What does Wind sound like?

October 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Wind is one of those words that can mean different things according to the context in which it is used. Physically, it is the movement of gasses; metaphorically, it can refer to luck (winds of fate), change in society or culture (winds of change), change of (metaphorical or actual) season, the state of being alive (having breath). Wind takes a role in many, if not all, religions. And of course, let us not forget the wind of the butt.

So, how do composers set the idea of wind to music?

We may as well start with some of the stereotypical musical settings of wind – the fast, chromatic passages that rise and fall in Richard WagnerOverture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the trills and tympani in Gioachino Rossini Storm Scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), and the spooky violin glissandi in this colorful, fun work by Ferde Grofé – Cloudburst from Grand Canyon Suite.

Franz Schubert – Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) from Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how Schubert paints the wind in this song – piano arpeggios and trills practically make you shiver, just like a cold, biting wind. This song is part of the wonderfully depressing song cycle that Schubert wrote as a he approached the end of his short life.

The wind is turning the weathervane on the roof of my sweetheart’s house. Round and round it mocks and teases my sighs and my tears…. For Nature plays with our hearts as the wind plays with the vane.

The wind also plays a part in Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Gustav Mahler – Im diesem Wetter (In this Weather) from Kindentotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Another happy little composition, here the wind is a nasty thing that kills babies. Mahler’s amazing orchestration makes you feel the stinging raindrops and blowing gales.

In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off, I wasn’t able to warn them!

César Franck – Les Éolides (The Breezes). This is a sort of tone-poem about Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in the Odyssey, who gifts the winds to help Odysseus find his way home. The piece doesn’t narrate the story like some other tone-poems, but instead paints a picture of the breeze blowing the sea and gently swaying a ship on its journey. The music is so ridiculously French Romantic in its melodic gesture and harmony; it’s easy to see where Debussy and Ravel got their sound. Finally, we need to note that the composer’s full name is César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck, because it takes a good bit of wind to get that name out.

Speaking of Aeolus, there’s an instrument called the Aeolian Harp which is played by – you guess it – the wind. You can listen to one here.There are two piano works related to this ethereal instrument – though neither can be said to really imitate the Aeolian Harp’s sound, they do capture the mystical, magical quality of its music. First, Frédéric Chopin’s Ab-major Etude was subtitled “Aeolian Harp” by his fellow composer, Robert Schumann, because of its quick, wind-like arpeggios.

Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp. Cowell was known for pushing the boundaries of composition. Ironically, this work is one of his tamest, but it’s still a little different from what you might expect in a classical piano piece. And, unlike Chopin, he himself titled this piece with Aeolus’ name.

Carson Kievman – Hurricane Symphony. You might call this a modern equivalent of the Franck work mentioned earlier. It’s a longer listen, and tells the story of a real storm rather than mythology. Kievman is a living American composer whose current project is an opera about Nikola Tesla. How cool is that?

Johann Sebastian Bach – Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist (Have mercy, God Holy Ghost). This is part of Bach’s third Clavier-Übung, also called the German Organ Mass – much has been written about it, so I won’t discuss it here for the sake of brevity. This piece is a fancy setting of a hymn which pleads for mercy from the Holy Spirit, which, in the bible, first appears to the disciples in a wind. The melody of the hymn (cantus firmus) is found in the bass –  long, slow, deep notes – and as it is an organ piece, these low notes require a lot of wind flowing through organ pipes. As the piece progresses, there are rhythmic motifs that sound like the rushing of wind as well (running 8th notes starting at 2:49). There is also a sequence which repeats itself seven times (normally, it should be no more than four), climaxing at the highest note on the baroque organ (starts at 3:06, climaxes at 3:22). Bach is definitely thinking deep here.

Olivier Messiaen – Le vent de l’Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) from Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass) Not to be outdone by a German, Messiaen writes his own windy setting of the Holy Spirit for that big bag of hot-air, the organ. At the end, a nice fat chord puts the bellows to the test, as wind rushes through the pipes and into the church.

-= So, I promised some fart music as well. =-

Carl Orff – Ego Sum Abbas from Carmina Burana. The fart in this short little aria (if you can call it that) from this monumentally famous choral work is, sadly, nearly always ignored by conductors and performers. A baritone soloist sings a satirical monologue about being a nasty drunken abbot. But then, at 1:26, there’s a single-note tuba solo, which has no musical relation to the rest of the piece. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s a fart. The drunken jerk of an abbot farted. And I believe it should be required that the soloist pretend to break wind at this pinnacle moment of this oratorio.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich. Mozart was a dirty little boy. He wrote a number of canons on butt licking, probably for singing with his mates at the local drinking hole. No, I’m not lying. After his death, his dirty little canons were all published, but with alternative words that were much more acceptable for public performance. The video below, unfortunately, is sung with the alternate “clean” lyrics, but here is is a translation of the original:

In the heat of summer I like to eat roots and spices, also butter and radish; they expel a lovely wind and cool me.


The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols

December 25, 2016 at 9:30 am

A couple of weeks ago a friend shared this post on facebook (the author is brilliant!), and asked me to create my own list of Advent and Christmas music – so here it is: The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols.

Personent Hodie: The first thing to note is that many of the best carols come from a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones.

In Dulci Jubilo: Also from Piae Cantiones, you might know this as “Good Christian Men Friends Rejoice.” That’s nice. But this arrangement by Michael Praetorius is absolutely METAL. Turn up your speakers. At the end, the organ is thunderous, and they are banging the drums like there’s no tomorrow.

