Poster Minnehaha Falls
Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was inspired by Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.
Tom Conway/Unsplash

The musical elements: Explore water-inspired works for Earth Day

As we celebrate the planet we live on for Earth Day, we can also celebrate how the beauty of nature has inspired composers to write some of their best works throughout the centuries. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting music inspired by the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. Take a journey across our world with beloved and lesser-known classical works.

This week, we'll be exploring works inspired by water. Listen and learn about how this element influenced composers throughout history.

Felix Mendelssohn — Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave)

Fingal's Cave is a sea cave filled with hexagonal columns of black basalt on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. In ancient Celtic mythology, Fingal was a warrior and a god. In 1829, the cave was visited by composer Felix Mendelssohn, and so inspired was he by the famous echoes inside the cave that he wrote a concert overture called The Hebrides (also called Fingal's Cave Overture). After Mendelssohn published his composition, the cave became much more popular as a tourist destination and can still be reached by boat on calm sea days. Listen for the crashing of the waves and the echoes in the music.

Antonin Dvořák — Sonatina in G major: "Indian Lament"

Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was known for collecting and incorporating folk music of his native homeland into his compositions. When he was invited to New York to head the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1892, he was just as excited to learn about and engage with what he considered to be the folk music of the United States, the music of African Americans and Native Americans. While he fell in love with the new sounds he was hearing, he was also homesick. So in the summer of 1893, he and his family went to stay in Spillville, Iowa, a town settled by Czech immigrants, so he could feel more at home. During that time, he traveled to Minnesota and visited Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, made famous by the poem, The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The word "Minnehaha" comes from the Dakota word "Mnìȟaȟa," which means "curling water" or "waterfall".

Dvořák was so moved by the natural wonder of the falls that he wrote a melody inspired by music he had heard of the local indigenous peoples. That tune — which he supposedly scribbled on his sleeve — became the violin and piano sonatina known as Indian Lament (or Lullaby). Dvorak wrote some of his most well-known works (Symphony No. 9 [From the New World] and the "American" String Quartet) during this time in the States with clear influences from spirituals and American folk music, but this little water-inspired piece tends to slip under the radar.

Alan Hovhaness — And God Created Great Whales

The sounds of bowhead and humpback whales are blended with that of an orchestra in Alan Hovhaness' And God Created Great Whales. The work, premiered in 1970, was a part of the movement to save whales from extinction and spurred on more music involving recording animal songs, coined "biomusic." The majesty and importance of some of the world's largest mammals, as well as their habitat, was brought to attention with this piece of environmental music.

Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate — Tracing Mississippi

A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate wants his native heritage to shine through in his music. His Tracing Mississippi does just that, setting a Chickasaw Garfish Dance song alongside a traditional Choctaw hymn, setting the scene of the country his family lived in alongside the Mississippi River. It's easy to picture yourself in late summer surrounded by rolling plains with the sounds of moving water nearby. Tate brings to life a now-lost land due to the forceful removal of his nation by the Trail of Tears.

Sarah Kirkland Snider — Daughter of the Waves

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider's Daughter of the Waves transports you to the shore of a sea or lake, with tiny ripples against the shore turning into intense surges of sound, almost as if a storm is on the horizon. Written for contemporary ensemble yMusic, Snider doesn't shy away from nonclassical instruments, including electric guitar to add an edge to some waves rocking the musical boat. This piece effectively shows the volatility and power of water, juxtaposed with its light and flowing quality.

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