The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is the winter solstice. What music best captures or celebrates winter?

December 21, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Winter Solstice.

Winter arrives at 10:28 a.m. Central Standard Time.

That means we are turning the corner. Starting today, nights will get shorter and days will get longer.

But there is still plenty of the year’s most blustery and bone-chilling weather ahead of us.

Lots of classical music celebrates winter.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a popular choice.

So is the “Winter Dreams” symphony by Tchaikovsky.

Here are links to two compilations of winter music, lasting for a total of more than two hours, on YouTube:

But no music is more wintry than the celebrated song cycle “Winterreise” or “Winter Journey” by Franz Schubert (below).

Every year, The Ear uses the solstice and the coming of winter to listen once again to this deeply moving and surprisingly modern song cycle.

Many excellent recordings exist. Famed German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (below left, with pianist Gerald Moore) made multiple recordings over many years.

In recent years Matthias Goerner, Thomas Quasthoff, Mark Padmore, Jonas Kaufmann and many others have already made acclaimed recordings, always with distinguished pianists including Gerald Moore, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Daniel Barenboim and Paul Lewis.

Yet I always find the most satisfying version to be the one made by English tenor Ian Bostridge with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andnes.

Bostridge’s tenor voice lends a lightness that has a certain clarity and almost speech-like quality to it.

And Bostridge, who wrote the excellent book “Schubert Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession” – a song-by-song analysis of the cycle — knows the texts and contexts of the songs inside and out. His are well-informed and thoroughly thought-out interpretations.

The whole cycle takes about 70 minutes to listen to.

This year The Ear might do one of the 24 songs in the cycle each day and then the entire cycle in one sitting at the end.

The different approach might yield some new insights and new pleasure.

Anyway, choose your own artists and your own way of listening.

But it is a great and timely choice.

Here is “Good Night,” the first song of “Winterreise”:

And here is “The Organ Grinder,” the last song and a favorite of writer Samuel Beckett who found a shared sensibility in the lean austerity of the music of the music and the text:

What winter music would you listen to or recommend to mark the solstice and the coming of winter?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: What is the best music to listen to in sub-zero cold weather?

January 6, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, I know three of the pieces I will NOT be listening to this week: the “Alpine” Symphony by Richard Strauss, the “Sinfonia Antarctica” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the “Winter Wind” etude by Chopin.


This week, we in the Upper Midwest are getting a typical January blast from the Arctic. The low temp last night was -11 degree F. As I am writing, the temperature has risen all the way to -8.

sub-zero weather

It will get above zero today. Briefly.

But then another winter Arctic front moves in and we again drop done below zero again with absolute temps down to -20 and wind chills down to -50 or more. On Wednesday, the daytime high will be -3.

So it seems The Ear will be logging quite a lot of indoor time since no warm up is in store until the weekend.

Hence The Ear’s Question of the Week: When the weather is this dangerously cold and you end up pretty much housebound, what is the music you like to listen to?

Sometimes I want to explore a new piece or a new composer.

But often, feeling deprived of normal activities, I want the comfort of listening to something familiar and maybe a little passionate and Romantic, which translates into “heated.” For one example, look below at the YouTube video of pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, by Chopin.

Of course, one could choose works on a grander scale such as symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven or Gustav Mahler, concertos by Robert Schumann or Peter Tchaikovsky, oratorios by George Frideric Handel, masses and requiems, and of course operas by Verdi and Puccini.

Or perhaps, like me, you favor a more intimate but collaborative rather than solo genre -– perhaps a string quartet or the piano trio, one of my favorites. I find the music of Franz Schubert so friendly and empathetic.

There is also some about the music of the Baroque and Classical eras that seems light, rational, clear-headed and reassuring. Something like Comfort Food for the Ears.

So perhaps I will put on some music by Johann Sebastian Bach or some of my favorite chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A week like this could also be a good start on listening to a series, something like all the symphonies or string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn or all the piano concertos of Mozart.

Another good choice would be to set out to explore the 550 sunny Italian-Spanish keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

Maybe it is an instrument that provides a respite from the cold — perhaps the guitar.

Anyway: Don’t be shy. Help us get through this bitter cold snap. Please use the Comment section to let The Ear and other readers know what you are listening to in weather like this -– or what you think you would listen to. Or what we should listen to. Include a link to a YouTube performance, if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


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