As we celebrate the planet we live on for Earth Day, and every day of the year, 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 air. Listen and learn about how this versatile element, that can create and destroy, has influenced composers throughout the centuries.
Claude Debussy — Nuages
The first movement from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes written in the 1890’s is a beautiful, eerie example of Impressionist-style music. The “nuages,” or “clouds,” can be imagined moving across the sky, changing the light, subject to the atmospheric pressure. Debussy admired impressionist artist J.M.W. Turner’s plays on light in his paintings and so he tried to depict that in this music. Heavy use of both muted strings and solo English horn give the piece a spine-tingling atmosphere. In the first half of the piece, the strings and winds move along in a chordal fashion, but give way in the latter half for floating, ethereal solo flute, harp and violin melodies. Overall, a haunting, beautiful depiction of clouds.
Michael Burritt — Scirroco
“Scirroco” is a Mediterranean wind that blows across the Sahara desert, bringing hot, swirling air to Northern Africa and Southern Europe. Composer Michael Burritt captures this phenomenon with his piece named after the forceful wind. The roundness of the marimba’s mallets emphasize the force of the wind, while using the bare sticks in a percussive manner highlights the individual grains of sands that are carried along with the force of the air current. Listen as the marimba plays fast-moving, swirling melodic lines that’ll transport you to an arid land.
Franz Liszt — Orage
As with many piano pieces by Franz Liszt, this movement from Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) is a workout for a pianist’s hands. Octaves up and down the keyboard depict a violent “orage,” or “storm”. Inspired by his travels and reading Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Johann Schiller, Liszt wrote three piano suites: First Year: Switzerland, Second Year: Italy, Third Year. “Orage” comes from the first suite. Many of the movements were captioned with passages from works by the Romantic writers. For “Orage”, Liszt chose Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
Whether Liszt’s storm is literal or psychological (or both) is open to interpretation.
Will-o’-the-Wisp — Gabriela Lena Frank
Spirits, sprites, ghosts - entities that float through the air have been a part of folklore and stories for most of human history. One of those is the will-o'-the-wisp, an atmospheric light that is said to hover over bogs, swamps, and other wetlands, enticing travelers passing through. Composer Gabriela Lena Frank finds inspiration in fairytales and folktales from Peru, her mother’s homeland, and combines them in her “Will-o’-the-Wisp.” Hear as the piccolo embodies a “benign yet enigmatic flickering light which danced to a simple ‘humble song, song humble’ before enticing lost travellers ever deeper into a weirdly unsettling forest.
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