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On an August afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains the late afternoon rain grays out the trees and streaks my vision with vertical lines. In the distance I can hear a low rumble, but this is no storm, but a gentle, constant rain. When I lived in the desert many years ago, this was called a “she-rain.” 

It has been muggy, with air so thick you can feel it smear on your skin, but the rain clears it out and leaves a fresh smell of green in my nostrils. I step out the front door to soak in the feel of it all. 

I look out, up and down the street and see the trees shiver as the drops tag the leaves and comes over me a distinct and particular emotion. I don’t want this feeling to stop, but rather I wish to drink it in and let it swirl through my body. It is not an easy emotion to describe; words are not sufficient. But it is a sense that the world is larger than I am and runs on a pattern and scale that I am only an observer of. There is comfort in that. 

Weather carries emotion. We don’t always remember that perhaps because sometimes the emotion is frustration or disappointment, as when you can’t go our in a snowstorm, or fear when it looks like a tornado might be brewing. But the moving air is an agent and cause, the sky and its clouds a ripe metaphor for our interior lives. 

Weather is a ground upon which our lives are painted, always there under the surface. A sunny day can make us happier — unless you live in the desert when after two months of continuous sun, you get rather antsy and wish for even just a little reprieve. 

I remember once visiting Washington D.C., covering an exhibit at the National Gallery for the newspaper. I was put up in a hotel near Georgetown and in the afternoon a rainshower blew up. I could see it from my room window. I went out the revolving door and a doorman offered me an umbrella. I refused, looking straight up at the sky and letting the drops pelt my face. He looked at me like I was nutty. 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I live in Arizona. I haven’t seen rain for three months. I love this. I love getting wet.” 

I remember when I was a schoolkid and it would snow in the New Jersey winter. The snow would be as deep as my belly and I went out into it and dug a cave in the accumulation and pulled away snow from around my hole, making an ersatz igloo. The snow was ecstatic, and not merely the snow, but my breath clouding the air in front of me, the numbness in my fingers and the cracking in my nose. 

When I was living at the beach in Virginia, I once drove down to the water during a nor’easter, with the wind blowing at 40 or 50 miles per hour. The car faced directly into the wind and it bounced violently so that I thought I would go airborne. I couldn’t help but think of an aircraft carrier heading into the wind so the planes could take off with a short run. 

Which reminds me of going airborne in a tent. We were camping in Shamrock, Texas, when an evening thunderstorm hit. A tornado had passed through the previous day and we were worried about another. As the rain came down in multiple Niagaras, the wind tore through and, first the tent began to float on the flood, and then began to rise around us. We had to abandon ship and head to the campground office for safety. As I got out, the tent pulled loose from its stakes and I grabbed it by the frame and it flew over my head like a kite. I held on, thinking I might begin flying myself, but managed to pull it down and flatten it and drag the rags with me to the building, where we — and all the other campers — waited out the storm. 

But back to today’s rain, gentle and quiet, a hiss on the road and paradiddle on the leaves. It is the middle of a pandemic and we have been sequestered in the house for months. To stand on the stoop and feel the rain and enjoy the welling of emotion is a treat. 

It reminds me again that the feeling of emotion is what makes us human. We may be rational beings (at least that’s the argument — I’m not so sure that isn’t wishful thinking), but it is emotion that reminds us we are alive. A computer can think, but I have no evidence that it can stand on a doorstep and enjoy, absolutely enjoy, the rain. And enjoy it to the extent that it warrants the name of joy. 

I am 72 years old, and I face the absolute certainty that whatever life I have remaining will be a mere fraction of what I have already lived. The end is within sight, be it even 20 years off. And I feel my existence on this planet more sharply than ever. I am here; I am alive; I take in my breath and let it out again, and with each inhalation comes the smell of the rain-filled air. 

There is much suffering in the world, and I have had a small share of it, but when I look at the pale green of the maple tree in the front yard, contrast lowered with the obscuring rainfall, I recognize that even with the pain and misery, there is still beauty — an afflatus that fills my frame and almost brings tears, tears of awareness. Of being alive. Of feeling my fingers and toes wiggle. 

Let it rain.   

It is an hour or less before the setting of the sun, a shadowless moment already greyed out, with an evenness of tone across the landscape, and it has begun raining, a heavy downpour, a late summer evening drenching. I first hear it, and drawn to the door, I look out and watch.

