‘I love all films that start with rain…’ writes the poet Don Paterson. But how has rain been rendered in music? Is the mood of a rainy day necessarily melancholic and disappointing or can the rhythm of a good downpour suggest something joyful or cathartic? We have chosen six of the best examples of how rain has been made in music.
Britten: Canticle III: ‘Still Falls the Rain’
‘Still Falls the Rain’ is the refrain that we hear throughout Britten’s setting of Edith Sitwell’s anti-war poem about the Blitz in London, ‘The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn.’ It is set for horn, piano and tenor.
The refrain plays an instrumental role: the changing quality and dynamic of this repetition helps the listener to hear and feel the anger, despair and elegiac lament of the poem, as well as what Heather Wiebe describes as its ‘bleak fixity.’ This sense of stasis conveys the horror and sacrifice of war.
Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 – ‘Raindrop Prelude’
A sudden rain shower can create both distance and intimacy. It can often induce a meditative or dream-like mood in the adult, or for the child who cannot go out to play. It is thought Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ was indeed inspired by a dream, according to his partner George Sand’s account of the moment of composition.
In her autobiography, Sand writes that: ‘He saw himself drowned in a lake – heavy, icy drops of water falling rhythmically on his chest – and when I had him listen to the drops of water falling rhythmically on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry at what I translated by the expression ‘imitative harmony.’’
This story is part of the mythology that surrounds the magic of this intimate, introspective piece.
Britten, Noye’s Fludde
Britten’s opera for children, Noye’s Fludde, depicts the dramatic story of Noah’s Ark. The sound of the first drops of this epic deluge is actually made and inspired by domestic objects: the china mug and the wooden spoon.
Britten’s assistant, Imogen Holst, recalls her own involvement in this moment of experimental composition shared with Britten: ‘I had once to teach Women’s Institute percussion groups during a wartime ‘social half hour’, so I was able to take him into my kitchen and show him how a row of china mugs hanging on a length of string could be hit with a large wooden spoon.’
Debussy Estampes, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’
‘Jardins sous la pluie’ or ‘Gardens in the Rain’ is from Debussy’s Estampes for solo piano. It evokes the light and colour of a spring shower through its trembling, fluid and slightly frenetic sound. It also seems to capture the delicate quality of each raindrop through this rapidity of notes.
Pianist Stephen Hough writes that ‘Debussy’s discovery of new sounds at the piano is directly related to the physiology of hands on keyboard.’ As we are transported by the intense mood of rain communicated in this piece, we are also experiencing the physicality of the piano and the movement of fingers in a new way.
Judith Weir, The Welcome Arrival of Rain
Rain in this piece is a response to the monsoon rains returning in India, and is inspired by an extract of verse from the Hindu text, Bhagavata Purana. The piece captures the sense of sudden rain, its syncopating rhythmic energy, and the change, renewal and growth it brings.
It also becomes a metaphor for the process of creativity itself, as Weir describes: ‘Whilst I composed it, as the notes and the pages multiplied, I began to think of a comparison with the arrival of the monsoon in India, when aridity is pierced by life-giving rain; and humans, animals and vegetation revel in sudden activity and fertility.’
John Luther Adams, In the Rain
How does rain sound? In the Rain investigates and experiments with how we hear its changing rhythms. Adams encourages us to attend to the sonic expression of the natural world, as well how the rain encounters and catches on objects and surfaces. There is a numinous, otherworldly quality to this work.
Words by Laura Helyer