Classical 91.5

Water Musics

Oct 5, 2017

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

  WXXI is hosting open house events for both teachers and students this week - with lots of fun and educational activities - inspired by the program Splash and Bubbles, which  encourages children to explore the natural undersea world and features endearing and humorous characters on fun-filled adventure.

There will be lots of great activities and information on about caring for our waterways, understanding more about life under the water, and other connections to science, education, nature, and art in our community.  

Streams, fountains, rivers, the ocean, and other aquatic phenomena have fascinated classical composers for centuries. To go along with all the other ways of exploring and understanding this part of our environment, here are just a few examples of music inspired by water in its many forms.

You may need to refresh the page once to get the Spotify playlist to display.


The Moldau, Bedrich Smetana

The river known as “Vltava” or the Moldau, starts deep in mountains of the Bohemian Forest, winds through the Czech countryside, and into the city of Prague. Composer Bedrich Smetana wrote a series of pieces inspired by how much he loved his homeland, include this music inspired by the river. Compare how you can hear the playful rivulets in the beginning of the piece, to the full flowing of the river as it progresses.



Water Music, George Frederic Handel

The year was 1717. Britain’s King George I wanted to create a spectacular event that would forever etch his name (and his dynasty’s) in the history books. So he turned to his good friend, and one of Europe’s most popular composers, to help him out: George Frideric Handel. The plan was hatched: the King and company would float down the Thames on a barge from Whitehall Palace to Chelsea and back again, followed by another barge with an orchestra playing music composed just for the occasion. It was a beautiful summer night that July 17th. At about 8 PM, King George, his entourage, and the orchestra of about 50 players began the journey down the river, buoyed by the rising tides. Contemporary accounts say the banks were lined with loyal Londoners, and the river was filled with boats following the procession. The King was delighted by the music—some reports say the orchestra had to encore Handel’s music three times at his request. In fact, the orchestra played for almost four hours, so there were certainly repeats.


Fountains at Villa d'Este (Les Jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este), Franz Liszt
Fountains (Jeux d'eau), Maurice Ravel

Two pieces depicting the play of water in fountains. Franz Liszt depicted the fountains he saw on his travels through Italy – and he also captured the feeling of getting lost in deep thoughts while watching the water. Maurice Ravel described his music as “inspired by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays water, the cascades, and the brooks,” and added this line to the sheet music “River god laughing as the water tickles him...”



Hot, still” from Water Music Symphony, Libby Larsen

In her “Water Music” Symphony, contemporary composer Libby Larsen depicts fresh breezes, a still summer afternoon, hints at a storm, and then lets lose with a gale in the finale. A phrase small as a summer breeze wafts from a solo flute above hushed chimes and from a single high note in the violins to establish the fundamental image of the second movement, ‘Hot, Still.’ Quick figurations flicker among the woodwinds as if gently ruffling the surface of a lake in August, To underline the lethargy of a lake on a hot, humid day, long low notes in trombones, tuba, cellos, basses and other heavy instruments keep the flow as sustained as possible, until at midpoint, the bass clarinet and other wind instruments seem to stir the breezes.





Swan Lake Waltz, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Here is music for a creature that dwells on the water – the swan! They are musical animals: their name comes from an old word that means “to sound” or “to sing.” In Tchaikovsky's ballet, the swan dances instead of singing – and she's not even really a swan – but a girl who was transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer!


Cuban Landscape with Rain, Leo Brouwer

Cuban composer Leo Brouwer captured the sound of rain starting slowly and gently and then building into a loud, heavy downpour. The storm then passes over and everything is calm again at the end.


The Hebrides Overture, Felix Mendelssohn

Composer Felix Mendelssohn was from Germany, but when he visited Scotland, he fell in love with everything he saw there. One of the places that inspired him to write music was a sea-cave, known as “Fingal's Cave” on an island in the Hebrides. He captures both physical landscape of the rolling waves and the emotional landscape of his experience, feelings of loneliness and solitude in this island cave.