It is not just the rain, coming down in parallel lines across the trees, but the sudden humidity, a thickness in the air, and a kind of cool warmth — the air being cooler than the daytime, but the mugginess felt as summer heat. The drops splatter on the pavement outside the house and bounce up as they explode, making a kind of haze above the ground. 

It is a multi-sensory event: the hiss of the rain, the sight of the shower diagonal against the trees, the feel on the skin and the damp in the nostrils. As the weather develops, there is distant thunder. It rolls rather than claps. 

And the presence at my door cannot help but expand beyond this afternoon and its downpour. I am 70, and there are seven decades of familiarity to the rain. This moment and the emotion I feel watching is a palimpsest of all those years — each time it has rained, overlapped one on the other to make not a single day’s weather, but a book of pages, each another storm, bound in morocco to make a life. 

As a boy, growing up in what was then rural New Jersey, a brook ran through our yard and when it rained, it would flood, rushing down its channel the color of chocolate milk.

As a Boy Scout, there were camping trips in tents made from heavy oiled canvas duck, with no floors, and in the rain, the heavy drops would splatter through the weave and spray us as we tried to sleep with a mist. 

Later, in summer camp and living in large tents on wooden platforms, the rain would make a sizzle on the canvas that was pleasantly soporific. 

In my 20s, trying to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, rain would sometimes keep us sheltered in a lean-to to wait out the weather, and after a night of downfall, we would wake up to a glazed world with leaves dripping, wet and clean, into the earth below and the long curved stamens of the rhodora flower weighted with a single bead on each tip. 

In Oslo, Norway, it rained every day in the summer at 4 p.m. You could almost set your clock by it. The downpour lasted perhaps 15 minutes and then it stopped, leaving streets running and the sound dampened by the humidity.

Eshowe

In South Africa, we were almost stranded on our way to Eshowe in Natal Province in 1987, when heavy rains washed out the John Ross bridge over the Tugela River. Eventually, our bus crossed the river on a railway bridge a few miles north. 

And, of course, I lived in Seattle for a while. The city is famous for its rain, but unless it was a gully-washer, no one even noticed. The constant winter mizzle was considered by most of the populace as fair weather. Or fair enough, anyway. 

Once, traveling across the continent, my wife and I were camping in Shamrock, Texas. In the middle of the night, a storm and tornado struck. First, our tent began floating as the drainwater created a flash flood, and then, when we abandoned the tent to find more secure shelter, the wind grabbed the tent like a kite, and I stood there, lit by the lightning, holding onto the airborne canvas trying to keep it from blowing off to the next county. I managed to get it caught under the tin roof of a picnic table and was able to dismantle it in the torrent. 

These and a thousand other pages in my morocco bound memory come to mind. But it isn’t merely the personal that maintains this resonance. Rain animates some of our best and most beautiful art, from Chaucer’s “shoures soote” to Lear’s “Blow winds, crack  your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes.” (When I watch Lear in the theater, I cannot help thinking of Shamrock, Texas). “Hey, Ho, for the wind and the rain. … For the rain, it raineth every day.”

There’s the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the wind machine in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. 

There’s the downpour that begins Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the hurricane in John Huston’s Key Largo. The shower in The Big Sleep, when Humphrey Bogart ducks out of the rain into the bookstore with Dorothy Malone — when I first saw the film on television as an adolescent, the scene counted as pretty racy stuff. 

Looking out my door now, the trees across the road are a grey mass, not a boring cardboard grey, but a rich, charcoal and velvet grey, a grey made up not of a lack of color, but of all the colors veiled over each other. 

The visual poet of such rich greys in the rain is the Japanese woodblock artist, Ando Hiroshige. In so many of his Ukiyo-e images, the rain has dulled the contrast of the trees, leaving them a blank wash of charcoal or slate. It is what I see across the road — the overlapping of ever lighter greys as the landscape recedes. 

In 20 minutes, it is over. The street is flowing with runoff, more leaves have blown from the trees and collect in the wash along the curb. Fall is not too far off. The sky is barely brighter than the silhouetted trees; night will be here in another 10 minutes. 

Aprill with his shoures soote cannot match the end of summer and its late afternoon drenches. Trees all leafed out are ready to give up and let go. A certain exhaustion can be felt in the air; we have pushed so hard into the growth and flowering, and in seed time, we recognize our day is over. 

I close the door; the rain is forgot. I am remembering it now — emotion recollected in tranquility. I recall to mind the humidity on my skin, the sound in my ear, the riot of greys and the street wash. 

