March 29, 2019
5 Classical Pieces for Spring
What is the best classical music for Spring? Who composed it?
The natural world is almost ready to reawaken as flower buds start to poke through the grey, winter ground and explode into a million different colors. Before the springtime makes its grand entrance in full bloom, below are five classical pieces by well-known composers dedicated to spring that will set the right, cheerful mood for the new season. Despite the often tragic and troubled lives the composers led, their music had the power to liberate them from their woes and render them immortal.
1. Antonio Vivaldi - The Four Seasons, “Spring”
Vivaldi was a leading Baroque composer who was born in Venice, Italy, on March 4, 1678. His father, Giovanni Battista, had worked in the San Marco Basilica in Venice and was his primary teacher. In addition to being ordained a priest in 1703, Vivaldi was a talented violin player and was given the title of violin master at an orphanage called Ospedale della Pietà. He continued to work with the Ospedale for many years also as director of instrumental music and later as the external giver of compositions for which he was paid. He also composed his first pieces while there. His trio sonatas date back to 1705 and violin sonatas to 1709; Opus 3, L’estro armonico, his first and most significant set of concerti for violin and string orchestra, was published by Estienne Roger’s music publishing firm in Amsterdam in 1711. He received more recognition in 1713 when he successfully composed sacred vocal music for the Ospedale for which he received commissions from various other institutions, as well. In that same year, Ottone in villa, his first opera, was produced in Vicenza, Italy. Upon his return to Venice soon after, Vivaldi took to working with operas both as composer and impresario and proceeded to write operas, cantatas, and other secular, instrumental works in Mantua, Italy, from 1718 to 1720.
In Venice throughout the 1720s, Vivaldi’s career peaked. During this time, he wrote instrumental music for patrons and customers across Europe, had five new sets of concerti published by Michel-Charles Le Cène (Estienne Roger’s successor), received a number of commissions for his operas, and continued to work as an impresario in Venice and other cities in Italy. After 1729, he stopped publishing his works and instead sold the manuscripts to individual buyers to make a more significant profit.
His career declined in the 1730s when he lost popularity for his music and became increasingly unsuccessful as an impresario. In 1740, he went to Vienna, Austria, where his opera, L'oracolo in Messenia, was to be produced in 1742; however, he fell ill before the performance and died on July 28, 1741, probably in poverty as suggested by his simple funeral.
About the Piece
Written in 1720, The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni in Italian) is Vivaldi’s most famous work. It is a collection of four concerti, each one divided into three movements in the pattern of fast-slow-fast and each one expressing a season musically. It was published in Amsterdam in 1725 along with eight other violin concerti and accompanying poems, the latter of which may have been written by Vivaldi himself. The poems were intended to illustrate the feelings related to each season that the music was supposed to evoke (such a composition style later became known as program music, which is music with a narrative component). Each sonnet was divided into three sections like the concerti themselves. Vivaldi was diligent in translating his poems directly into music, and specific natural events in the poems can be pointed out in the music. Below is the poem that was written for spring:
Spring has arrived with joy
Welcomed by the birds with happy songs,
And the brooks, amidst gentle breezes,
Murmur sweetly as they flow.
The sky is caped in black, and
Thunder and lightning herald a storm
When they fall silent, the birds
Take up again their delightful songs.
Largo e pianissimo sempre
And in the pleasant, blossom-filled meadow,
To the gentle murmur of leaves and plants,
The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
To the merry sounds of a rustic bagpipe,
Nymphs and shepherds dance in their beloved spot
When Spring appears in splendour.
Sheet music and audio files:
2. Robert Schumann - Larghetto (Theme) from “Spring” Symphony No. 1 in Bb Major
source: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Paavo Järvi - conductor, Tel Aviv 2001. YouTube
Born in Zwickau, Germany, in 1810, Schumann was one of the most prominent Romantic composers. He grew up in an unsteady, literary milieu, as his father was a bookseller, novelist, and translator of Walter Scott and Lord Byron who married an intense woman. At seven years of age, Schumann started taking piano lessons, and his studies of Latin and Greek in school sparked a fascination with literature and writing at an early age. As he entered his teens, he advanced in his piano studies and started to write novels. When he was sixteen, his father passed away and, later that month, his sister killed herself. In order to receive his father’s inheritance, Schumann had to take a three-year course at a university, so he enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig a year later. During this time, he read lots of Jean Paul Richter, became interested in Schubert’s musical works, and continued to learn the piano with Friedrich Wieck, whose daughter, Clara (who was nine years old at the time), he would eventually marry.
