Daily Bow: Climate Change(s) and Classical Music


Classical Music Taking the World By Storm in More Ways Than One?

What do classical music and the weather have in common? Quite a bit actually! At least in the United Kingdom…

British composers are even more obsessed with the weather than the rest of us according to new research from The University of Reading.

Dr Paul Williams has teamed up with Dr Karen Aplin from the hallowed halls of Oxford University to study Meteorological Phenomena in Western Classical Orchestral Music.

They have catalogued and analysed the number of times weather is depicted in classical orchestral music from the 17th century to today.

Their aim was to understand more about how the climate affects the way we think – and the conclusion is that British composers are even more weather-obsessed than their non-musical peers. They are also twice as likely to have written music with climate themes than composers from other countries.

This research is expected to be a basis for comparison as the climate changes. It is unknown as of now what comparisons will be available to make in five years. However, given the importance of weather as a symbol in music, especially for UK composers, systemic changes in climate could potentially have just as much impact on the British soundscape as on the physical world.

The study has attracted a unique combination of scientific minds, including classical music lovers and atmospheric scientists.

Dr Aplin, from Oxford’s physics department, and Dr Williams, from Reading’s meteorology department, are both atmospheric scientists who love classical music, so much so they completed the pilot study in their spare time.

She said: “As all music lovers know, the hint of a distant storm from a drum roll can be just as evocative as the skies depicted by Constable and Monet.”

And Dr. Williams (from Reading’s meteorology department) underlined that British composers don’t make imaginative leaps to the Mediterranean sun, either.

“We found that composers are generally influenced by their own environment in the type of weather they choose to represent,” he said.

For those familiar with music history, the importance of weather shouldn’t strike us as a surprise. The Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement is characteristic of some prominent repertoire in the body of works by major composers of the late Classical and proto-Romantic eras, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Goethe. Its elemental use has recurred in music from many different styles since then.

Hot on our heels when it comes to the weather are the French, then the Germans. The research has also shown that the storm – an allegory for emotional turbulence – is the most popular type of weather to blow in music, as in Benjamin Britten’s Four Seas Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes.

Wind is the next most popular, from the gentle breeze at the beginning of the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, to the full-blown gale in Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica.

The research also looked at weather-inspired musical instruments such as the thunder sheet and wind machine, and at the effect the weather had on composers’ moods. It found Strauss needed sunshine to inspire him and Berlioz, Schubert and Wagner worked best in fair weather associated with high pressure.

Wagner once wrote: “This is awful weather. My work has been put aside for two days, and the brain is stubbornly declining its services.”

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