The natural world offers artistic inspiration in abundance. Winter, in particular, has an austere beauty, which juxtaposes harsh, frozen landscapes with soft snow; the cold ice of frost with the warmth of nostalgia; and the sadness of natural endings with the comfort of retrospection and remembrance. For all its beauty and allegorical symbolism, musical interpretations of falling snow and frozen landscapes are ubiquitous in the classical repertoire. As the trees shed their leaves, the nights roll in, and we begin to look back on the past year, it’s time to get cozy with these winter classics. Scroll down to discover our selection of the best classical music for winter with our most chilled musical masterpieces.
Best Classical Music for Winter: 10 Best Tracks
10. Debussy: ‘The Snow Dances’ by Children’s corner
Debussy‘The Snow is Dancing’ is one of the best pieces of classical music for winter. This piano miniature more than deserves its wonderfully evocative title: a glistening flurry of incessant staccato notes cascades down the keyboard, while light, delicate melodies emerge from the misty haze of semiquavers. Not only does Debussy provide us with exquisite musical imagery, but Children’s corner suite was originally dedicated to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, and exudes childlike innocence, playfulness and a warm sense of nostalgia.
9. Rimsky-Korsakov: The Snow Maiden Suite
Next comes Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden, another snowy spectacle. This work is rooted in the Russian musical tradition. The libretto is based on a pantheistic folk tale, where the metamorphosis of winter into spring is a metaphor for the reconciliation of the protagonists, the Snow Maiden and her lover, Mizgir. Rimsky-Korsakov’s widespread use of folksong throughout the score emphasizes the connection to nature: the suite opens with a wintry setting of floating strings and icy woods, before moving on to the rustic and cheerful “Dance of the birds”.
8.Cage: winter music
Always the innovator, Cage’s winter music is not really a score, but rather a set of 20 separate pages of music that can be played by up to 20 different pianists. Some, all, or any of the pages may be used, in any order. Confuses? Yes, U.S. too. But that’s the magic of Cage – hidden within the seemingly random pages and jumble of contrasting textures, rhythms and piano pitches, is a beautiful ode to winter. At times the landscape is harsh, jagged, icy and slippery underfoot, but at other times it is soft, delicate and tranquil. It is the free, improvised and unpredictable atmosphere of this piece that makes it the perfect musical characterization of winter.
7. Korngold: The Schneemann
The Schneemann One of the best pieces of classical music for winter, (“The Snowman”) is a ballet-pantomime and one of Korngold’s earliest works, written when he was just 11 years old. Originally composed for piano, the ballet was so successful when it premiered in 1910 in Vienna that it was later developed into the orchestral version we know today. The story is based on a commedia dell’arte script his father had written, with the basic character Pierrot disguising himself as a snowman to run away with the beautiful Columbine without his uncle Pantalon’s knowledge. Korngold’s score exemplifies his wonderful post-Wagnerian Late Romantic compositional style and exudes character, wit, charm and lightness. A truly warm winter treat.
6. Chopin: Etude No. 11 in A minor, ‘Winter Wind’
Of Chopinit is 24 Studies, No. 11 in A minor is often considered the most diabolical. He is perhaps best known by his nickname “Winter Wind”, and it’s easy to see why. Designed to develop the pianist’s technique and dexterity, this work is a relentless torrent of sixteenth notes in the right hand and an eerie chord theme in the left. Designed to be played at high speed, Chopin’s music Study is the perfect depiction of blizzard, freezing cold, howling winds and breaking ice. You might find it hard to warm up after this one.
5. Glazunov: ‘Winter’ by Seasons
The first tableau of Glazunov’s ballet, Seasons, is called “A winter landscape”. By portraying winter musically, Glazunov goes one step further and introduces audiences to the living embodiment of winter itself, dancing alongside its companions: Frost, Ice, Snow and Hail. Each character receives their own variation of this snowy score. The anthropomorphization of winter weather is reflected in the music, in a style no different from that of Tchaikovsky and even Glazunov’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. With colorful instrumentation, including drifting woodwinds, trilling strings, magical harp flourishes, and warm-blooded romanticism aplenty, Glazunov’s glorious ballet truly captures the beauty of winter.
4. Rutter: Blow, blow, you winter wind
Although interpreted as a work in its own right, Breath Breath, You Winter Wind began life as part of Rutter’s choral cycle When the icicles hang. It’s a magical setting of a song from Shakespeare’s second act As you like it for SATB choir. This radical wintry piece begins with an eerie, shrill harpsichord and the icy tone of the sopranos, but gradually thaws out with lower, grounded vocals, Rutter’s signature lyricism painting the words:
Hey-ho! Sing eh! until green holly;
Most friendships are fake, most loves are madness:
So hey-ho, holly! This life is happier.
Schubertthe famous song cycle Winterreise, which means “Winter Journey”, is the setting to music of 24 poems by Müller for tenor and piano. In this work, Schubert explores winter in its darkest and rawest form: the singer wanders aimlessly (Gefrorne Tränen, meaning ‘Frozen Tears’), while dreaming of her love and of spring (Frühlingstraum / ‘Spring dream’). However, he wakes up in the cold darkness of his wintry reality. Raw and bare textures from the opening song Gute Nacht (‘Good Night’) to the static drone of the fence The Leiermann (“The Herdy-Gerdy Man”), Schubert delicately balances the words with the music, galvanizing the text with exquisite melodies and romantic harmonies. This beautiful, yet heartbreaking tribute to love is one of the best classical pieces of winter.
2. Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica
Having been commissioned to score the 1947 film Scott of Antarctica, Vaughan Williams reused some of his material for his magnificent, but terrifying, Seventh Symphony. Well titled Sinfonia Antarctica, Vaughan Williams’ captures the epic and awe-inspiring power of the frozen landscape and paints perilous blizzards, crushing icy winds and the eerie sense of failed expedition. To capture the awe-inspiring power of the landscape, Vaughan Williams uses enormous orchestral forces, including a wordless three-part female choir with a soprano soloist as icy winds in the first and last movements, a shimmering celestial, harp, strings , an organ (in the third movement), double woodwinds and an extensive percussion section of glockenspiel, vibraphone, gong, bells and even a wind machine. That Vaughan Williams is able to imbue his score with the vastness of the landscape and the sense of humanity paling in insignificance by comparison speaks to his sheer genius.
1. Vivaldi: ‘Winter’ by The four Seasons
Vivaldi is surely the king of seasonal music. His icy homage to winter is the most dramatic of his Four Seasons. Dynamic and dangerous, the first movement is simply iconic: pulsating, sharp strings and icy harpsichord accompany the famous torrential violin solo, which requires technically demanding rapid string crossings, rapid repeated notes and icy precision. The third movement is a little darker, capturing the dreary, dark and gloomy reality of winter nights. Vivaldi’s brilliance is his ability to capture all aspects of winter so perfectly in dramatic musical form.