I love the rain; it is infinitely more beautiful than sunshine, which blares and obscures in shadow. The forms of things are revealed in sunless weather that are obliterated by sunlight. You see the world the way it truly is, not split into a manichean dichotomy of bright and dark — of Ahriman and Ormazd. 

It is the middle of August. I write this with some trepidation, remembering a warning by Sylvia Plath, who wrote: “It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: ‘After a heavy rainfall, poems titled Rain pour in from across the nation.’ ” 

tres riches heures seasons

When it’s summer in Vivaldi, is it winter in Piazzolla?

The Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote perhaps the most popular classical music ever with his “Four Seasons,” describing the progression of the year in his home country. A popular website lists over 200 recordings.Piazzolla cuatro estaciones

Argentine tango-master Astor Piazzolla responded with his Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a Southern Hemisphere version, at antipodes with the Mediterranean.

And when Philip Glass wrote his second violin concerto, he called it his “American Four Seasons.”

And Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu has his own Seasons, subtitled “Red and blue graphic score for live improvised percussion with tape.”

Everyone and everywhere seems to have its own “Seasons.”

But it is astonishing just how much classical music is inspired by not only seasons, but climate and weather.

There are grand oratorios, such as Haydn’s The Seasons, that take on all four quarters of the year, and there are symphonies, such as Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, that take on a single season.

And there are depictions of thunderstorms – the overture to Rossini’s William Tell – and a host of other meteorological phoenomena: sunrise at the start of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra; moonlight in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata; shifting, amorphous clouds in Debussy’s Nuages; even an earthquake at the end of Haydn’s Four Last Words of Christ.

There are so many nocturnes in the repertoire, that no one could list them all.

Yet, the best and most effective tone painting remains Vivaldi’s four concertos, first published in 1725 as part of the composer’s “Contest between Harmony and Invention,” 12 violin concertos that also include evocations of a storm at sea, a hunt, and even one celebrating simple pleasure.

Yet, the first four concertos of the group, popularly called “The Four Seasons” stand out for their descriptiveness.

You can hear how icy and slippery it is – arpeggiated runs make you feel like you’ve lost your step and are slipping on ice. The short trills in the bass create the constant “brrr” or shivering feel.

Vivaldi printed four sonnets, one with each season, in the score to the music, describing the scenes he painted in sound.

“Shivering, frozen in the frosty snow and biting, stinging winds,” starts the one about winter. “Running back and forth to stamp your icy feet, with your teeth chattering in the bitter chill.”

It’s hard not to picture it, hearing the shivering repeated chords at the concerto’s opening, edged with the dissonance of serial suspensions – notes held from one harmony into another.

Then, there are the barking dogs, imitated by the violas in the slow movement of the “Spring” concerto.

The “Summer” sonnet begins, “Beneath the blazing sun’s relentless heat, men and flocks are sweltering, pines are scorched. We hear the cuckoo’s voice; then the sweet songs of the turtle dove. … soft breezes stir the air.”

You can hear it all in the music: There are dancing peasants, a hail storm, the pizzicato raindrops of a cold winter rain, the swarms of gnats in the hot summer sun – Vivaldi’s pictures are as vivid as music gets.

And that can be a problem for other composers, who want to essay the same subject matter.

Among some musicians and audiences, there is a prejudice against what used to be called “program music,” that is, music meant to express extra-musical associations. But music can certainly express more than notes. Too many composers have made it explicit, from the bird calls in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony to the wind machine used to Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.

You can’t argue about program music when a composer gives you instructions in the score. Or in the title.

Debussy’s piano prelude Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the snow”) uses its harmonies to suggest the white blanketing of snow. The ostinato rhythm creates a sense of emptiness and desolation, a cold beauty through which weaves a fragmented melody that may represent the human presence of the footsteps in the snow.

It can make you shiver.

Debussy is the most meteorological of composers: You find wind, rain, snow, mist, moonlight, all in his music.

But of all the music about weather and seasons, spring predominates. There are 10 pieces of music about spring for every one about summer, fall or winter. Yet, for many, winter music holds the biggest emotional punch.

Death finds its metaphor in winter. For some, the ultimate winter music is Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise (“Winter Journey”) about a young man, jilted in love, who slowly loses his mind, ending in the 19th century version of homelessness.

The German song repertoire provides an abundance of songs on the seasons, on stormy and calm weather, outside and inside our hearts.

So, blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes. You give power to our  music and our music gives power to you.