In 1830, Schumann left law school to continue his studies with Wieck, but he never became as much of a virtuoso as he wanted to be even though he studied constantly and tirelessly. This was largely due to a sort of numbness that he developed in his right middle finger, probably due to either the splint support that he used to strengthen his hand (which Wieck had strongly discouraged) or mercury poisoning from his treatment of syphilis, which he had caught most probably in his teens. During the 1830s, Schumann’s life became increasingly unstable as he frequently argued with Wieck about his training and marriage. As he started to experience depression, he also developed heavy drinking and smoking habits.
He became a well-known critic as well as a competent composer during this time. In the meantime, Clara Wieck had become a renowned pianist, and by 1840, when she was only 20 years old, she had been in the limelight for over ten years. She had reached a level of virtuoso which, for Schumann, would always be unattainable.
Around the time of Schumann’s marriage to Clara was a peak of musical creativity for him as he composed two symphonies (No. 1 in B-flat and No. 4 in D minor), Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and a Fantasie in A minor, written for piano and orchestra. His attention shifted to chamber music in 1842 when he composed three string quartets, Piano Quintet in E-flat, and Piano Quartet in E-flat. Schumann’s shifting focus between distinct genres and extraordinary productivity levels are exemplary of mania, which -- coupled with numerous phobias, depression, and possibly even severe bipolar disorder -- debilitated him into the 1840s. His situation was at its nadir in 1844 when he and Clara moved to Dresden. Six years later, Schumann became municipal music director in Düsseldorf where he continued to compose and spent time with the famous violinist Joseph Joachim and the young Johannes Brahms. However, he was fired in 1853 because of his instability and conflicts with city administrators. His mental health drastically deteriorated in the winter of 1854 when he began to hear “angelic” voices that rapidly shifted to the clamor of “tigers and hyenas.” He even attempted suicide by jumping into the Rhine but was rescued. He was institutionalized upon his begging to protect Clara, and they did not see each other for two years until mere days before he died on July 29, 1856.
Overall, Schumann’s pieces were all reflections of his multifaceted personality and poetic genius, and he became the epitome of the quixotic, Romantic composer.
About the Piece
Composed in 1841, Symphony No. 1 in Bb Major, Op. 38, or the Spring Symphony, is Schumann’s first symphonic work. Up to that point, Schumann’s works had been mainly for piano and voice, but he expanded his compositional horizons at Clara’s encouragement. Schumann outlined the symphony from January 23 to January 26 and finished the orchestration on February 20; on March 31, 1841, its premiere was directed by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, where it received profuse accolades.
When writing the piece, Schumann was inspired by nature coming alive in the springtime. The score was written for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and the triangle. The symphony was divided into four movements, and Schumann had initially titled each: the first “The Beginning of Spring,” the second “Evening,” the third “Merry Playmates,” and the fourth “Spring in Full Bloom.” However, the titles were eventually removed, and after editing, the final score was published in 1853.
Sheet music and audio files:
3. Ludwig van Beethoven - Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24, “Spring”
One of the most famous composers in history, Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, to Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. His father was a musician with a drinking habit who taught Beethoven to play the piano and violin. As a boy, Beethoven would perform for his father’s drinking friends in the middle of the night and be threatened with harsh beatings if he did not obey. As he grew, he realized that to expand his musical boundaries, he would have to move out of Bonn eventually.
At twelve, he had already become a skilled keyboard player taught by Christian Gottlob Neefe, a court organist. In 1783, Beethoven published his first work, a set of keyboard compositions, and continued to compose throughout the 1780s. In 1787, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, because he wanted to find Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to be his teacher; however, his trip was cut short when he had to return to Bonn to care for his mother, who had fallen ill and died a few months later. In 1792, his father died, as well, and Beethoven returned to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn, a famous composer of the time. He also sought lessons from less distinguished musicians to further fulfill his musical endeavors. In 1795, Beethoven’s career took off with his first mature publications.
