Classical music inspired by nature, weather, thunderstorms and wind

Musical storms, real and metaphorical, are often a composer’s calling card says Malcolm Hayes, who guides us through some of the most vivid

Mountain landscapes with dramatic clouds in the dolomites

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’

Music is music, and a storm is a storm: how can the two phenomena meaningfully be made to connect? Artistic genius can come up with a response so impressive in its own terms that the issue doesn’t seem to matter – as in music’s most famous storm of all, the fourth of the five movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pastoral’. The idea is simple enough: the happily dancing peasantry in the Scherzo third movement are sent scurrying for cover by a thunderstorm in the fourth, and then emerge into rain-washed sunlit fields for the finale.

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Yet these three continuous movements, and the storm in particular, remain one of music’s most thrilling experiences. Beethoven was writing for only a modestly sized orchestra, and the music’s immense power is more of an emotional kind than about actual depiction: the score is headed by Beethoven with the words ‘mehr Ausdruck der Empfindung als Malerei’ (‘more the expression of feeling than painting’). The ‘storm’ movement itself lasts less than four minutes, yet it has the impact of one much larger. And while the orchestration (intentionally, as Beethoven says) doesn’t sound too much like an actual physical storm, it is exceptionally imaginative nonetheless.

Timpani (kettledrums) here occur only to suggest thunder in the ‘storm’ itself not, as in Beethoven’s other symphonies, in some or all of the other movements. The music’s furious climax is reinforced by a pair of trombones, entering here for the first time; and the insistent use of rapidly repeated, scale-like figures in the low cellos and double basses, another way of suggesting thunder, is as effective at full fortissimo as when the storm is quietly petering out in its closing stages.

Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

So how does another composer follow that? Beethoven’s example, while setting the bar of musical achievement very high, also established a Romantic-age tradition which his successors extended with enthusiasm. Just over a century after the ‘Pastoral’ was first heard (in Vienna in 1808), Richard Strauss began the orchestral work which took the idea of a musical storm to a pinnacle of descriptive brilliance. Completed in 1919, An Alpine Symphony uses an enormous orchestra to describe the experience of climbing and then descending a mountain, in a continuous dawn-to-dusk sequence. The storm occurs on the way down, preceded by a passage of ominous stillness before suddenly breaking out in full force – with loud pizzicato string notes for the isolated big raindrops preceding and then lingering after the downpour, rampant thunder and lightning effects from the percussion section (rumbling drums, clashing cymbals and thunder and wind machines), wailing woodwind, blaring brass and rushing string passagework to suggest the sheeting rain. Strauss placed his exercise in near-photographic orchestral vividness as a virtuoso interlude between the deeper musical imaginings elsewhere in the work – as in the subsequent ‘Ausklang’ section, conjuring the Alpine day’s slowly extinguishing sights and sounds.

Vivaldi: Four Seasons

There were pre-Beethoven musical storms too – as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons cycle of string concertos, where the finale of ‘Summer’ has an impressive thunderstorm (for the Baroque era at least) suddenly appearing from the leaden heat, complete with rushing string scales and pounding cellos and basses. For the generations after Beethoven’s, the idea of the weather getting angry became a standard device for a loud, fast and exciting musical sequence.

Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture

Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides overture, based on the young composer’s 1829 journey to the Scottish islands of Mull and Staffa, features stormy passages in the composer’s trademark poetic style, masterfully executed (if a shade polite).

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz’s different kind of orchestral magicianship showed how a not-quite-storm could be as memorable as a full-scale one: in the closing bars of his Symphonie fantastique’s slow movement, distant thunder is suggested by four solo timpani, beaten simultaneously by four individual players.

Liszt: Années de pèlerinage

As the Romantic era reached its 19th-century pinnacle, a parallel musical genre developed – the idea of a storm of the mind, an ‘altered state’ induced by a mood of brooding sensibility. Liszt’s music now began to show that you didn’t need an orchestra to convey the full grandeur of nature’s power. ‘Orage’ (Storm) is the central piece in the first volume of his piano cycle Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), set in mountains and foothills of Switzerland. This is a Byronic, literary-style storm, a psychological raging that relishes its own fury in cascades of double octaves and torrential passagework.

Liszt: 12 Transcendental Studies

The final item of Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies presents a related idea in a different way: ‘Chasse-neige’ (Snowstorm) evokes the strange, disorientated sensation of being surrounded by a white-out, psychological as well as actual, in uneasily shimmering tremolo figuration.

