Top Five Works About Raging Thunderstorms

Cloudy and Humid with a Chance of Strauss and Sibelius

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

thunderstorm (Garry/flickr)

When the late Lena Horne sang about “Stormy Weather,” she was following in a grand tradition of producing into music inspired by rainy days. As current meteorologists predict a forecast full of gray skies and wet weather this spring, we salute the top five storms in classical music.

1. Strauss describes of the beauty and majesty of the Alps through his tone poem Ein Alpensinfonie. He also captures the terror of being caught in a thunderstorm while descending the mountain. The composer made sure to use the full force of the orchestra for effects: all 12 horns, timpani, a wind machine and thunder sheet provide quite the sonic blast. 

2. When Jean Sibelius was asked to write the incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in Copenhagen, he forewent such indulgences as melody in order to accurately portray a howling storm. The ebb and flow of rising and falling strings, whistling winds and squally brass provided such a realistic effect, Sibelius's orchestral tempest replaced the first scene of the Danish production when Prospero conjures the storm of the title. The curtain only opened at the height of the storm during the ensuing shipwreck.

3. Beethoven’s bucolic and peaceful setting of Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) gets derailed in the fourth movement with a cataclysmic, as described by Hector Berlioz, thunderstorm. Certainly, the howling winds and thunderclaps from the score inspired Disney's animators. In Fantasia the violent storm is conjured by a Zeus-like figure punishing the merrymaking centaurs, cherubs and Dionysian figures from the cartoon.

4. Tchaikovsky intended to write an opera based on his friend Alexander Ostrovsky's play, The Storm, about a Russian woman who admits to her husband she had an affair. The confession takes place during a raging thunderstorm, which Tchaikovsky evokes —along with the wife’s emotional turmoil—with swirling strings and blaring horns. Tchaikovsky never wrote the opera, but the overture, which premiered posthumously, remains.

5. Trouble is afoot in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville just as a thunderstorm rolls into the opera in the middle of Act II. The rain starts falling in the violin and flute sections and the lower strings begin to rumble as Figaro and Count Almaviva set out to abduct the woman the count is courting, Rosina. The storm builds in power, adding the horns and timpani. As quickly as the storm starts, it clears and the plot is soon resolved.


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Comments [28]

Gonçalo Dumas from Lisboa

Thundertorms in opera are a worthy subject.
One of my favorites:
Rameau / Les Indes Galantes / Le Turc Généreux / Vaste Empire Des Mers

Jul. 04 2014 01:19 PM
Francisca Sabadie from Scarsdale, New York

the opening scene of Otello - and how about The Tempest by Ades

just saw both at the Met

Nov. 08 2012 11:10 AM
Martin Selbrede from Austin, Texas

Jon Leifs has a monster storm in his epic work, Baldr. The Icelandic innovator had a penchant for depicting nature at its most violent (Hafis, Geysir, Hekla, Dettifos, etc.).

Nov. 05 2012 02:39 PM
Martin Selbrede from Austin, Texas

There is a whopper of a storm scene in John Adams's opera, "Nixon in China." Pretty much the harmonic opposite of Strauss's Alpensinfonie storm, the musical legacy of the 70 years separating the two works.

Nov. 05 2012 02:32 PM
Avery Manigault from Kent, CT

Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!

Nov. 01 2012 08:26 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

The storm scene in Aribert Reimann's "Lear" is, to my knowledge, the only such 12-tone storm. It's scary and menacing to me.

Oct. 30 2012 08:53 AM
Ruy Silva from Paraná - Brasil

You certainly forget a wonderful piece of aural turmoil that is "Cloudburst", from Suite Grand Canyon, written by Ferde Grofé.

Oct. 30 2012 07:10 AM
DM from Fresh Meadows

If you're not familiar with the music of Arnold Bax, many of his tone poems evoke images of the sea, crashing waves and storms contrasted with interludes of great lyricism and calm. I suggest November Woods as one of my favorites.

Oct. 29 2012 11:38 PM
April from Hollis, NY

This storm has me hearing Vivaldi's "La tempesta di mare" in my head.

Oct. 29 2012 08:08 PM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

Let's not forget Johann Strauss II's "Unter Donner und Blitz" (also known as the "Thunder and Lightening Polka"), where he plays up the storm effects for the sake of sheer entertainment. One reference describes it as "the noisiest of Strauss' dance pieces." It's certainly an aerobic workout for the percussionists.

