The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: What classical music is “snow music” — good for listening to during snow storms and blizzards? Is there winter “comfort food” for the ear?

December 10, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

I’m sitting here in Madison, Wisconsin, where we just got walloped with the first major snowstorm of the season.

The fast-moving winter tempest (see photos, above and below, from the Associated Press) dumped more than a foot of snow in the area and is bringing blizzard conditions with high winds and severe drifting to other areas even as I am writing.

Tree branches have snapped and power lines are down. Schools, public office buildings and even the UW-Madison have been closed.  The temperature is dropping to sub-zero.

Travel and traffic are at a stand-still, and the radio is telling me to stay home but also how to put together a survival kit for my car in case I dare to venture out and get stuck.

But I don’t hear any advice about which CDs to take in the car if I get stuck.

So here, I sit, half-writing and half-thinking about what music I want to listen to as the snow falls, the temperatures drop and the wind howls.

Tchaikovsky’s symphony “Winter Dreams” (“Winter Nightmare”?) or his ballet music just seems too big or grandiose for me.

I guess I generally prefer more intimate music.

Of course, there are obvious choices like Schubert’s masterpiece song cycle “Winterreise,” which I usually listen to at the start of winter. The songs remind of Ann Beattie’s stories “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” But like Liszt’s piano etude “Chasse-neige” (Snow Storm or Snow Plow), that only seems to compound the felling of being besieged and isolated.

For sure I want something that somewhat reflects the outside – something chilly and stormy, maybe some Vivaldi concerto, besides the “Four Seasons,” with wild and sizzling violin runs with notes as driven as snowflakes.

The right Bach cantata always seems welcome: I always turn to “Wachet auf,” Cantata No. 140, for comfort-food for the ear. There is something in their sonorities that make me also turn to Bach’s solo cello suites, which seems particularly well suited to winter. Others?

Chopin’s nocturnes often have a darkly dreamy and dramatic quality that goes well with the inner side of snowstorms. Late Brahms intermezzi often do the same for me.

But I also like Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 for its sunny and song-like Italianate antidote to winter. Sometimes Mendelssohn does the same, especially the “Italian” Symphony. And the chamber music of Francis Poulenc, filled with sunny Gallic charm, good humor and sociability or amiability of the music hall, make me smile and bring on a good mood.

Readers, help me, please.

What music do you like to listen to during or right after snowstorms?

Suggest things to me, music that works for you and might work for me.

What should I try?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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