Stormy Weather Strikes a Chord With Composers

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Cheer up. The gloomy weather we've experienced recently may not be good for the soul but a new study suggests that it's great for composers.

Dr. Karen Aplin and Dr. Paul Williams, experts in atmospheric physics and meteorology, have analyzed the depiction of weather in orchestral music from the 17th century to today. Their study, published in the journal Weather, found that when composers choose to represent weather in their work, storms are by far the most popular phenomena, followed by wind and clouds. Sunshine and fog are comparatively unpopular.

Moreover, composers from Great Britain, a country known for rotten weather, are more than twice as likely to write music with a meteorological theme as their counterparts abroad.

“We found that composers are generally influenced by their own environment in the type of weather they choose to represent,” wrote Aplin, of Oxford University's Department of Physics, and Williams, from Reading University's Meteorology Department. “As befits the national stereotype, British composers seem disproportionately keen to depict the UK's variable weather patterns and stormy coastline.”

The French and the Germans are the next most weather-obsessed, followed by the Italians and Russians. Americans have relatively little weather-related music, despite a susceptibility to hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards not seen in many other parts of the world.

“Clearly the most popular type of weather to be represented in music is the storm, presumably because of the use of storms by composers as an allegory for emotional turbulence,” wrote Aplin and Williams. They point to the presence of storms in operatic interludes such as in Britten's Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes and The Royal Hunt and Storm from Berlioz’s opera The Trojans.

The researchers note that frontal storms, known for their heavy wind and rain, are less common than convective storms, which involve thunder and lightning. Examples of frontal storms in music include Bax’s November Woods, Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave and Sibelius’s Tapiola. Of the thunder-and-lightning variety are Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite (a rare American example) and Johann Strauss’s Thunder and Lightning Polka (a lighthearted standout).

Wind is second most popular type of weather to feature in classical music (the researchers isolated it from its association with storms to include a gentle breeze rustling the trees, as in the beginning of the third movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, or a full-blown Antarctic gale, as in the Sinfonia Antarctica by Vaughan Williams).

Strauss, Nature Lover

The effect that weather has had on composers is also explored. Richard Strauss was a particular weather fanatic, having depicted meteorological phenomena in two major tone poems, including Eine Alpensinfonie (below). Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner and Stravinsky depended on fair weather conditions for their best output. (Wagner, for example, referred to “bad-weather unemployment' and wrote: “This is awful weather. My work has been put aside for two days, and the brain is stubbornly declining its services.”)

The researchers trace the development of weather-related musical instruments, such as the thunder sheet, the wind machine and the storm-effects stop on organs (pédale d’effets d’orage, which combines two low-frequency pipes).

They also hypothesize on the effects of climate change on musical responses to weather, contending that the absence of weather in Baroque and classical times might be linked to the Little Ice Age (though one might also point to the numerous storm sequences in Baroque operas, including Handel's Israel in Egypt and Lully’s Alceste.

The weather, especially the sky in its many moods, has attracted artists for centuries. Claude Monet is said to have painted at his easel in the snow, while J. M. W. Turner, the English Impressionist, was so fanatical about accurately depicting the look and feel of storms at sea that he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship during a squall.

Still, music is fundamentally different than visual art, wrote Aplin and Williams: “One important difference between Impressionist art and music is that, unlike Monet’s paintings, which are known to be accurate representations of the atmosphere, it may be impossible to show that the atmosphere is depicted ‘accurately’ in sound, despite Debussy’s keen artist’s eye in his descriptions of the slow, solemn motion of the clouds (Blakeman, 2003)."

In an e-mail message, Aplin noted that there's more research yet to be done. "We might consider doing a follow up study if there are a lot of pieces we missed out," she said. "There is also plenty of scope for further work exploring weather in different types of music: we had quite a narrow definition so that we could draw clear lines around the study, but clearly weather crops up in chamber/solo classical music, vocal music and popular music as well. Chopin's Raindrop Prelude is just one piece we excluded by limiting the range to orchestral music." 

Oct. 4 Update: We loved all of your picks for favorite weather-related pieces (shared on Facebook and Twitter), so we compiled them into a playlist on Spotify. It's a collaborative playlist, so feel free to add more. Simply click here (you must already be a Spotify user) and then drag your pick into the playlist.