Picking your Vivaldi

vivaldi stokowski-There are many mainstream accounts of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and most of them are pretty good. It’s hard to go wrong with the music.

-Take your pick from Isaac Stern, to Anne-Sophie Mutter to Nigel Kennedy and Sarah Chang. All good.

-But there are two extreme versions that bookend the spectrum of possibility, both excellent, and as different as can be.

-In 1967, violinist Hugh Bean recorded the concertos with Leopold Stokowski and the new Philharmonia Orchestra.

-It is the very model of historical incorrectness: an old-fashioned large symphony orchestra playing Vivaldi as if it were Mahler, thick, syrupy and lush. You simply have to hear it to believe it. Yet, it is also a beautiful recording.vivaldi alessandrini

-At the other extreme is Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano, playing in historically-informed style in their 2002 CD, but with an emphasis on the music’s rhetoric rather than its beauty: Every moment described in the Vivaldi’s sonnets is separated and performed in a distinct tempo and touch, making this recording the most pictorial ever. The violas really bark, the wind cuts through your sweater.

-So, smooth and lush, or edgy and driven, two versions, both among the best available.

 

WEATHER in MUSIC

Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi – “The Four Seasons”

Astor Piazzolla – Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas or “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”

Philip Glass — Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons”

Toru Takemitsu — Seasons for Percussion and Tape

Joseph Haydn – The Seasons

Alexander Glazunov – The Seasons Op. 67

Piotr Tchaikovsky – The Seasons Op. 37b

Jean-Baptiste Lully – Les Saisons

John Cage – The Seasons (1947 ballet score for Merce Cunningham)

James DeMars – Piano Concerto, “The Seasons”

Charles-Valentin Alkan – Les Mois

By individual seasons

Spring

Robert Schumann – Symphony No. 1, “Spring”

Johann Strauss II – “Voices of Spring” waltz

Christian Sinding – Rustle of Spring

Edvard Grieg – To Spring

Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Ludwig van Beethoven – Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24, “Spring”

Richard Strauss – “Fruhling” from “Four Last Songs”

Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

John Knowles Paine – In Spring, symphony

Claude Debussy – “Rondes de Printemps” for orchestra, from Images

Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring

Richard Wagner – “Du bist der Lenz” from Valkyrie

William Bolcom – Spring Concertino for oboe and small orchestra

Summer

Felix Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music

Hector Berlioz – Les Nuits d’Ete, song cycle

Autumn

R. Strauss – “September” from Four Last Songs

Grieg – In Autumn, overture

Debussy – Feuilles Mortes or “Dead Leaves” from Preludes, Book II

Winter

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1, Op. 13, “Winter Dreams”

Franz Schubert – Die Winterreise, song cycle

Wagner – “Wintersturme” aria from Valkyrie

Weather

 Thunderstorms

Beethoven – Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, “Pastoral”

Gioacchino Rossini – Overture to William Tell

Wagner – Prelude to Valkyrie

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”

Wagner – Opening of Flying Dutchman

Giuseppe Verdi – Storm in Otello

Vivaldi – Concerto “La Tempesta di Mare”

Berlioz – “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Les Troyens, Act IV

Earthquake

Haydn – Four Last Words of Christ

Avalanche

Alfredo Catalani – La Wally ends with an avalanche

Sunrises

R. Strauss – opening of Thus Spake Zarathustra

Maurice Ravel – Daphnis et Chloe

Haydn – Symphony No. 6, “Morning”

Ferde Grofe – “Sunrise” from Grand Canyon Suite

Moonlight

Debussy – La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, from Preludes, Book II

Debussy – “Clair de Lune” for piano, from Suite Bergamasque

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”

Rain

Frederic Chopin – Prelude, Op. 28, No. 10, “Raindrop”

Debussy – “Jardins sous le pluie” from Estampes for piano

Grofe – “Cloudburst” from Grand Canyon Suite

Johannes Brahms – Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 78, “Regenlied,” or “Rain Song”

Wind

Debussy – West Wind from Preludes, Book I

R. Strauss – Alpine Symphony

Alkan – “Le Vent,” from op. 39 Etudes, Comme Le Vent

Clouds

Debussy – Nuages

Franz Liszt – Nuages Gris

Snow

Leopold Mozart – Musical Sleighride

Debussy – Footsteps in the Snow from Preludes, Book I

Debussy – “The Snow is Dancing” from Children’s Corner for piano

Mist

Debussy – Brouillards from Preludes, Book II