The Well-Tempered Ear

Did any composer ever capture the quiet, timeless and motionless cold of deep winter better than Debussy?

February 9, 2021
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It was one of those deep subzero days of the polar vortex that we seem locked in now right now.

The Ear looked out a window.

It was a chilly scene of winter, as the American writer Ann Beattie once described it.

The Ear saw the snow piled up.

He listened to the windless quiet.

Time, like motion, seemed to stop– or at least slow down — in the severe cold.

He saw tracks in the snow.

He couldn’t say whether they came from a rabbit or a squirrel or some other critter.

But it brought to mind a piano prelude by Debussy (below) that contains a kind of frozen minimalism.

Life was once again imitating art, as Oscar Wilde once observed, remarking that “there was no fog in London until the Impressionists painted it.”

Has any piece ever captured the cold, the quiet, the feeling of time and motion slowing down or stopping as Debussy did in “Des pas dans la neige” (Tracks in the Snow)?

Especially as it was played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (below) who, like Sviatoslav Richter, wasn’t afraid to risk taking a slower-than-usual tempo if it right felt right and created the appropriate  atmosphere. (You can hear Michelangeli playing the Debussy prelude in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Do you agree about the Debussy piece?

About Michelangeli’s interpretation?

Do you know of another piece that captures the Arctic cold spell we are in?

Please leave a comment and a YouTube link, if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.

Stay safe and warm.

 


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.


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