Beethoven lived in Vienna for the rest of his life, independent of official occupations or private services, primarily thanks to a group of his wealthy friends in Vienna who backed Beethoven with 1400 florins per year to keep him in the city, especially after he had been offered a position in Kassel, Germany. Beethoven’s rare travels consisted of a few trips to Budapest and a journey to northern Germany in 1796 where he visited King Frederick William of Prussia, a dilettante cellist, in his court.
During his early years in Vienna, Beethoven started to lose his hearing, a condition that worsened as time wore on. His deafness became such a burden to him that he considered committing suicide in 1802; in 1815, he gave up the notion of playing the piano publicly, and in 1818, he had become entirely unable to hold a normal conversation. Still, he wrote some of his greatest masterpieces, such as the Ninth Symphony, after he had completely lost his hearing. He also faced problems with his nephew Karl, over whom he had taken custody when Beethoven’s brother died in 1815.
Beethoven appears to have had a rather unpleasant personality due to his temper and deafness; in addition, he was intense, self-conscious, and had an often conflicting combination of creativity and pragmatism. He was also up to date with current events, such as French Revolution ideals and the belief he had in the union of all men, which he embodied in the “Ode to Joy” of his Ninth Symphony. He was also passionate about nature and the outdoors. Beethoven’s works were so revolutionary that they were often too complex for many to understand. To a reporter who was puzzled by one of his later compositions, Beethoven said, “They are not for you but for a later age,” demonstrating that he was ahead of his time.
In April 1825, Beethoven became ill and stayed in bed for recovery; in December of 1826, he relapsed into nearly fatal bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. He died on March 26, 1827, and his funeral three days later was attended by about 20,000 people who came to commemorate the remarkable composer who would forever change classical music nonpareil.
About the Piece
Published in 1801, the “Spring Sonata” (Frühlingssonate) was dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, one of Beethoven’s patrons to whom he also dedicated three other of his works (String Quintet, Op. 29, Violin Sonata No. 4, and Symphony No. 7). It was called “Spring Sonata” after Beethoven’s death, the original name being Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24. The piece is split into four movements: Allegro, Adagio molto espressivo, Scherzo Allegro molto, and Rondo Allegro ma non troppo. The sonata is quite short and takes only about 22 minutes to perform in its entirety, with the Scherzo movement being the shortest.
Sheet music and audio files:
Grieg was born Edvard Hagerup Grieg on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway. Of Scottish origin, his grandfather had emigrated from Scotland to Norway after the Battle of Culloden. Alexander Grieg, his father, was British consul in Bergen, while his mother, Gesine Hagerup, was from a notable Norwegian family and had studied music in Hamburg. Gesine began to teach Grieg the piano when he was six years old, and he entered the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858 with the recommendation of the violin maestro Ole Bull. There, as he studied the piano and organ, Grieg found inspiration from Mendelssohn and Schumann. During this time, Grieg developed severe pleurisy and tuberculosis that permanently damaged his left lung and thoracic spine; throughout his life, he continued to suffer through respiratory infections.
Grieg debuted as a pianist in 1861 in Karlshamn, Sweden, and in 1862 completed his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory. When Grieg traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1863, he continued to develop his musical skills upon his relationship with Rikard Nordraak, a young, nationalist Norwegian composer; Grieg said that he “first learned to know the northern folk tunes and my own nature” through his acquaintance with Nordraak. In the winter between 1864 and 1865, Grieg, along with some others, established the Copenhagen concert society, Euterpe, that produced works by young composers from Scandinavia. In 1867, he married Nina Hagerup, his cousin, who often presented and performed his music as a lyric soprano. In 1868, they had a baby, Alexandra, who passed away from meningitis the year after.
During the winters of 1865-1866 and 1869-1870, he traveled to Rome, meeting Ibsen and Liszt, the latter whom was eager about Grieg’s piano concerto and gave him advice on orchestration. He and Liszt also discussed Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 1. From 1880 to 1882, Grieg became Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with which he had had a close relationship for some time prior.
In 1885, he built “Troldhaugen,” his home near Bergen that is now a museum dedicated to Grieg. He continued to travel to Scandinavia, England, and the European continent and even performed his piano concerto in London in 1888 despite his deteriorating health. That same year, he met Tchaikovsky, who thought very highly of Grieg’s music and evoked a great sense of respect in Grieg.