Puer Natus in Bethlehem: Another one from Piae and Praetorius, this alternates an intricate Renaissance arrangement with kick-ass hymn singing and crazy instrumental descants. This is one is still in mainline protestant hymnals, but whenever your music director selects it, people complain. Trust me. I know.

Puer Nobis Nascitur: AKA Unto Us is Born a Son – yet another winner Piae. What was that you said? “Slew the little Childer?” Yes. The little childer were slewn. Sorry to ruin your Christmas, but it happened; it’s in the Bible.

Tempus Adest Floridum: AKA Good King Wenceslas. Yup, it’s Piae. No Christmas story here – it’s associated with Christmas because the first verse mentions “the feast of Stephen”, which is December 26. St. Stephen, by the way, was stoned to death. Merry Day-after-Christmas!

Gaudete: Did you really think I was done with Piae yet?

Divinum Mysterium: This hymn has earlier origins, but appears in Piae.

Hodie (Ralph Vaughan-Williams): this is the opening movement of a long, dull oratorio by RVW. The opening movement is great, and after that, you can take your Christmas nap. I love this movement because I imagine it sounds like Christmas morning in medieval Paris – the brass announce Christmas, and you begin to hear shouts of “Noel, noel”, and then one by own groups of drunken revelers come out of their houses and party in the streets. At 0:40 a big group of burly men being with “Hodie! Hodie Christus natus est!” At 1:22, the nobles come out dancing a drunken waltz. At 2:00 the church choirs are singing, but are interrupted at 2:13 by the rowdy congregation. At 2:30, it sounds like the Sharks and the Jets have joined the celebration. Whatever is going on, one thing is clear: everyone is drunk and everyone is partying.

Masters in this Hall: Well that was jolly good fun; now let’s make our way inside for a Christmas feast!

Wassail: Nothing says “Christmas time” like warm alcohol. As you might imagine, there are many carols devoted to this.

Boar’s Head Carol: Because you’re going to need a heavy meal to soak up all that alcohol. So … how about eating a severed boar’s head to celebrate the holidays?

King Jesus Hath a Garden: Ugh, too much heavy food. Good thing Jesus has a garden; maybe this will balance the meal out a bit.

Riu, Riu, Chiu: Wash that meal down with a little Spanish wine and a little Spanish dance …

Once in Royal David’s City: You know this one thanks to the Kings College Lessons & Carols. I include it here to point out that the last two verses take us away from the manger and to our own deaths. This, my friends, is what makes a good Christmas Carol – breaking away from “good old days” imagery and keeping it real.

I Wonder as I Wander: Two things make this carol great: 1) it gives the Christmas story a more humble setting, contemplating its supernatural elements; 2) the verse ends on the subdominant! How very bold and unexpected.

Psallite: This carol’s greatness comes from as combination of macaronic text and ridiculous rhyming: unigeniTO, ChrisTO, filliO, domiNO, pueriLO, praesepiO; EIN, klEIN, kindelEIN, krippelEIN, engelEIN, fEIN.

Coventry Carol: Most carols blissfully ignore this very important part of the Christmas story. The evil king Herod ordered all male babies in Bethlehem slaughtered in an effort to destroy the infant Jesus. This carol is a chilling lullaby which could have been sung by the mother of one of the victims.

‘Twas in the Moon at Wintertime: This carol adapts the traditional story into a Native American setting (the tune is an old French song); keeping it real by making it humble.

O Magnum Mysterium: I suppose this isn’t really a carol, since it’s not strophic, and requires a bit of training to sing. It’s the best setting of this ancient text out there, and a glorious piece of music, so I thought it would be the right way to end this post.

Merry Christmas! If you want to see a similar post,  check out my “A Little Advent Music” (some of the Advent carols are appropriate for Christmas as well.)


St. Nicolas Day!

December 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

Saint Nicolas? Oh, you mean SANTA CLAUS!


He’s the patron saint of materialism, putting chocolate in shoes, and giving cheap plastic toys to undeserving brats … right?

 St. Nicolas is one bad-ass saint; the legends about him range from the mildly interesting to the outrageous. The legend from which Santa Claus comes originated as Nicolas giving a poor man coins to pay for his daughters’ dowry, thus preventing them from being forced into prostitution; in order to be discreet, Nicolas tossed the purses through a window and into the man’s house at nighttime. It is also said that he punched the leader of the Arian heresy at the council of Nicaea (a meeting where the early Christians sought to clearly define their faith, resulting in the Nicene creed). Just your typical meeting of bishops, ending in a brawl, that’s all. And then, the greatest legend of them all … the pickled boys.


There’s a famine throughout the land – everyone is hungry. A desperate cook kills three boys, butchers them, and pickles their flesh. Nicolas shows up in town, and the people offer him some tasty meat. Nicolas, in a vision, realizes what is being served – he stops the feast immediately. He calls to the barrels containing the pickled boy flesh, and the meat comes back together and becomes three boys again. Naturally, the resurrected boys begin to sing the praises of God.

Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata based on the legends of Nicolas in 1948. He could have ignored  these impossible-to-believe legends and produced a work of religious piety. Instead, Britten sets the legends in a fun way which pokes fun at the exaggerated medieval stories and the difficulties of modern faith. The result is in a marvelous work which is both pious and frivolous, serious and fun, sincere and goofy.