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From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Tchaikovsky’s enchanting ballets, we’ve gathered together the very best music inspired by the coldest season of the year. So pull your chair up to that open fire and enjoy our wintery gallery.
Vivaldi’s four violin concertos each depict a different season – and the closing piece is Winter, complete with chattering teeth sound effects and a chill wind. But the poem which inspired the piece finishes with the line ‘winter… nonetheless brings its own delights.’ Well, quite.
Blake wrote his famous Christmas song as part of his phenomenally successful score for the animated film of Raymond Briggs’s ‘The Snowman’. The original version of the song was recorded by St Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Peter Auty. Classic FM’s very own Aled Jones recorded another version, which went on to reach No. 5 in the UK pop charts.
Puccini’s famous opera has been a hit with audiences since its first performances in the 1890s. The love story of the ill-fated poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì comes to its dramatic end in a snow-covered Paris. Picture: ROH, 2012/Mike Hoban.
This delightful piano miniature comes from Debussy’s ‘Children’s Corner’ and captures the swirling effect of snowflakes in the wind. The suite of pieces is dedicated to Debussy’s daughter Claude-Emma (Chou-Chou).
Tchaikovsky’s enchanting story of toys that come to life on Christmas Eve has become a Winter favourite. It includes dancing snowflakes, a sugar plum fairy and of course lots of sweets. Photo: Bolshoi Ballet
Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera has been associated with the festive season since its premiere – it was first performed on 23 December 1893. Hansel and Gretel have been battling against the witch in the gingerbread house in opera houses all over the world ever since.
“Now the outworn year is dying/ and chilly fogs descend” begins the fourth and final part of Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons. The piece is based on a poem by James Thomson – but Haydn decided the ‘Winter’ section was too miserable to finish his work with, so he added a rousing chorus at the end.
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the music for the 1947 epic film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and he was so inspired by the moving story and the wintery landscape that he incorporated much of the music from his score into his seventh symphony – the Sinfonia Antarctica.
Hans Christian Andersen’s heart-breaking story about a poor match girl on New Year’s Eve inspired this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by David Lang. The work was also inspired by Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Photo: Phil Conrad
This haunting contemporary symphony features recordings of the song of the shore lark and the call of the whooper swan. The work has three movements: The Bog, Melancholy and Swans Migrating.
‘Hear the sledges with the bells – Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells’. Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells uses a translation of the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe poem from which these lines come. The piece makes much use of the Gregorian Dies Irae melody and also includes a part – of course – for tubular bells.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s six-part Christmas Oratorio was written for the festive season in Leipzig in 1734 and features music not only for Christmas Day and the following two days, but also for the Feast of the Circumcision, the Sunday after New Year and the Feast of the Epiphany. In concert it is usually performed without Parts Four and Five.
One of the most famous wintery pieces in classical music, The Skaters’ Waltz was written in 1882 and inspired by the sight of Parisians skating on the frozen Seine river. Waldteufel wrote over 200 works, but this is the piece he is best remembered for. Credit: PA
Tchaikovsky wrote three versions of his first symphony before he was satisfied. Unlike the titles of his second and third symphonies – the ‘Little Russian’ and ‘Polish’ – the title ‘Winter Dreams’ was dreamed up by the composer himself. The first movement also carries the subtitle ‘Dreams of a Winter Journey’ and the second is called ‘Desolate Land, Land of Mists’.
Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons was first performed in St Petersburg on 20 February 1900 and even includes a character called ‘Winter’, as well as ‘Frost’, ‘Ice’, ‘Hail’ and ‘Snow’. The ballet opens with a winter landscape – complete with a couple of gnomes.
No one knows how to write a polka like the Strauss family. This delightful example is called ‘Delights of Winter’ and captures the excitement of the festive season.
Before Raymond Briggs and Howard Blake, Korngold wrote a ballet called Der Schneemann which received its premiere in Vienna in 1910. Rarely performed today, the ballet was the piece which brought the young Korngold to the music world’s attention.
This delightful piano miniature comes from Debussy’s first book of Préludes (a collection which also includes ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ and ‘La cathédrale engloutie’). It has been suggested that Debussy was inspired by the snowy scenes by Impressionist painters like Monet and Sisley.
One of the most popular Christmas pieces ever written – Troika – comes from this orchestral suite by Prokofiev. He originally wrote the music as the score for the 1934 film Lieutenant Kijé. The piece has since appeared in countless Christmas-themed films and programmes.
Part way through Offenbach’s eccentric opera ‘A trip to the Moon’ (and just after the scene in ‘The land of the paunchy’), the temperature on the moon plummets to -50 degrees, and there is a grand ballet of the snowflakes.
There’s nothing cosy about Schubert’s song cycle ‘Winterreise’ (Winter Journey). The protagonist is leaving his home because the girl he hoped to marry has rejected him. And things only go downhill from there, until, in the final song, he meets a hurdy-gurdy player (‘No one listens to him/ No one notices him/ And the dogs growl’). He walks into the landscape with him.
Peter Maxwell Davies’s 'Antarctica Symphony' is a musical account of the composer’s visit to Antarctica. Davies was asked to write the work by the British Antarctic Survey to mark the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s score for the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.
Liszt’s Christmas Tree suite is made up of 12 pieces for piano and is dedicated to his first grandchild Daniela von Bülow. The suite includes pieces called O Holy Night, Adeste Fideles and Evening Bells.
Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov composed his version of the Russian folktale ‘Snegurochka’ in 1880. The opera tells the story of a snow maiden whose parents, Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost, agree to let her live with the people of the nearby village - with disastrous consequences for the mythical girl.
This wintry verse, from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ has proved popular with composers, having been set by both John Rutter (for choir) and Thomas Arne (for soprano and piano).