The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: More cold and snow are on the way today. Has any composer captured arctic austerity better than Debussy?

January 14, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Looks like more severe cold is on the way later tonight and tomorrow, this time accompanied by one to three inches of snow.

The Ear is sure a lot of readers know of and can suggest music that expresses such a wintry mood.

So far, the best and most haunting interpretation he has heard is “Footprints in the Snow” (Des pas dans la neige) by the French musical Impressionist Claude Debussy (below). It is the sixth of 12 in Debussy’s Preludes, Book 1.

A lot of versions by very famous pianists exist and can be found on YouTube.

But the moodiest ones that really attract the Ear are the slowest ones that imitate the motionlessness of severe cold and the austerity of snow – amounting to a kind of stasis or suspended animation. It can almost seem like Minimalism ahead of its time.

The best reading is done by the great Italian master Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below), who follows the composer’s tempo instructions of “slow and sad” very literally. It reminds him of the title of the first novel by the American writer Ann Beattie: “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” You can feel the sense of absence and frozen mystery.

Take a listen and tell us what you think or if you have other suggestions.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Hear the cold! Oakwood Chamber Players will perform a “Nordic” program of Icelandic, Finnish and Danish chamber music this Saturday and Sunday. Plus, a Pro Arte Quartet dinner is Thursday night at the University Club.

January 29, 2014
2 Comments

ALERT:  The University Club, 803 State St. will host another Arts Outreach dinner with the Pro Arte String Quartet (below) tomorrow night, Thursday, Jan. 30. Cocktails and appetizers are at 5:30 p.m.;  a three-course dinner will be served at 6:30 p.m.; and a concert of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor and Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, will take place at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $40 a head. Reservation are required and, along with menu choices, can be made here: Make your reservation online! You can also call (608) 262-5023. For more information, visit  uclub@uclub.wisc.edu and http://artsoutreach.wisc.edu/pro_arte.html

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

By Jacob Stockinger

The title of Ann Beattie’s first collection of short stories — “Chilly Scenes of Winter” — comes immediately to mind.

Haven’t yet had enough of the “bitter” and “dangerous” polar vortex cold this winter? Well, you can hear it as well as feel it and fight it.

This weekend, the Oakwood Chamber Players (below) of Madison, Wisconsin, will present two performances of “Nordic,” a concert that reflects the musical landscapes created by composers influenced by the contrast of dark and light in their Northern physical environments. The concert is typical of the innovative and creative approach that the Oakwood Chamber Players usually take to their eclectic programming. Few local groups perform as many unknown or neglected composers or works. They also make intriguing connections and provide original contexts.

Oakwood Chamber Players 2012 2

Featured composers this time include Sveinbjorn Sveinbjornsson, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen.

The Oakwood Chamber Players will present Nordic on this coming Saturday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m. in the Oakwood Village Center for Arts and Education (below top), 6205 Mineral Point Road; and on Sunday Feb. 2 at 1:30 p.m. at the Visitor Center (below bottom) in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

Tickets are available at the door, and are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students.

Oakwood Village Auditorium and Stage

UW Arboretum Visitor Center

Here are program based largely on a press release:

Icelandic composer Sveinbjorn Sveinbjornsson (below) is known primarily as the writer of the Iceland’s National Anthem. He wrote romantic music in the style of Felix Mendelssohn. The mark of his individual compositional voice is the northern folk elements incorporated into his music, which will be heard in the rich melodies of his Piano Trio for violin, cello and piano. 

SSveinbjorn örn_Sveinbjörnsson

The essence of the darkly expressive Finnish identity can be heard in compositions by Jean Sibelius (below), from his famous tone poem “Finlandia” to his symphonies, and is echoed in the Suite in A Major for String Trio for violin, viola and cello that is on the program.

Jean Sibelius at piano

Carl Nielsen (below) is Denmark’s most noteworthy and widely performed composer, famous for his symphonies. The Oakwood Chamber players will perform his Woodwind Quintet (at the bottom in a YouTube video played by members of the Berlin Philharmonic), which captures a variety of moods from lilting melodies, tour-de-force technical passages, to individual cadenzas that showcase an inherent understanding of the characteristics of each instrument. 

Carl Nielsen at piano

This is the third concert in the 2013-14 Oakwood Chamber Players’ season series titled “OrigiNATION:  Exploring Musical Regions of the World.”  Upcoming concerts include:

  • Russian Radius – March 22 and 23
  • Down Under – May 17 and 18

The Oakwood Chamber Players is a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and other groups and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for 30 years.

For more information, visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation, in collaboration with Friends of the Arboretum, Inc.

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Classical music: During the Great Heat Wave of 2012, what is good music to cool you off? What music do you like to Beat the Heat?

July 7, 2012
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been quite the unbearable week in quite the unbearable and even deadly month.

The hot weather has been relentless, with some of the nation being decimated by wild fires and much of the nation suffering under a Great Heat Wave that has broken thousands of record highs and set new ones.

So, it there any music we can use to Beat the Heat?

Well, there are always the old standards: one famous one is Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” set of four string concertos with its “Autumn” and especially “Winter” movements. Handel‘s “Water Music” is another Baroque standard, and Telemann’s “Water Music” is also effective if less well known.

Then there is more grandiose music that announces its intention with its title. Richard Strauss wrote the “Alpine” Symphony while Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the Symphony Antarctica.

Emotionally, one of the chilliest works ever composed is Schubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” (Winter Journey). Chopin’s dramatic and blustery “Winter Winter” Etude, Op. 25, No. 11, is another such work. 

For The Ear, two of the most cooling works are piano pieces, perhaps because the percussive timbre or nature of the piano sound has a certain coolness to it.

One is by Maurice Ravel, his “Jeux d’eaux” (Fountains), which feels refreshing,  like a dip in a cool pool or a run under a sprinkler (as can Liszt’s similar work “Fountains at the Villa d’Este).

Take a listen at how those cascading notes, played by Martha Argerich, wash over you and cool you off:

But the chilliest scene of winter, as the American writer Ann Beattie might put it, comes from that revolutionary modernist Claude Debussy (below), the same cool and watery composer who also wrote “Snowflakes Are Dancing”; the oceanic “Sunken Cathedral”; and the bracing wavy symphonic tone poem “La Mer” (The Sea).

The coldest music Debussy wrote is “Tracks in the Snow” from his first book of Preludes. It in its minimalism, especially as played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, it portrays a certain kind of haunting and immobilizing austerity that seem downright frigid:

I’m sure there are many other works of classical music that serve the purpose of making listeners feel cool or even cold.

Let The Ear hear some of your favorites and your suggestions, with links to a YouTube video if possible.


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