'Water Music' Through The Years: Eight Classical Pieces Inspired By Oceans, Cloudbursts And Brooks

Apr 27, 2017

From violent crashing waves to bubbling brooks, water in all its configurations has long inspired classical composers. On April 30 & May 1, the Gateway Chamber Orchestra will perform a program that celebrates nature’s beauty, with John Luther Adams’s water-centered piece Become River as a highlight. Before you see the performance, here are eight more aqueous works to enjoy as a musical amuse-bouche:

John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (2013)

Before Become River, Adams had conceived the larger-scaled Become Ocean, which took home the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. With a title derived the title from a mesostic poem written by John Cage, and the music is an apocalyptic rumination of life by the ocean. As a former, long-term resident of Alaska, Adams is not shy about discussing climate change in his work: “As I composed Become Ocean, I had in my mind and my heart this image of the melting of polar ice and the rising of the seas. All life on this Earth emerged from the ocean. If we don't wake up and pay attention here pretty soon, we human animals may find ourselves once again becoming ocean sooner than we imagine.”

Felix Mendelssohn, The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 (1830)

Fingal’s Cave, located on the Scottish Isle of Staffa in the Hebrides archipelago, is a sight to behold. Made from naturally occurring columns of volcanic rock, the sea cave is also known for its stellar acoustics, echoing waves and earning it the Gaelic name An Uaimh Bhinn, or “the melodious cave.” When a 20 year-old Mendelssohn traveled to the cave in 1829, he drew up the first measures that would become his overture and sent them to his sister, Fanny. With it, he included the note: “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily The Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” Mendelssohn was able to marvel at the formation despite being wretchedly seasick from the row into the cave; his friend and travel companion Karl Klingemann noted that the composer “[got] along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”

Franz Schubert, “Die Forelle,” Op. 32, D. 550 (1817)

One of Schubert’s most well-known lieder, “Die Forelle” (or, “The Trout”) tells the tale of an ill-fated fish from the perspective on an onlooker on the riverbank. Schubert uses a sprightly piano figure to portray the spectator’s initial delight at watching the trout swim, as well as an increasing anxiety as the fish meets its demise at the hands of a cunning angler. The original text, by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, includes a didactic final stanza— heeding women to beware of seducers with rods—that Schubert chose to omit.

In a clear little brook,
There darted, about in happy haste,
The moody trout
Dashing everywhere like an arrow.
I stood on the bank
And watched, in sweet peace,
The fish’s bath
In the clear little brook.

A fisherman with his gear
Came to stand on the bank
And watched with cold blood
As the little fish weaved here and there.
But as long as the water remains clear,
I thought, no worry,
He’ll never catch the trout
With his hook.

But finally, for the thief,
Time seemed to pass too slowly.
He made the little brook murky,
And before I thought it could be,
So his line twitched.
There thrashed the fish,
And I, with raging blood,
Gazed on the betrayed one.

Bedrich Smetana, Vltava (The Moldau) from Má vlast (My Country) (1874)

The most popular of the symphonic poems that comprise Má vlast, Vltava musically depicts the flow of the Vlatva River (or, in German, the Moldau) from its source in the Bohemian mountains to the city of Prague. Along the way, listeners get programmatic glimpses of the Czech life, including a hunt signaled by trumpets and horns, a wedding accompanied by a polka, and a gentle portrait of the moonlit river painted by woodwinds, muted strings and harp. The piece’s robust ending is a testament to Smetana’s patriotism and the glory of his homeland.

Eric Whitacre, Cloudburst (1995)

Not long after Eric Whitacre received a book of poetry by Octavio Paz, he witnessed a cloudburst in the desert. Whitacre described the experience as breathtaking, and was inspired to set Paz’s piece “Cloudburst” to music. Near the end of the work, the choir simulates the powerful downpour with hand bells, chimes, sheets of tin and finger snaps, crafting a kinetic climax that slowly dissipates to a drizzle.

Camille Saint-Saëns, Aquarium from Le carnival des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) (1886)

Even though Saint-Saëns knew he should’ve been hard at work on his Third Symphony, he couldn’t resist tinkering with The Carnival of the Animals, a musical suite of 14 movements. With each section representing different animals, movement VII (Aquarium) evokes the childlike magic and wonder of a world underwater—one that sparkles with arpeggios and glissandos for piano, strings, flute and glass harmonica, which is often replaced in modern performances with the less rare celesta or glockenspiel.

George Frideric Handel, Water Music Suites (1717)

(music begins at 4:30)

When King George found himself slipping in the polls in 1717, his political advisors suggested throwing a grand party on the Thames. Handel was tasked with providing the musical entertainment, scoring three suites—two of which were large and meant to be performed on a barge (which would float near another carrying the king)—and the third suite, probably meant to accompany George’s meal later that evening.  The lively, dance-like music pleased the king so much that he requested the musicians play it three additional times as the party floated down the river.

John Cage, Water Walk (1959)

John Cage’s 1960 appearance on the panel game show “I’ve Got A Secret” is a sheer delight to watch. An intersection of mid-century pop culture and avant-garde music—of “high art” and “low art”—Cage’s televised performance of Water Walk utilized unconventional instruments relating to liquid: ice cubes in an electric mixer, a bathtub and a watering can, to name a few.  When the host pointed out that this performance would certainly draw laughter from the audience, Cage responded matter-of-factly with a dry joke: “I consider laughter preferable to tears,” reminding us that Cage was one serious composer who wasn’t afraid to enjoy himself.