Sea Fever, Jonathan Quick

A beautiful choral setting of the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield. Listen how the music catches the feeling of the wind in sails, and the rush of the waves.


Glaciers Calving from Liquid Interface, Mason Bates

“Water has influenced countless musical endeavors — La Mer and Siegfried's Rhine Journey quickly come to mind — but it was only after living on Berlin's enormous Lake Wannsee did I become consumed with a new take on the idea. If the play of the waves inspired Debussy, then what about water in its variety of forms?


Liquid Interface moves through all of them, inhabiting an increasingly hotter world in each progressive movement. "Glaciers Calving" opens with huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register. (Snippets of actual recordings of glaciers breaking into the Antarctic, supplied by the adventurous radio journalist Daniel Grossman, appear at the opening.) As the thaw continues, these sonic blocks melt into aqueous, blurry figuration. The beats of the electronics evolve from slow trip-hop into energetic drum 'n bass. The ensuing "Scherzo Liquido" explores water on a micro-level: droplets splash from the speakers in the form of a variety of nimble electronica beats, with the orchestra swirling around them.” - Mason Bates

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten

The opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman who lives on the English coast, and doesn't fit in or get along with most of the other people in his town, except for a few close friends. In some ways, the ocean is another character in the story – sometimes friendly and helpful, other times the source of danger and fear. At the very beginning of the music, you can hear the peaceful side of the ocean. In the third piece, “Moonlight” - it's still somewhat peaceful, but a little ominous – you can't forget how powerful and persistent the water can be. The final piece is a wild storm!


The Trout (Die Forelle), Franz Schubert

A song about fishing – and perhaps also about not letting your heart getting caught in emotional snares. Listen to the bright and bubbling piano part and how it interacts with the voice. Here are some of the words:

A brooklet soft and gentle --
rushing on with glee --
A trout like arrow darting -
so playfully and free -
And standing by the brook-side
I gazed in pure delight.
At happy fishlet playing
In lucid brooklet bright.


Scene by the Brook from Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”, Ludwig van Beethoven

People often thought that Beethoven was a mean and cranky person, but he was often just very overwhelmed by crowds of people – especially as he started to lose his hearing and found it difficult to communicate with people. He was happiest going for long walks in the countryside – and he put some his love for nature into his “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6. In this Scene by the Brook, he paints a scene by brook in a valley, surrounded by beautiful countryside where the sun is shining, brooks , the birds twitter, a waterfall tumbles from the mountain, the shepherd plays his pipe, and animals are playing nearby.


Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Frederic Chopin

A barcarolle is a traditional folksong sung in Venice by gondoliers as they paddle boats through the canals. The name comes from “barca” which means boat. The rhythm of these songs comes from the idea of the gentle rocking of a boat. Chopin's Barcarolle gets into this swaying, rocking feel after a short introduction.


Aquarium from the Carnival of the Animals, Camille Saint-Saens

Magical and mysterious, this music evokes the underwater world with flute, strings, and melodic percussion. It's part of a set of pieces dedicated to different animals – including the swan, the elephant, kangaroos, and tortoises.


Dawn on the Moscow River, Modest Mussorgsky

The music here is inspired not just by the water itself, but by the way that the light shines on it. In this case, Modest Mussorgsky (with some help from his fellow composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov) uses the orchestra to depict the shifting light of sunrise on a river in the city.


The Sea (La Mer), Claude Debussy

When Claude Debussy was a kid, he loved to visit the beach. When he grew up, he said he preferred looking at the ocean in art and reading about it in books, rather than visiting it in real life! His musical portrait of the ocean has three parts - “From dawn to midday on the sea,” “Play of the waves,” and “The Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.”


Become Ocean, John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams wrote this warning on the music: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean." And when awarding the music the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, the committee described it as, “A haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”


Despite its dire warnings, the music is beautiful bath of sound. Hearing the Seattle Symphony's recording of this piece inspired Taylor Swift to make a major gift to the orchestra to support their work, including educational programs.