Liszt: Dante Symphony

The storm also became an image of surging Romantic passion. The (true) story of Francesca da Rimini passed into legend in the early 14th century, when Dante featured it in the early stages of ‘Hell’, the first of the three books making up his vast allegorical poem Commedia (The Divine Comedy). Francesca, married off to the crippled Giovanni Malatesta da Rimini, has been formally wooed on his behalf by his handsome younger brother Paolo: Paolo and Francesca then fall truly in love, and Giovanni, discovering them together, kills them both. For their adulterous passion Dante places the lovers in one of the outer circles of the pit of Hell, where their shades are eternally swept along by howling winds.

But the Romantic era viewed the lovers with empathetic compassion. Among musical portrayals of their story is the swirling, storm-tossed opening movement of Liszt’s Dante Symphony– and also Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini, which frames Francesca’s central narrative, as she tells her story to Dante, with two whirlwind sections of tumultuous power. Rachmaninov’s one-act opera on the same subject conjures another bleakly ferocious storm in its opening orchestral prelude, complete with wordless choral voices depicting the wailing souls of the damned.

Tchaikovsky: The Storm

The young Tchaikovsky also wrote an overture for a planned but unwritten opera based on The Storm, Alexander Ostrovsky’s play set in rural Russia: an affair between the married and unhappy Katya and her lover is presented as a story of human warmth crushed by a backward and repressive society, while an actual thunderstorm is also a dramatic image of their emotional situation. Although the Tchaikovsky storm here is not on the level of Francesca da Rimini, the work’s best passages are already strongly characteristic of his mature and unmistakable style.

Janáček: Katya Kabanova

Janáček‘s opera Katya Kabanova, completed in 1921 and also based on Ostrovsky’s work, takes a more modern and realistic approach. The storm scene in Act III intercuts the lovers’ disastrous situation with discussion among the locals as to the necessity, or otherwise, of installing lightning conductors.

Tchaikovsky: The Tempest

Another literary resource from the same stable was Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. This opens with a storm unleashed by the duke-magician Prospero to lure his usurping brother and colleagues to the island where they have exiled him and to wreck their ship on its shores. This presented yet another opportunity to Tchaikovsky, whose symphonic poem The Tempest is far more rarely performed than it deserves. While the musical tempest itself is a spectacular but rather conventional affair, the opening and closing depiction of the sea surging around Prospero’s island is spellbinding.

Sibelius: The Tempest

The 20th century then showed how the musical storm, including the one that opens The Tempest, came to be reclaimed from its Romantic-era connections and to be presented as a natural force in its own right. In 1925 Sibelius wrote a score for a production of The Tempest at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Theatre. The storm-prelude he came up with is a statement so radical that it could almost have been written by a 1950s avant garde composer. There is no melody, rhythm or harmony in any meaningful sense: instead the surge of wind and water is conveyed by repetitive overlapping passagework built entirely from that depersonalised phenomenon of 20th-century music, the whole-tone scale.

Sibelius: Tapiola

A similar kind of dehumanised power seems to propel the climactic passage of the Sibelius work that followed – his last major statement, Tapiola portrays the kingdom of Tapio, the forest god of Finnish mythology. Again, the whole-tone scale is used, this time to depict a squall that blows up out of nowhere, and then calms almost as quickly.

Sibelius: The Oceanides

In Sibelius’s earlier tone poem The Oceanides, the mythological seascape was a Greek one, culminating in a storm-surge of slow-motion immensity.

Debussy: La mer

This modern perception of musically depicted nature as a pure and untamed force, free of any link to human emotion, had a masterly forerunner. ‘Dialogue of the wind and the sea’, the final movement of Debussy’s symphonic suite La mer, is a display of illustrative virtuosity as brilliant as Strauss’s alpine storm but presented with greater economy and finesse.

Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia antartica

And as if underscoring how far this kind of musical conception had now travelled from Beethoven’s symphonic masterpiece of nature-as-metaphysics, Vaughan Williams in his Sinfonia antartica of 1952 came up with a musical storm that is its polar opposite in every respect. The work had grown out of a film score for Scott of the Antarctic, where the explorers’ journey back from the South Pole ended with their deaths in the frozen wastes. The blizzard that eventually obliterated their hopes and lives is depicted with maximum bleakness by a wordlessly lamenting soprano voice and female chorus, alongside a wind machine that leads the music into silence.

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