The Summer Solstice has now been and gone – the longest day of daylight and the official beginning of summer. So as we all inevitably lick our ice creams inside by the fire rather than brace the harsh realities of a disappointing English summer, we can cross our fingers optimistically for sunnier days to come.
Whether the sun arrives or not, we may as well turn our attention to composers who have been more fortunate. We have compiled a list of works that worship the sun in all its (occasional) glory.
Richard Strauss, Alpine Symphony Op. 64
Musically recreating a sunny day’s mountain climb in the Bavarian Alps, Strauss’s 1915 symphony is a continual episodic flow of music. The sun emerges at the beginning of the piece, presented by a brash brass entrance. By using one of the largest orchestras ever assembled at that time with a particularly strong brass section, the effect is overwhelming. The symphony closes with the sun setting at the base of the mountain, with the piece’s narrative wholly dictated by daylight.
Haydn, String Quartets Op. 20 ‘Sun’
This third set of quartets, entitled the ‘Sun quartets’, written in 1772, gave Haydn his reputation as a highly respected figure in the composition of string quartets, inspiring Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, as well as inevitably many more. Truthfully told, the only reason these quartets became known as the ‘Sun’ quartets was because the cover of the first printed edition featured an illustration of a rising sun, but we thought they were lovely enough to include anyway! Musicologist Donald Tovey also referred to the set as a ‘sunrise over the domain of sonata style and quartets in particular,’ emphasising its influence within its field and the piece’s sunny dispositions.
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Beamish’s 1999 saxophone concerto with chamber orchestra adopts a very primitive sound. A fanfare-like opening that mimics a herding call throws us into an intensely mystical soundscape. She pushes the saxophone to its limit, exploring all aspects of timbres and techniques, and the overall effect succeeds in being virtuosic in style, yet simultaneously supremely controlled.
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Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Op. 23 ‘Morning Mood’
Written as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name, this section of Peer Gynt depicts the rising of the sun at the point in which the hero finds himself stranded in the desert. In the Hall of the Mountain King also comes from this suite, but this particular section will be equally familiar for many listeners. The lyrical alternating flute and oboe melodies slowly unfold to the magnificent climax at the point in which the sun reaches the sky.
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Another sun inspired piece by Strauss (he’s clearly a fan), the opening to this piece is more commonly known for being the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The prelude is known as ‘Sunrise’, beginning in the depths of the orchestra, slowly building with the majestic ‘dawn’ motif of three intervals, which are developed slowly but surely towards the climax of sunrise. It is a piece so majestic in fact, that the legendary Elvis Presley used it to open his concerts (below).
After having spent a few days in the Grand Canyon, Grofé decided to recreate the course of the day in music. A highly programmatic suite, it evokes strong images throughout, recreating the sounds of birds and crickets, and framing it within the rising and falling of the sun. The sun rises slowly in the first section, gradually splashing bright colours through the music. This is later followed by the image of the sunset, which envelops the surroundings in darkness, with animal calls heard across the canyon.
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Richter says that the inspiration for his 2004 composition On the Nature of Daylight was ‘the idea of trying to make something luminous out of the darkest possible elements.’ Richter transports us to a place of calm reflection to with this minimalist string suite, which grows slowly out of a series of simple intervals. It resists dramatic effect in favour of slow and gradual development, and attempts to make the ordinary concept of daylight extraordinary.
Carl Nielsen, Helios Overture Op. 17
Nielsen wrote on the score of his 1903 Helios Overture, ‘Silence and darkness, the sun rises with a joyous song of praise, it wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.’ This is an entirely accurate description of the rise and fall of the music, with instruments gradually joining at the beginning as the sun rises over the Aegean Sea. The music dies away at the end, as the sun sinks slowly over the horizon. Helios is the personification of the Sun in Greek mythology, and Nielsen’s work is exclusively centred around this element.
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4
One of Bruckner’s most popular works, Symphony No. 4 is nicknamed the ‘Romantic’ symphony, because of its associations with chivalric romance. The piece is medieval in style, beginning with the rising sun appearing over the horizon – a seemingly popular motif favoured by composers! Mahler arranged the symphony several years later, fully reorchestrating it, but the original themes and concepts were maintained.