A Sampling of Stormy Classical Music

More composers than you might think have written thunder and lightning into their works, and commentator Miles Hoffman says when you stop to think about it, it makes sense. He discusses the theme of stormy weather in works by Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Verdi and Johann Strauss.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

First there was Arlene, then came Bret, Cindy and Dennis, and most recently, Franklin and Gert--all unwelcome visitors this summer, the first crop of major storms off the Atlantic. And there are several more months to go in hurricane season. Commentator Miles Hoffman has prepared for the worst by stocking up on a large pile of stormy classical music. More composers than you might think have written thunder and lightning into their works, and Miles says when you stop and think about it, it makes sense.

MILES HOFFMAN:

Because after all, a composer's stock and trade is to evoke as wide a range of emotions or emotional associations as possible. And with storms, we're dealing with a very, very primal human fear, the fear of uncontrollable nature. And it's all part of actually evoking other sounds of nature. Somewhere in my record library, I have a record of Renaissance songs that have cricket and grasshopper sounds in them. So for centuries, composers have been doing tweets and booms and hiccups and all sorts of nature sounds.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And this that we're just listening to right now that we've just brought up, this is from "Summer" from Vivaldi's the "Four Seasons."

(Soundbite of music)

HOFFMAN: It's an example of what later would be called program music, music that has either a poetic or a prose program that functions as almost a road map for the structure of the piece. And what Vivaldi did in the "Four Seasons" is he preceded each movement with a sonnet.

(Soundbite of "Four Seasons")

HOFFMAN: And in "Summer," we have a shepherd boy, and `the shepherd boy weeps, fearful of the wild storm that threatens and of his fate. His weary limbs are robbed of rest by fear of the lightning and the wild thunder and of the furious swarms of gnats and flies. Ah, his fears are all too well-founded. The heavens thunder and flash and hailstones cut down the ears of corn and the proud grain.'

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Have you ever thought, Miles, that storms work in music the same way that maybe a love affair gone bad might work in a piece of literature; it's maybe more dramatic or interesting to write or to hear intense than, say, sunny?

HOFFMAN: Right. Although, it's hard to leave people in that state, and very often, after storm passages in pieces, we find the sun rises on the calm scene the next morning. We want to listen to something very different from a different period but still Italian, the very opening of the opera "Otello" by Verdi, and what they're singing about is this raging storm at sea that is bringing Otello back. This is the way the opera opens.

(Soundbite of opera)

MONTAGNE: But are there limits, in a sense, as to how much you can do to create a storm musically? It just seems like swirling strings...

HOFFMAN: It's true that there are certain cliches, and there is a certain similarity. Our devilish producers here at NPR, Renee, have put together, actually, a medley of storm scenes. It's hard to tell where one composer ends and the next one begins, and I think you'll get a kick out of it.

(Soundbite of music medley)

MONTAGNE: It sounds like one big storm.

HOFFMAN: That's right. In fact, this stormy weather is in the 19th century, Renee. We heard the "Royal Hunt and Storm" by Hector Berlioz from his opera "The Trojans," and that went right into the storm from the "Barber of Seville" by Gioacchino Rossini. And at the moment, we're in the tail end of the storm in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," "Symphony No. 6."

(Soundbite of "Pastoral Symphony")

MONTAGNE: In a way, this music seems so literal.

HOFFMAN: Well, that's interesting, because Beethoven himself, on the score actually of the "Pastoral Symphony," says he's trying more for expression of feeling than painting. As literal as his storm may sound, he's more interested in the feelings that this storm evokes. In a way, there almost is no such thing as literal music, because music is made up of abstract matter. It's made up of notes, these things that we can't put our fingers on. And everybody's going to see different pictures.

MONTAGNE: So how about choosing us a nice musical hurricane to go out on?

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, when you think of large forces in orchestral music, one of the first composers who comes to mind is Richard Strauss. He wrote a piece called the "Alpine Symphony." There is one section that would be hard to miss, and it's pretty much about whiz-bang storms.

(Soundbite of "Alpine Symphony")

MONTAGNE: Miles, you say it's not literal, but I have to tell you, I see a big ship with the sails, and...

HOFFMAN: Ah!

MONTAGNE: ...I think...

HOFFMAN: You see a big ship with sails.

MONTAGNE: I think I'm hearing wind. Come on.

HOFFMAN: Well, you did hear wind. There's actually a wind machine in that piece, and there's also a thunder machine. But somebody else might see a smaller ship with big sails. I don't know. And when was the last time you were out in a storm and heard French horns, Renee?

MONTAGNE: (Laughs)

HOFFMAN: How literal is that, you know?

MONTAGNE: OK. You got me there. Miles, a pleasure, as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. And keep your boots on.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z."

From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

(Credits)

MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.

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