Oct. 29 2012 07:41 PM
Stephen from Auburn, NY

The great stormy stuff from Peter Grimes is so hair raising that I'm bald!

Oct. 29 2012 04:11 PM
Leonore from Stuytown

The opening of "Otello" is my favorite.

Oct. 29 2012 03:52 PM
Anne from NYC

I always think of the ending of Gotterdammerung as a really massive hurricane.

Oct. 29 2012 03:49 PM
Nancy de Flon from Hudson Valley

"O tide that waits for no man, spare our coast!" An apt prayer for today, from Peter Grimes.

Oct. 29 2012 03:45 PM
Mary Wise

Don't forget Chopin's raindrop prelude. In high school, I was told the story of Chopin moping away, pining after George Sand which prompted him to write this prelude. It was quite a romantic story for an impressionable teenager.

Oct. 03 2011 11:06 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Perhaps the "storm scene" from Rossini's "William Tell" Overture? This work is unlike all other Rossini opera overtures and oh, that trombone part! No wonder Beethoven called him "Signor Crescendo!

May. 20 2011 04:14 AM

What about Mozart - "Idomeneo" the storm that burps Idomeneo onto the shore....

May. 19 2011 11:04 AM
Bernie from UWS

The Baroque composer Lully wrote some great storm scenes in his operas. I think he was the first to employ the wind machine, if memory serves correct. My personal favorite is in Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Stormy!

May. 19 2011 11:02 AM
Steve from White Plains

Although not a thunderstorm in the strictest sense, that little musical device they used in 'Oz' always comes to mind. I still get chills when I see a woman with a long skirt pedaling a bicycle. Especially if it's got one of those wicker baskets on it. If you're young enough that stuff stays with you forever. Oh, well. It's put my therapist's kid through prep school anyway...

May. 19 2011 06:22 AM

And how did I forget that last Saturday's Met broadcast opened with Siegmund seeking shelter from a raging storm?

May. 18 2011 06:29 PM

A hurricane approaches but veers away at the last minute in Weil's Mahagonny.

A hurricane occurs in Porgy and Bess.

Terrible storms are heard in both Rigoletto and Peter Grimes.

And with a nod to Midge and Naomi's blog post about G&S, there is the wonderful mock melodrama of "When The Night Wind Howls" in Ruddigore.

May. 18 2011 05:51 PM

Once when I was in high school, my mother was driving us home during a thunderstorm and we were listening to Tchaikovsky's 1812. The lightning seemed to be synchronized to the drums, cannons, and general booming.

May. 18 2011 04:03 PM
CCS from NYC

Re: Tchaikovsky's storm music. Ostrovsky's play was indeed set as an opera about 30-40 years Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova. The storm sequence at the beginning of act 3 is brief but intense - describing both the environmental and the emotional storm.

May. 18 2011 04:02 PM
Michael Meltzer

The music that makes you put your collar up and pull your hat over your ears is the storm in Rossini's William Tell Overture (I've never heard the whole opera, I assume it's there also).
Ravel had a wind machine for Daphnis et Chloe. Rossini didn't need one.

May. 18 2011 01:43 PM
yaiya (gloria) from mas

Choral Music: Whitaker: Cloudburst
Movie Music: Walt Disney's Bambi: April Showers

May. 18 2011 01:35 PM
Ferenc from Queens

These are all wonderful choices for storm music. Let's not forget Liszt's "Orage" from "L'Annees de Pelerinage", and his storm in St. Elisabeth.

May. 18 2011 11:00 AM
LES from Washington DC

By its name alone, Night on Bald Mountain evokes stormy weather.

Music and weather as depicted in the movies might be a theme for David Garland to explore on his program, if he hasn't already done so.

May. 18 2011 09:18 AM
David from Flushing

What, no Berlioz "Royal Hunt and Storm" or "Grand Canyon Suite"? I suspect they are better known storm pieces.

Of course, Handel's "Israel in Egypt" has the famous hailstone chorus. Not to be out done, his "Joshua" has "The Nations Tremble" that features storm, earthquake, collapsing buildings, and seemingly the ancestor of the shrieks of "Psycho." I consider this brief chorus midsection to be one of the most astonishing examples of 18th century music, and Haydn would concur.

May. 18 2011 08:14 AM

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