From medieval times to Vivaldi’s ubiquitous The Four Seasons, to Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” and on to our own time, the topic of the return of spring and the promise it brings has been the germinating idea behind a lot of music, great and otherwise. Here’s a playlist of some of the biggest hits in classical music (and one Rodgers and Hart classic), all inspired by the vernal equinox and the racing blood of youth in love.
1. Frühlingsstimmen (Voices of spring, Johann Strauss II) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, conductor.
Johann Strauss may not have lingered long over the titles to his many waltzes, but the dizzying, upward spiral of the opening tune, the flirty second tune, and the brash orchestration all suggest spring to me.
2. “It Might As Well Be Spring” (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart), Sarah Vaughan, vocal.
Richard Rodgers’ tricky melody needs an artist as refined and incredibly pitch-accurate as the magnificent Sarah Vaughan. But her genius goes beyond that to the way she overflows the phrases and connects them, giving a sense of momentum to this ballad that is just in a league of its own.
3. Andante – Allegro molto vivace (movement 1), Symphony No. 1, “Spring” (Robert Schumann), Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor.
This symphony has one of the best openings anyone ever thought of — a slow fanfare that accelerates to “molto vivace” (extremely lively) and becomes the dashing theme for the entire movement. The recurring crescendos with which the main theme bursts upon us are exciting and definitely spring-like.
4. “Io mi son giovinetta” (I’m a young woman), from Fourth Book of Madrigals (Claudio Monteverdi), Delitiae Musicae.
“I’m a young woman
And I laugh and sing in the new spring season.”
Thus sang my sweet shepherdess
When suddenly, in response, my heart
Sang like a charming and happy bird:
“I am young, too
And I laugh and sing in the gentle
And beautiful springtime of love
That blossoms in your beautiful eyes.” She replied:
“If you are wise, flee from the fire
Flee, for in these beaming eyes
There will never be springtime for you.”
5. “Rondes des Printemps” (Spring round dances), from Images pour orchestre (Claude Debussy), Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor.
An unassuming spring piece, despite the large orchestra and brilliant orchestration. It is based on one of Debussy’s favorite childhood nursery songs, whose refrain keeps welling up on a wave of violin sound.
6. Adagio molto espressivo (movement II), Violin Sonata No. 5, “Spring” (Ludwig van Beethoven), Isabelle Faust, violin and Alexander Melnikov, piano.
For Beethoven, the natural world was often an escape, an invitation to be alone with one’s thoughts. Maybe that’s why in his “Spring” Sonata the slow movement (“very expressive”) is just a melody shared in an intimate dialogue between piano and violin.
7 and 8 Opening of Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland), New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor.
Martha Graham, the choreographer for this ballet, gave the work its title, but the music is fully in Copland’s “Americana” style, so the title expresses the music’s spirit. The expectant hush of the opening leads to an optimistic first dance with a striding, confident theme.
9. “Allegro” (Movement III) from “La primavera” Concerto, from The Four Seasons (Antonio Vivaldi), Joshua Bell with The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
It may be ubiquitous, but it has to be included. Here’s the delightfully dancy finale to a deservedly popular spring piece.