Grieg’s music has distinctive lyrical qualities that derive from Norwegian folk tradition; for example, in the time between 1867 and 1901, he composed ten collections of Lyric Pieces (Lyriske Stykker in Norwegian) for piano. He utilizes a free sonata style in some of his more significant works, such as the Piano Concerto, Opus 16, String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 27, and his three violin and piano sonatas. Two of his most famous compositions are Peer Gynt, Opus 23, and Holberg Suite, Opus 40. His unique rhythmic and harmonic style is apparent in his works of Norwegian dances and songs, such as Opus 17, Opus 66, and Slåtter, Norwegian Peasant Dances, Opus 72. He also composed for the voice, including music based on the poetry by A.O. Vinje, Opus 33, and the Haugtussa cycle, Opus 67, in which he wanted to translate the imagery conveyed by the poet into his music.
In 1906 in London, Grieg met Percy Grainger, who was an admirer of Grieg’s work and became a close friend of the composer’s. When Grieg was interviewed in 1907, he spoke of Grainger very highly, saying, “I have written Norwegian Peasant Dances that no one in my country can play, and here comes this Australian who plays them as they ought to be played! He is a genius that we Scandinavians cannot do other than love.”
After a long time of sickness, Grieg died of heart failure on September 4, 1907, in Bergen, his last words being, “Well, if it must be so.”
About the Piece
Grieg’s “To Spring” (Til våren in Norwegian or An den Frühling in German) is a composition from his Lyric Pieces (Lyriske Stykker). One of his most well-known pieces, “To Spring” is written in an impressionistic, bucolic style that opens with fluttering high notes that are reminiscent of waterfalls that embellish a larger, central theme. This initial melody, full of ups and downs of lyrical imagination, evolves into a more vibrant, Romantic style, denoting the zenith of spring’s blooming. In the end, the piece wanes to a gentle hush.
Sheet music and audio files:
Known as the “Waltz King,” Strauss was born on October 25, 1825, in Vienna, Austria. He is often referred to as Johann Strauss II, Johann Strauss the Younger, or Johann Strauss, Jr. because his father, Johann Strauss the Elder, was also a composer who became outshone by his son. Because his father did not want Strauss to be a musician like himself, Strauss became a bank clerk but continued to study the violin with one of his father’s associates. When he was 17, his father left his family, so Strauss was finally able to be open with his musical studies and, in 1844 (when he was still a teenager), directed a band in a restaurant in Vienna. In 1845, Strauss started his own band and composing, which put him and his father in competition. Strauss received numerous accolades for his music and, in that same year, was appointed honorary bandmaster of the 2nd Vienna Citizens’ Regiment (a position that his father had received in the 1st regiment). In 1847, he started to write music for the Vienna Men’s Choral Association. Two years later, his father passed away, so Strauss merged his and his father’s orchestras, which led to considerable success for his career. After six months of illness during which his brother, Josef, had taken over his occupation, Strauss returned to composing with more energy than ever before, so much so that his work became widely acknowledged even by personalities like Verdi, Brahms, and Wagner.
In 1862, Strauss married Henriette Treffz and traveled to Russia and England throughout the 1860s, which heightened his fame. Besides ventures to New York City and Boston in 1872, Strauss mostly stopped conducting and preferred to concentrate on his music, even entrusting his orchestra to his brothers, Josef and Eduard. Strauss dedicated his time to writing operettas -- such as Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (his first) and Die Fledermaus -- and waltzes, the latter of which defined his career and the history of music. In 1867, Strauss composed his most famous waltz that would forever exemplify Viennese music: The Blue Danube (An der schönen blauen Donau in German).
The 1870s were a time of grief for Strauss, for his mother and brother died in about the same period, and in 1878, his wife passed away due to a heart attack. Strauss remarried twice and continued to compose until his death on June 3, 1899, in Vienna. His ballet, Cinderella, was cut short when his respiratory disease became fatal pneumonia.
