By Nancy Berman
Spring has sprung, and not a moment too soon! We tough Canucks have survived yet another brutal polar vortex, making the arrival of spring that much more exciting. It’s high time to ditch the winter jackets, chuck the winter boots, dig out your shorts and flip-flops, crank the music and celebrate!
No one is immune to the charms of spring, and year after year composers have managed to capture the glory of the world renewing itself, the blossoming potential of new life and new love, and the overwhelming powers of nature.
And so, without further ado, a playlist that pays homage to Canadians' favourite season.
1. Anonymous, 'Sumer is icumen in'
Cuckoos singing, seeds growing, bullocks prancing and goats farting: what’s not to love? In this anonymous 13th-century round, the composer turns a sacred Easter chant into a celebration of new life.
2. Guillaume de Machaut, 'Rose, liz, printemps, verdure'
Modern minstrels: take a page from Machaut’s playbook. He obviously knew how to woo the ladies with this lovely 14th-century rondeau, in which he tells his beloved that her beauty and sweetness surpass rose, lily, springtime, greenery, flower, balm and the sweetest perfume.
3. Josquin des Prés, 'El grillo'
Josquin composed this charming ode to the cricket’s song in the early 16th century, defending the humble insect for its ability to sing incessantly, to remain where it is — unlike those flighty birds who sing then leave — and, when temperatures are highest, to sing only for love.
4. Antonio Vivaldi, 'Spring,' from The Four Seasons
No playlist for spring would be complete without this baroque classic. An early example of program music, Vivaldi’s concerto illustrates a sonnet, believed to be written by Vivaldi himself. In the first movement we hear the obligatory birds and streams and breezes, as well as a passing thunderstorm; in the second movement we meet a sleeping goatherd and his dog; in the third movement, nymphs and shepherds dance to rustic bagpipe music.
5. Haydn, 'Spring,' from The Seasons
The overture to "Spring," from Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons, sounds uncannily like Montreal in March, as winter reluctantly cedes way to spring. And when the chorus intones, "Come, gentle spring, ethereal mildness, come! Out of her wintry grave bid drowsy nature rise," surely everyone north of the 49th parallel can relate.
6. Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 5
Published the same year as Haydn’s "Spring," Beethoven’s so-called "Spring" sonata for violin and piano is a different creature entirely. Here we hear Beethoven in a joyous mood, hopeful and optimistic, flawlessly evocative of spring’s promise.
7. Schumann, 'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai'
Schumann’s "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" ("In the Wonderful Month of May"), from his song cycle Dichterliebe, orA Poet’s Love, speaks of all things spring-like: flower buds bursting, love arising, birds singing, a confession of yearning. But the music, with its hints of ambivalence, of nostalgia and tender melancholy, tells another story altogether.
8. Mendelssohn, 'Spring Song'
Mendelssohn believed that music could communicate more powerfully than words, and his many Songs Without Wordsprove his point. His famous "Spring Song," Opus 62, No. 6, aptly conveys the pleasant ease of life without parkas, slush and windchill factors.
9. Gustav Mahler: 'Ging heut morgen übers Feld' ('I Walked Across the Field This Morning')
Mahler’s early song cycle Songs of a Wayfarer tells a story of heartbreak and loss, inspired by an affair he had with an opera singer. But in the first song, before things get dramatic, our protagonist takes a stroll across the fields, thrilled with the dew on the grass, the birds who wish him good morning, the flowers glittering in the sunshine. As was often the case for the romantics, however, all of the glory of nature in bloom serves only to offset impending doom: the song ends with the words, "Now will my happiness also begin? No, no, the happiness I want can never bloom!" Poor Mahler.
10. Richard Strauss, 'Frühling'
Strauss wrote an ode to spring as one of his Four Last Songs, the last works he wrote before his death in 1949. Rich, lush, resplendent, transcendent: Strauss paints a vivid musical picture of love in spring, all the more overwhelming for having been dreamt of for so long in shadowy crypts. "All my limbs tremble at your blessed presence!" Indeed.
11. Sergei Rachmaninoff, 'Spring Waters'
There’s nothing like the sound of running water after the winter deep freeze — as long as it’s not coming from burst pipes in your basement. Rachmaninoff celebrates the gurgling streams that announce spring’s arrival in this luscious song.
12. Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending
Inspired by the swoops and swirls of the lark, as described at great, detailed and metaphorical length by the English poet George Meredith, Vaughan Williams’s orchestral work will instill hope and anticipation in anyone craving a lazy afternoon spent lying in a pleasant breeze watching birds fly arabesques in the sky.
13. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Not your usual romantic dalliance with flowers and birds and babbling brooks, Stravinsky’s great ballet music of 1913 nevertheless resonates with northern dwellers, many of whom would be willing to enact their own pagan ritual to ensure the return of spring. Primitive, raw and, in the end, terribly brutal,The Rite of Spring unveils the unstoppable forces of nature at their most powerful.