled fisherman, is one of the more tragic characters in the operatic world. Misunderstood, accused of murder, he sets sail alone, the sea taking his boat…and his life. The tale comes from a section of the poem The Borough, by English poet George Crabbe. The fictional borough in the poem is based on Crabbe’s real hometown of Aldeburgh, a coastal town that later became the home of Britten himself. In his later years, Britten and his partner Peter Pears—who originated the role of Grimes—founded the Aldeburgh Festival, which brings culture annually to this largely rural area. The piece we just played, “Storm,” recalls Act I of the opera, and comes from an orchestral suite derived from the opera’s interlude music.
- Richard Strauss (1864–1949), An Alpine Symphony: Thunder and Storm – This tone poem—the last that Strauss wrote—follows a climbing party scaling one of the larger mountains in the Alps, a trek he experienced firsthand. In his youth, Strauss partook in an especially rough hiking expedition. At one point the party lost their way, and during the descent, they were pummeled by a nasty thunderstorm. To create the effect of those gale force winds, Strauss called for the use of a wind machine or an aeoliphone among the battery of percussion. The wind machine used in Strauss’s time was basically a huge barrel on a frame with a crank attached to it. Draped over the barrel was a piece of silk or canvas. As the percussionist wound the crank, the barrel would rub up against the cloth, creating the whooshing sound of blowing wind. Wind machines were used in a number of pieces from the early 20th century, like Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica.
- Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), Les Troyens: Royal Hunt and Storm – Hector Berlioz was what some would call, a megalomaniac. Not only did he state that his ideal orchestra would consist of 400-something musicians, but his masterpiece opera, Les Troyens, was so large a concept that until recently it was known only in tandem as “The Fall of Troy” and “The Trojans at Carthage.” The opera, in its entirety, closely follows the storyline of Virgil’s Aeneid and begins with the Trojans unassumingly bringing the gift of a large wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers within the city walls. The piece calls for a gigantic cast of singers as well as an orchestra that would blast the roof off any opera house. While The Trojans contains some of Berlioz’s best music, it is hardly ever performed simply because of the sheer size and length of the opera. This movement comes from the beginning of the fourth act, which features a pantomime of a dramatic storm scene.
- Johann Strauss II (1825–1899), Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning Polka) – While the polka might conjure up images of beer-swilling Wisconsinites, the duple meter dance has its origins in the historical country of Bohemia, now in the modern day Czech Republic. The earliest polkas date back to the early 19th century, where they were Bohemian interpretations of a fast Polish dance (hence the name polka, as in Poland). Bohemian dance bands quickly spread the polka around Europe in the 1840s, causing a minor polka craze. It even made it to America, where it became the source of many puns on the then current president’s name James K. Polk. When the dance king of Vienna Johann Strauss II wrote his “Thunder and Lightning Polka” in the late 1860s, polka fever had mostly died down. But Strauss did manage to capture the excitement of the polka, adding in some thunderous percussive effects like drum rolls and cymbals to make it sound like a storm was brewing underneath the dancing feet.
- Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), The Tempest: Overture – Part tragedy, part comedy, The Tempest is generally referred to as Shakespeare’s last stage work, concerned with the large philosophical question, “What is a human being?” Sibelius’s incidental music to The Tempest is some of his most forward-looking music. The prelude, with its rushing strings and prominent augmented fourth, helps to set up the scene for the play to come. Shakespeare’s original stage direction for the opening shipwreck scene is “a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning is heard.” At the premiere of the production of the play for which Sibelius wrote the music we just heard, the curtains were opened in the middle of the prelude to show the sinking ship, just before all of the passengers are dumped into the violent seas off Prospero’s Island.
- Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins Bethune (1849–1908), The Rainstorm – Few American pianists have such a unique and troubled history as Blind Tom. Blind from birth and likely mentally impaired, Thomas Wiggins was bought as an infant by Georgia slave owner General James Neil Bethune in 1849. Shortly after, his prodigious talent was recognized, and Blind Tom became an attraction in a traveling P.T. Barnum-type show, showcasing his amazing piano skills and his ability to accurately mimic other performances, all while being promoted with cruel racial stereotypes. Blind Tom’s talent was so grand, that he ended up becoming the highest paid pianist of the 19th-century, although much of that money went to the Bethune family. Despite his 19th century fame, Blind Tom’s legacy was eroded by the 20th century, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. In addition to learning thousands of works, Blind Tom also composed. He wrote this evocative work The Rainstorm when he was only five years old.
- George Jones, “White Lightning” – The song “White Lightning,” the first big hit for country legend George Jones, is obviously not about an actual storm, but rather the powerful, stormy punch of some illegally made moonshine. The tune was written by 1950s rockabilly star J.P. Richardson, better known by his stage name The Big Bopper. The Big Bopper and George Jones were actually close friends—they both had worked as DJs for the Texas radio station KTRM and both singers worked under the wing of country music producer Pappy Daily. Jones’s recording session for “White Lightning” in February 1959 was especially tough then, because just the week before The Big Bopper had tragically died in the same plane crash that also killed both Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, aka “The Day The Music Died.” A distraught Jones needed over 80 takes to record the song because he had drunk a little too much “white lightning” himself to ease his pain. This became a bit of a theme in Jones’s life. He struggled with alcoholism for years, missing concerts and earning the nickname “No Show Jones.”