About the Piece
Written in 1882, “Frühlingsstimmen,” Op. 410 (“Voices of Spring”), is an orchestral waltz dedicated to Alfred Grünfeld. At its premiere, the aria was sung by the well-known soprano Bertha Schwarz (whose stage name was Bianca Bianchi) at a charity show at the Theater an der Wien for the foundation of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth for destitute Austro-Hungarians in Leipzig. However, the piece received much more acclaim in Russia in 1886 when Strauss toured there and especially with the solo piano arrangement that he wrote later. “Frühlingsstimmen” is also sometimes featured as an insertion aria in Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus in the ball scene in Act II.
The waltz begins in a strong-chorded B-flat major key that flows into the sweet, winding melody of the piece. A shift to E-flat major in the second waltz section introduces a flute, reminiscent of a singing bird in a vernal scene. The third section transitions into C minor in a melancholy and dramatic evocation of rain in the springtime, but a joyful theme in A-flat major breaks the wistful mood. Without a coda, the piece comes to a grand finish, with the initial melody reintroduced and followed by a timpani drumroll and brass fanfare. A performance of “Frühlingsstimmen” typically lasts about seven to nine minutes.
Richard Genée also wrote lyrics to complement the music:
Die Lerche in blaue Höh entschwebt,
der Tauwind weht so lau;
sein wonniger milder Hauch belebt
und küßt das Feld, die Au.
Der Frühling in holder Pracht erwacht,
ah alle Pein zu End mag sein,
alles Leid, entflohn ist es weit!
Schmerz wird milder, frohe Bilder,
Glaub an Glück kehrt zuruck;
Sonnenschein, ah dringt nun ein,
ah, alles lacht, ach, ach, erwacht!
The lark rises into the blue,
the mellow wind mildly blowing;
his lovely mild breath revives
and kisses the field, the meadow.
Spring in all its splendour rises,
ah all hardship is over,
sorrow becomes milder,
the belief in happiness returns;
sunshine, you warm us,
ah, all is laughing, oh, oh awakes!
Da strömt auch der Liederquell,
der zu lang schon schien zu schweigen;
klingen hört dort wieder rein und hell
süße Stimmen aus den Zweigen!
Ah leis' läßt die Nachtigall
schon die ersten Töne horen,
um die Kön'gin nicht zu stören,
schweigt, ihr Sänger all!
Voller schon klingt bald ihr süßer Ton.
Ach ja bald, ah, ah ja bald!
Ah, ah, ah, ah!
A fountain of songs is rising,
who has been silent for too long;
from the brush sounds clear and light
the sweet voice again!
Ah, gently the nightingale lets
stream the first notes,
so as not to disturb the queen;
hush, all you other singers!
More powerful soon chimes her sweet voice.
Oh, soon, oh, oh soon!
O Sang der Nachtigall, holder Klang, ah ja!
Liebe durchglüht, ah, ah, ah,
tönet das Lied, ah und der Laut,
süß und traut, scheint auch Klagen zu tragen,
ah ah wiegt das Herz in süße Traumerein,
ah, ah, ah, ah, leise ein!
Sehnsucht und Lust
ah ah ah wohnt in der Brust,
ah, wenn ihr Sang lockt so bang,
funkelnd ferne wie Sterne,
ah ah zauberschimmernd wie des Mondes Strahl,
ah ah ah ah wallt durchs Tal!
Kaum will entschwinden die Nacht,
Lerchensang frisch erwacht,
ah, Licht kommt sie kunden,
Schatten entschwinden! ah!
Oh, song of the nightingale, sweet sound, ah yes!
Glowing with love, ah, ah, ah,
sounds the song, ah and the sound,
sweet and cosy, seems to carry a plaintive note,
ah, ah rocks the heart to sweet dreams,
ah, ah, ah, ah, most gently!
Longing and desire
ah, ah, ah lives in my breast,
ah, if the song anxiously calls for me,
from afar the stars twinkle,
ah, ah in shimmering magic like the moons beam,
ah, ah, ah, ah wavers through the valley!
As haltingly vanishes the night,
the lark starts to sing,
ah, the light she promises,
shadows recede! Ah!
Ah des Frühlings Stimmen klingen traut,
ah ja, ah ja ah o süßer Laut,
ah ah ah ah ach ja!
Ah springs voices sound like home,
Ah yes, ah yes oh sweet sound,
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah yes.
Sheet music and audio files:
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