The Sounds and Sights of Winter
With snow, ice, and chilly wind, winter is a season full of its own sights and sounds. There are so many ways to describe them! Artists, poets, and composers all love to explore winter, whether it’s the surprise of slippery ice, peace after a snowstorm, or even random bursts of winter wind! Let’s explore some music, poems and art that take in the beauty and fun of winter. When you go outside this season, maybe you’ll find some of these sights and sounds yourself!
The First Snow
The American composer Randall Thompson wrote Velvet Shoes in 1938. It’s a song for children’s choir and piano, about the wonder of walking outside right after a snowfall. The words are by American poet Elinor Wylie, who imagines walking in fresh snow as wearing shoes made of velvet. While you listen, can you remember how you feel when you see the first snow of winter?
Let us walk in the white snow
In a soundless space;
With footsteps quiet and slow,
At a tranquil pace,
Under veils of white lace. …
… We shall walk in velvet shoes:
Wherever we go
Silence will fall like dews
On white silence below.
We shall walk in the snow.
This painting, by American artist Rockwell Kent, shows a family taking a winter walk in New England around 1909. It looks like a couple of moms, some little children, a baby, and even the dogs have come along to walk in the snow!
One of classical music’s most famous wintry works is Winter from “The Four Seasons”! The Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi published this piece in 1725 as part of a book he called The Contest between Harmony and Invention. That title sounds like Vivaldi wanted to make beautiful music while also being inventive and creative! Winter is a violin concerto: a piece of music for orchestra with a violin solo. Vivaldi didn’t leave us guessing what picture the music is supposed to paint – his book included poems describing the music! Here’s the poem for the third movement, or section, of Winter: it tells us to imagine cold wind and slippery ice!
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously,
for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and,
rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds course through the home
despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless
brings its own delights.
This painting is by the Dutch painter Adam van Breen. He lived in Holland, the country where Vivaldi’s Winter was first published, and he painted this landscape around 1601. Though Vivaldi’s music was published after Breen’s lifetime, this painting has a similar theme: skaters enjoying the slippery ice and chilly weather!
A Sleigh Ride
Song for Snow is a piece of music for choir and piano by 20th-century African-American composer Florence Price. The words in this sweet, hummable piece are by Elizabeth Coatsworth, an American poet who wrote children’s stories. The poem and the music describe the sight and sound of a sleigh sliding through a winter landscape. Listen for sparkling staccato notes – staccato means “detached.” Florence Price is one of several composers in this list who uses staccato to paint a picture of falling snow!
The earth is lighter than the sky,
The world is wider than in spring,
Along white roads the sleighs go by,
Icily sweet the sleigh-bells ring.
The birds are gone into the south,
The leaves are fallen to the ground;
But singing shakes each sleigh-bell’s mouth,
And leaf-like ears turn towards the sound.
In this painting, created around 1890 by American artist Winslow Homer, you can see a sleigh drawn by two horses, hurrying around the bend of a snowy hill. When you look at this painting, and listen to Florence Price’s music, can you imagine the exhilarating whoosh of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh?
This music comes from The Children’s Corner, a book of piano pieces that French composer Claude Debussy wrote for his own little daughter Claude-Emma in 1908. The book is inspired by how children look at the world. This piece, The Snow is Dancing, is the fourth piece in the collection. Debussy paints a picture of playful snow flurries using staccato notes, like you heard in the last piece!
Claude Debussy is sometimes called an “Impressionist” composer because he shared some artistic ideas with a group of French painters who were working at the same time he was. Those painters were called “Impressionists” because their art often suggested the “impression” of what they wanted to paint, rather than showing exact outlines. The effect can be pretty magical, as you can see in this painting by Impressionist French painter Camille Pissarro, Morning Sunlight on the Snow.
Eric Whitacre is a living American composer who writes lots of music for voices. In this piece for choir, he sets to music a famous poem by American poet Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. In the poem, a traveler takes a moment alone in a snowy forest to take in the beauty and peace of a winter night. Eric Whitacre’s music expresses the wonder of this moment with sparkling little dissonances – that is, notes that clash on purpose.
… The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
African-American artist Horace Pippin painted this snowy picture in 1935. It’s called Country Doctor (Night Call) and it shows a scene very much like that in Robert Frost’s poem: a person traveling through a snowy wood at night with a horse. In this picture, the traveler is a doctor coming to help a patient, so if he stops to admire the snow, it won’t be for long…he has “promises to keep!”
Winter’s Surprising Sounds
Winter is a piece of music for orchestra that Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu composed in 1971. It’s a little different from the other music in this list because it doesn’t use hummable tunes: instead, it uses the colors and textures of the different instruments of the orchestra to make a sound-picture of winter. Listen for some of these musical effects: brass instruments blasting like a burst of cold air; windchimes tinkling like icicles; surprising xylophone and glockenspiel notes like fluttering snowflakes… what other sounds of winter can you hear in this music?
This beautiful print is called Tenmangū Shrine at Kameido in Snow. It’s by the 19th-century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige. It might remind you of Takemitsu’s music, because both this picture and Takemitsu’s Winter use the idea of contrast. Takemitsu uses contrasting instrumental sounds, and this picture uses contrast between white and black. Takemitsu’s Winter has loud, busy moments and moments of quiet; Hiroshige’s print has sections full of lines and images, contrasting with large peaceful swaths of water and sky.
Calm after a Snowstorm
A few months ago, we shared a blog post on the “Sights and Sounds of Summer,” and one of the pieces in that list was “July” from The Year by Fanny Hensel. Hensel’s The Year is a set of piano pieces about each month in the year; she wrote the music in 1841. Let’s revisit The Year to listen to “December,” a piano piece that starts with fast, staccato notes like a snowstorm! After a few moments, you’ll hear the storm clear up and the music will transform into the peaceful tune of a German Christmas carol.
This painting, from the year 1880, is called Winter. It’s by the French painter Berthe Morisot. Berthe Morisot was a woman artist working at a time when most of her colleagues were men – a lot like Fanny Hensel, who was a rare woman composer at a time when people expected composers to be men. The lady in Berthe Morisot’s painting looks like she is enjoying a moment of calm after a snowstorm, like we hear in Fanny Hensel’s December.