Sounds of Spring: A Seasonal Playlist for the Vernal Equinox

Mar 20, 2017

Today marks the vernal equinox, and for the Northern Hemisphere, the first day of spring. With the turn of the season comes warmer weather (at least, in theory), the first buds on the trees and blooms on the ground, afternoon thunderstorms and choruses of chirping birds.

If you're smitten with this season, you aren't alone: tons of composers throughout history have been inspired by spring to write some unforgettable music. 

Here's a playlist of a few favorites to underscore the annual grand awakening of the earth. Or, you know, maybe just some light afternoon gardening. 

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, “Spring” from The Four Seasons (1725)

Let’s start with an obvious one: the opening movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 1 in E major (also known as La Primavera or “Spring”) is perhaps one of the more recognizable pieces of classical music. Part of a larger set of four concertos known as The Four Seasons, La Primavera is paired with a sonnet—also written by Vivaldi—depicting some of the hallmarks of spring: chirping birds, flowing streams, and thunderstorms. Read the sonnet for the first moment below:

Spring has arrived with joy
Welcomed by the birds with happy songs,
And the brooks, amidst gentle breezes, 
Murmur sweetly as they flow.

The sky is caped in black, and
Thunder and lightning herald a storm
When they fall silent, the birds
Take up again their delightful songs.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1808)

With the full title “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life,” the Sixth Symphony is one of the few works that Beethoven intentionally named himself. A nature-lover and taker of long walks, Beethoven likely made sketches for the symphony during his time in the rural Heiligenstadt—the same countryside getaway where he wrote the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament. In it, he expresses his anguish over his encroaching deafness, at one point despairing over his inability to hear shepherds singing from the hillsides. He never lost his love of nature, however, and The Sixth Symphony, completed a handful of years later in 1808, paints a more beautiful and spring-like portrait of his beloved German countryside.  

"Beethoven Walking in Nature"
Credit Julius Schmid / Wikimedia Commons

Gustav Mahler, “The Drunkard in Spring,” from The Song of The Earth (1908-09)

What do Mahler and the droves of college students headed to Cabo have in common? They all know that one way to celebrate the turning of the season is to (over)indulge in some libations. The character in “The Drunkard in Spring,” which is the penultimate of six songs that comprise Mahler’s symphonic work,  knows how to party. The piece ends with the line: “What to me is spring? Let me be drunk!”

J.S. Bach, Wedding Cantata, “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten,” BWV 202 (c. 1718)

This one goes out to all the lovers, since Bach’s Cantata No. 202 was composed to enhance a joyous springtime nuptial… we just aren’t quite sure whose. Regardless of its original intended couple, the piece stands out among Bach’s some 200 cantatas due to the fact that it eschews religious content in favor of references to mythology. Goddesses Flora, Phoebus and Amor make appearances in the text, bringing with them some of the best parts of spring: flowers, sunshine and that delightful feeling of a blossoming new romance.

Carl Hervelius, Sången Om Våren”

Not much information is widely available about Swedish composer Carl Hervelius, other than that he was born in 1926, and he penned the robust and joyous “Sången Om Våren,” or “Spring Song.” It’s performed here by Lund University’s all-male choir, a group that can be dated back to 1831.  

Frederick Delius, On Hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Almost right away, you can hear the oboe playing Delius’s take on the cuckoo call, which is far more graceful than the one you may remember from Grandma’s clock. The birdcalls give way to reveal another gem within the tone poem, which is the use of the Norwegian folk song, “In Ola Valley.” The melody lends the piece some additional reverence for Norway’s landscape and national identity. Totally recommended: perusing a Google image search of “Norway landscape” as you listen.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov “Flight of the Bumblebee,” from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1899-1900)

There are countless arrangements of Rimsky-Korsakov's famous work, which was originally composed as an instrumental interlude for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. In certain performances, it’s clear the instrumentalist is very serious about demonstrating the skill it requires to play the piece at a break-neck speed. Others take a lighter, more tongue-in-cheek approach, emphasizing the humor in Rimsky-Korsakov’s madcap melody. That’s certainly the case with the performance above, in which the conductor trades his baton for a fly swatter. As the piece comes to a breathless finish, he uses it to swat, with a flourish, an imaginary flying insect. Maybe he hasn’t heard that we’re trying to save the bees?

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