As July turns to August many of us will be enjoying the sunshine and thinking of vacations past and present. For music lovers, few melodies conjure the languid spirit of the season as effectively as Summertime by George Gershwin, from his 1934 opera Porgy and Bess (8.110287-88) which is, paradoxically, a tale of hardship and suffering:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high,
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’,
So hush little baby, don’t you cry.
Written just over two hundred years earlier, Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer from his famous Op. 8 collection of concertos titled The Four Seasons (8.557920) expresses not only unbearable and shimmering heat but also the apprehension when, confronted by an advancing storm, “the shepherd weeps… fearing for his destiny”. In the Presto finale there are graphic representations of “thunders, flares and hailstones [which] sever the heads of proud grain crops.”
Many other composers have based works on the seasons, featuring summer moods. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you might like to check out Tchaikovsky’s cycle of charming piano pieces Les saisons (8.550233) and Alexander Glazunov’s gorgeously romantic score for the ballet The Seasons (8.550079), first produced in 1900 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with choreography by the legendary Marius Petipa. The Summer tableau opens with this music.
Midsummer generally attracts more of a literary focus than a musical one, but a spin-off of this has been glorious scores such as Mendelssohn’s music for Shakespeare’s comedy play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (8.570794). Taking Mozart’s The Magic Flute as a template, Michael Tippett wrote both libretto and music for his 1955 magical opera, The Midsummer Marriage, from which the luminous Ritual Dances (8.553591) became a separate concert work. Here’s a short extract from that 25-minute piece.
From his Four Early Songs, Aaron Copland’s setting of Aaron Schaffer’s A Summer Vacation (9.70145) evokes the nostalgic, romantic expressiveness of Duparc and Fauré:
“Days of floating on the stream,
Softly lapped as in a dream…”
And summer memories are often the domain of the young. Charles Ives’s Holidays Symphony (8.559370) is filled with musical allusions; Ives said of its third movement, The Fourth of July, “that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it.” Ned Rorem’s trio, End of Summer (8.559128) for clarinet, violin and piano, was composed in 1985 at a time when he was engaging with fragments of early music from his teenage years, the piece including “hints of Satie, Brahms, hopscotch ditties and Protestant anthems.” Can you spot any of those allusions in this clip?
The beauty of summer puts the ugliness of war into sharp relief. Frank Bridge’s pastoral Summer (8.557167) was written in the years 1914-15, and managed to exude a shimmering, English countryside heat while the nightmare scenarios of World War I were unfolding in Europe. Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (8.559134) is a “lyric rhapsody” which sets the prose-poetry of James Agee, the words evoking quieter, plaintive and more innocent times. It was composed two years after the horrifying close of World War II, when people sought refuge in the idea of less violence and greater optimism. We also mustn’t forget the open-air feel of Barber’s Summer Music for wind quintet, dating from 1956 (8.553851). Elliott Carter spent some years in France and his Holiday Overture (8.559151), composed during the summer of 1944, reflects the generally uplifting spirit of much American concert music composed at the time of France’s liberation and early indications that World War II was nearing its end. This clip gives a flavour of that atmosphere.
Summer and holidays can mean glorious sunshine and magical experiences. Most of us like to spend them in the countryside, but city life always goes on, as can be heard in Morton Gould’s 1955 armchair vacation, Cinerama Holiday Suite (8.559715). The score was written to accompany a travelogue of scenes filmed in the United States, Switzerland and France to showcase the latest developments in cinema projection. So, we’ll let Gould’s chirpy Parisian car horns have the final word for today.