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April Showers Mixtape

April 11, 2013

Growing up in Maine, I had no problem identifying with pop songs and classical compositions about the wet part of weather. We actually had showers in April, and the occasional hurricane in August or September. My own kids, born and still being raised in San Francisco, haven’t been informed or challenged by that kind of experience. But people of any age in any place can appreciate how the composers represented on this mixtape have turned rain and wind into evocative pieces of music, much of it based on mythical and religious stories. While you listen, make note of what makes the stories exciting, and which instruments represent which parts of the weather.

  1. Les Troyens, Berlioz
    Here’s a scene from a 19th-century opera having partly to do with that famous huge horse, in which Greek soldiers hid before they attacked the Trojans in ancient times. This scene, though, is all instruments, no singers, and it has to do with love.
  2. William Tell Overture, Rossini
    The Overture is the opening part of another opera, written a few decades earlier than the Berlioz piece, and it’s the story of an archer — a bow-and-arrow guy — in the Swiss Alps. Can you hear the storm building up and then calming down?
  3. Die Walküre, Wagner
    Another beginning to another opera has the hero, Siegmund, pelted by a storm before he even gets to sing his first aria. The story of this and several others of Wagner’s operas is based on folk tales (myths) of the Northern Germanic peoples. Notice how French horns keep showing up in storms?
  4. Noye’s Fludde, Britten
    Among the Bible’s most exciting stories is that of Noah, who was directed by God to build a giant Ark to save a few humans (his family) and two of each kind of animal during a flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Britten wrote this one-act opera in 1957 to be performed in a church; you may have seen such a performance in the movie Moonrise Kingdom. Wait for the hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, sung by the adults and the kids who play the animals and Noah’s children at the height of the storm. It seems to work, because things then get a lot quieter.
  5. Sixth Symphony, Beethoven
    Among Beethoven’s nine symphonies, this one was called Pastorale because the composer is showing us scenes of life in the German countryside, in this case involving a storm which comes between more peaceful passages.
  6. The Tempest, Sibelius
    Though he lived in Finland, Sibelius chose to write this music for English playwright William Shakespeare’s tale of survival and love on an isolated island, where bad weather causes a shipwreck. This Overture has been called the most onomatopoetic piece of music ever written, which simply means it does a darn good job of making music sound like what was happening.
  7. Raindrop Prelude, Chopin
    The rainfall in this piece by one of the loveliest of 19th-century composers for piano is too light to get anybody very wet.
  8. Grand Canyon Suite, Grofé
    Most of us who’ve visited this awesome national park in Arizona have never had to experience the Cloudburst which Grofé depicted in this light classical piece. Some of you may have heard the entire Suite on one of the rides at Disneyland; I also heard it in a documentary film which Disney made in 1958. You’ll have to wait about three minutes for the downpour to start; get your umbrellas ready!

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.

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