The best pieces of classical music inspired by storms

Composers have been conjuring up images of wind, rain, thunder and lightning in their scores for years. The BBC Music Magazine team chooses some of their favourites

Published: June 17, 2020 at 12:57 pm

Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie – Gewitter und Sturm
Chosen by: Michael Beek, Reviews Editor

Having seen the view of the Bavarian Alps from his very own house; I now have a new take on what this work represents for Strauss. He toiled over this mighty tone poem over a number of years, shelving it for a period and going at it again with renewed vigour until it was finally fit for an audience in 1915. The riveting work takes the listener through a day’s walk out on the mountain, a day which comes to end with a mighty storm.


The massive orchestral forces Strauss demands for the work come into their own in this section; the strings swirl and broil, the percussion lashes and the organ booms (not to mention the thunder machine!). Strauss paints a vivid picture of nature at its most tumultuous and I love how he then races us back down the mountain, passing by everything we encountered on the way up.

Debussy: Estampes: III. Jardins sous la pluie
Chosen by: Freya Parr, Editorial Assistant

The third movement of Debussy’s Estampes evokes a garden in Normandy during a particularly heavy rainstorm. In the opening, the racing intervals up and down the piano envelop the listener and really do shimmer in a way entirely reminiscent of the sound of rain on a roof.

As the piano theme unravels and ebbs and flows, there are moments of thunder which rise up from the calm. You can almost hear the wind blowing.

Rossini: Overture to William Tell
Chosen by: Oliver Condy, Editor

The overture to Rossini’s opera about the legendary apple-shooting Swiss hero contains one of music’s most vivid and violent storms. A serene, solo cello-led opening gives way to swirling strings and staccato woodwind depicting the onset of rain in a windy landscape.

And then, within just a few seconds, the storm erupts in full force, trombones, timpani, descending scales of woodwind and more united in chromatic chaos. Suddenly, the storm passes and the sun appears from behind the clouds, courtesy of a beautiful passage for alternating solo oboe and flute. Then the real fun begins with that famous galloping theme as Rossini’s masterly overture hurtles towards the raised curtain and the opening scene set on the shore of Lake Lucerne. It’s huge fun and must have, ahem, caused a storm at its Paris premiere in 1829.

Tchaikovsky: The Tempest
Chosen by: Jeremy Pound, Deputy Editor

When he first set about working out how to represent Shakespeare’s The Tempest as in orchestral form, he wondered whether he could leave out the storm altogether. Yes, insisted Vladimir Stasov who commissioned the piece, an orchestral fantasy called The Tempest really should have a tempest in it. Stasov was right to stick to his guns, as Tchaikovsky went on to produce a stormy sequence as thrilling as any in classical music. Though the work starts placidly, hints are dropped here and there that the clouds are gathering ominously.

When the storm does arrive in force, it is as sudden as it is dramatic. The thunder of timpani and bass drum crashes is accompanied by the swirling winds of the strings as Prospero whips up the sea and drives Ferdinand and his crew towards his island. And then, as quickly as it arrived, it dies down, and calm is restored.


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