The Well-Tempered Ear

What is the best classical music to cool off with as the heat and humidity, drought and floods continue?

August 3, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, what can you say about the weather right now?

Here in Wisconsin, it has been that kind of year. We had a long and cold winter that was followed by a cool and damp spring, with a few good intervals and days.

And now we have a hot and humid summer, with extreme weather in which clashing fronts bring both drought and flooding, that seems poised to be relentless.

We’re not alone.

Recently, more than a third of the country – some 130 million people – was under official heat advisories. And more 100-plus degree days are predicted for Texas, Oklahoma and other places that have already experience record-setting heat and drought.

In fact, here is a link to the Science Page at the PBS Newshour‘s website that tracks all the new temperature records that have been set this summer:

So I thought I would take a cue from some of the fine hosts and programmers at Wisconsin Public Radio, who have been offering us programs of music “to chill out by” – literally.

That got me to thinking about what pieces I could suggest or even offer readers that have a frosty atmosphere about them.

There is some big stuff like Vaughan Williams’ “Symphony Antarctica,” Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony and Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony.” Scandinavian composers like Greig, Nielsen and Sibelius also wrote many coolish works. You might do well to play a recording of them yourself, but they are too big for this blog to offer more than a small snippet.

Then there are the cliché pieces, effective as they are, like Vivaldi’s violin concerto “Winter” from “The Four Seasons” and less often heard works like Haydn’s “Winter” from his oratorio “The Seasons.”

There is Chopin’s blustery and virtuosic “Winter Wind” etude. Schubert wrote any number of suitable songs, especially in the cycle
“Winterreise” (Winter Journey). Debussy wrote “Snowflakes Are Dancing.”

What I finally settled in is piece that is one of the most haunting for me, perhaps because it is mysterious and sensual-sexy even while being metaphysically chilling and minimalist.

It is Debussy’s piano prelude from Book I, “Tracks in the Snow” (Des pas dans la neige). Especially as played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who takes much longer than many other pianists, the work slows down time as much as it lowers the temperature. For me, it recalls the title of writer Ann Beattie’s first novel, “Chilly Scenes of Winter.”

Now that may be a bit too cool, even icy in a dreary or metaphysical sense, for you.

In that case, you maybe you want something lighter, more watery or spritzy, something to simply to cool off, like a taking a dip in a pool or a swim at the beach.

You might try Handel’s “Water Music” or Telemann’s “Water Music,” Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” (Fountains) or “Une barque sur l’ocean” (S boat on the water) or Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” or Debussy’s “La Mer” or “Poissons d’or” (“Goldfish).

But one wise music teacher suggested Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro.” And it is a great suggestion. I listened to it again and there is indeed something refreshing cool or bracing about a lot of Ravel’s music, a certain kind of objectivity and irony or remove.

You be the judge.

Listen to the Debussy and the Ravel.

See how you feel.

Tell me if it helps you to chill out.

And tell me if there are other favorite pieces of music that help you to cool off.

Send me and other readers some suggestions, with YouTube links if you can find one.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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