An Abundance of Spring Music in the Air

The season of new buds and blossoms has long been an inspiration for composers. As a result, there's plenty of classical music that's a perfect fit for spring.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Spring is in the air: Tulips, cherry blossoms, music.

(Soundbite of song, "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la. Breathe promise of merry sunshine. As we merrily dance and we sing, tra la. We welcome the hope that they bring, tra la, of a summer of roses and wine. Of a summer of roses and wine. And that's what we mean when we say that a thing is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring. Tra la la...

MONTAGNE: An abundance of music celebrates the season. That's just a piece we're hearing now, "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring" from The Mikado, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. And like a harbinger of spring itself, Miles Hoffman joins us, our musical commentator, to talk about music inspired by the season.

Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN: Hello, Renee. I have to say I've never been called a harbinger before. I don't know if that's good or bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, this season you're a harbinger of spring.

HOFFMAN: Okay.

MONTAGNE: Does spring has some kind of inspirational edge over the other seasons?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: I'm going to say yes. And as soon as I say that we probably...

MONTAGNE: Letters.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. We'll get letters and e-mails from people listing 40,000 pieces that have the word winter in the title, and there are a lot of other seasons that, well, I know there are three other seasons that have inspired composers, Renee. But I think spring has a special place, and spring can be a powerful in moving metaphor. It's a reality that the reawakening after the cold winter, the rebirth, the joy, flowering, greening. I think the simple way to say this is spring makes people happy.

(Soundbite of Schumann's "Symphony No. 1")

HOFFMAN: Now that sounds happy, doesn't it, Renee?

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: Happy and spring-like. That's from the "Spring Symphony" by Robert Schumann, his "Symphony No. 1."

MONTAGNE: Are there ways within the music itself that a composer could paint a picture, if you will, of the color green or the fragrance of cherry blossoms and fresh dirge?

HOFFMAN: The short answer to that question, Renee, is no. There is no literal way to represent in music a color or even a feeling. Even in something like the "Pastoral Symphony" of Beethoven, where he gives each movement a title and where he actually includes birdcalls. Because sometimes composers do imitate the sounds of nature. But even Beethoven himself in that symphony said that this is supposed to be more an expression of feeling than painting.

MONTAGNE: Does putting references to the season in the titles add to the effect? That is, you go in expecting, in a sense...

HOFFMAN: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...to hear spring, and that's in a way what you hear.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think that's a good point. And, you know, I'm going to quote from a letter from Schumann himself. He was writing about a different piece. He was writing about his piano piece, his "Scenes from Childhood." And some critic had written something that Schumann thought was really ridiculous. And Schumann replied in a letter to somebody else, he said, I do not deny that I saw a few children's faces in my mind's eye while I was composing, but the titles were added later, of course, and are really no more than slight pointers to the way of interpreting and playing the pieces.

MONTAGNE: Do other people at a later time tack on titles to these works?

HOFFMAN: Very often, Renee. And sometimes it's just a nickname that somehow gets attached to it. A perfect example is "The Spring Sonata" of Beethoven, it's his "Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano." And I looked all over, I could not find the origin of the title. I don't know who gave it the title except that we know Beethoven did not give it the nickname "The Spring Sonata." On the other hand, if you listen to the to opening of this sonata, it's not surprising that people would call it the Spring Sonata.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano")

HOFFMAN: And Renee, that's our old friend Jascha Heifetz playing violin with Emanuel Bay on piano in the opening of Beethoven's "Spring Sonata for Violin and Piano."

MONTAGNE: One thing about this piece is there's a delicacy. It does almost jump out at you that it's lacy-like.

HOFFMAN: And celebrates that aspect of spring, the delicacy of new flowers with new buds.

MONTAGNE: Miles, many songs in classical music, the texts are about spring but often not in English - for those who only speak English, in German, say. I mean, would you know that it's spring just by listening?

HOFFMAN: You know, Renee, I think that if the composer has been inspired by spring, we will somehow feel the set of feelings that the composer intended us to feel. The composer's idea will still be communicated. And I think an excellent example of this would from a song by Franz Schubert, it's a song for voice, clarinet and piano. It's called "Shepherd on the Rock." And the last section of the song, the text begins with (German spoken). And what this means is spring wants to come, spring, my joy.

(Soundbite of "Shepherd on the Rock")

Ms. SUSAN BOYKIN (Soprano, American Chamber Players): (Singing) (German spoken)

HOFFMAN: Renee, for many years, one of my great personal joys has been to listen to the voice of my wife, who is a soprano, a wonderful soprano. And this is with the American Chamber Players. On clarinet is Loren Kitt, this is soprano Susan Boykin. And we'll hear the final section, or portion of the final section from Schubert's song "Shepherd on the Rock."

(Soundbite of "Shepherd on the Rock")

Ms. BOYKIN: (Singing) (German spoken)

MONTAGNE: Miles, this is a good start on the spring. Happy spring to you.

HOFFMAN: Thank you very much. You too, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is a violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players, also the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."

(Soundbite of "Shepherd on the Rock")

Ms. BOYKIN: (Singing) (German spoken)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep

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