Top Five Works About Raging Thunderstorms
Cloudy and Humid with a Chance of Strauss and Sibelius
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
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.