May, the force, be with you

Spring is in the air, or at least that’s what the calendar tells us; there are plenty of people in the northern hemisphere who have been looking at mercury levels that don’t corroborate the fact that winter is supposed to be over.

Astor-PiazzollaThe turning of the seasons has given many composers a handy framework for new compositions. Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos needs no introduction (Naxos 8.550056). They set the trend for others to follow: the formula can be found, for example, in Glazunov’s ballet music (Marco Polo 8.223136), Tchaikovsky’s suite for piano (Naxos 8.550233), Haydn’s oratorio (Naxos 8.557600-01), Spohr’s symphonies (Marco Polo 8.223454) and even The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Naxos 8.572271), in which Piazzolla makes a number of cheeky references to Vivaldi’s originals in his vivid set of tango movements.

Spring is perhaps the season that carries the most excitement, with its rising sap and air of rejuvenation. Shakespeare caught the feeling in ‘When daffodils begin to peer’ from The Winter’s Tale. Here’s the opening stanza:

When daffodils begin to peer,
With hey! The doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The Renaissance composer Anthony Holborne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, underlined the mood of this moment (Naxos 8.570708) in his setting of the words; music, of course, was an important element in the Bard’s works, given the absence of sets and lighting.

Daffodils have come to symbolise the fleeting freshness of spring. The English composer Arnold Bax used the image when he was infatuated with an Harriet-Cohenaspiring pianist destined to become one of the finest keyboard players of her generation. Thirteen years his younger, Harriet Cohen was only nineteen when Bax dedicated a short piano piece to her. The maiden with the daffodil (Naxos 8.557769) is marked ‘Fresh and innocent”, probably an understatement of the passionate and convoluted affair he was to continue with her for over forty years.

morris-dancingMay Day, the first day of the month, carries a number of associations – from national holidays to political protests. Those who studied at Oxford University, however, will remember it as the day when they rose (unusually) at dawn to go and hear the choir of Magdalen College continuing the time-honoured tradition of singing from the top of the college’s Great Tower to welcome the new season, before joining in (very unusually) with other traditional practices such as Morris dancing. That particular country jig also makes an appearance in the Courtly Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana (Naxos 8.557196 track 6), while the tradition of choosing a May Queen is central to Britten’s earlier comic opera, Albert Herring (Naxos 8.660107-08). Maypole dancing can be found all over Western Europe, as reflected in Maypole Dance, one of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Violin (Naxos 8.550868) or Jacob Weinberg’s Klezmer-style The Maypole (Naxos 8.559403).

Not all associations with the month smack of such bucolic bliss, however. In Germany, witches are said to meet with the Devil on May 1, Walpurgisnacht, at the Brocken Peak. Joachim Raff used this bit of folklore as the basis of the second movement of his Eighth Symphony that is subtitled ‘The Sounds of Spring’ (Marco Polo 8.223362).

cuckooThere are plentiful examples of such background music suitable for this special time of year; if you get through all the above and still want to feel under the seasonal weather, there’s always Bright Sheng’s Spring Dreams (Naxos 8.570601), Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for violin and piano (Naxos 8.550283) and Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring (Naxos 8.557143). Not to mention, in the centenary year of its first performance, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Naxos 8.557508).

1 Comment

  • Joe Shelby says:

    I’m not sure if Naxos has recordings of these on its label, but if curious about how Morris Dance might have influenced the classics, there are orchestral arrangements of English dance tunes by Percy Grainger, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

    I can’t say the English experiment with orchestral folk music was as successful and influential as, say, the Russian or Hungarians (or Copland) achieved in the late Romantic era, but there we are.