The summer solstice officially arrived in the Pacific Time Zone at 9:24 Tuesday night, so for most of the country, technically Tuesday was the official First Day of Summer. There are plenty of pieces of classical music which celebrate summer and many of them are standbys in the repertoire. The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for example. Or that sweltering aria, Summertime, from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.
Those are the hits, the summer jams—and you’ll likely hear them at some point on Classical KUSC today. Below, I offer a few deep cuts for a classical summer. Music that is a bit off the beaten path. There is so much more out there than these few selections. Please leave your favorites in the comments!
Copland: Midsummer Nocturne
I love this tiny little piano piece. It’s so simple, so evocative. I can almost see Copland sitting in the study of his home in New York. The windows are open as the humid evening air wafts through the room. He sits down at the piano and starts to play.
Zaimont: Piano Trio, Russian Summer
Tennessee-based composer Judith Lang Zaimont’s Piano Trio Russian Summer begins where Copland’s piano piece leaves off—with a nocturne. There’s another Copland parallel here too: Zaimont was the 2003 winner of the Aaron Copland Award for composition. Following the first movement Nocturne in this Piano Trio, comes an appropriately-titled second-movement Romp.
Delius: In a Summer Garden
Frederick Delius has at least four summer pieces to choose from: A Song of Summer, Summer Night on the River, Summer Evening, and In a Summer Garden. Being the unapologetic Delius fan that I am, I love them all. Here’s In a Summer Garden, which is based in part on this quote of unknown origin. “Roses, lilies, and a thousand scented flowers. Bright butterflies, flitting from petal to petal. Beneath the shade of ancient trees, a quiet river with water lilies. In a boat, almost hidden, two people. A thrush is singing in the distance.”
Mazzoli: Death Valley Junction
This piece is about an actual place: the tiny town of Death Valley Junction just on California side of the California-Nevada state line in the Mojave Desert. The city limits sign lists a population of four. There’s one café, a hotel, and of all things, a fully-functional opera house. Missy Mazzoli writes, “Death Valley Junction is dedicated to Marta Becket, the woman who resurrected and repaired the crumbling opera house in the late 1960’s and performed one-woman shows there every week until her retirement last year at age 86. The piece begins with a sparse, edgy texture — the harsh desert landscape — and collapses into a wild and buoyant dance. Marta Becket once compared herself to the single yellow flower that is able to, against all odds, flourish in the desert. This piece attempts to depict some of her exuberant energy and unstoppable optimism, and is dedicated to her.”
Melartin: Symphony No. 4, Summer Symphony
Finnish composer Erkki Melartin, who lived exactly at the same time as Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), was the first person to conduct Gustav Mahler’s music in Scandinavia. He toured extensively as well (to places as far afield as Northern Africa and India). Melartin spent most of his career in the shadow of Finland’s composer/hero Jean Sibelius, but wrote nine symphonies which are all quite wonderful.
Prokofiev: Summer Day / Summer Night Suite
Here are two examples of summertime music from Serge Prokofiev. The first, Summer Day, is a short series of pieces originally for solo piano that Prokofiev called Music for Children. He later orchestrated some of those pieces and called it Summer Day: a Children’s Suite for Small Orchestra. Movements include a musical depiction of the game of tag and blowing bubbles. This is music for kids on summer vacation before there were such things as video games.
Prokofiev’s Summer Night Suite is orchestral music that he extracted from his opera Betrothal in a Monastery. The suite rarely gets performed; the opera even more rarely. I can’t tell you why other than people just don’t know about this music.
Beach: Summer Dreams
Each of the movements of Amy Beach’s Summer Dreams includes a brief quote about the subject matter (everything from birds to bugs to elves to sunset). This is whimsical, carefree, barefeet-running-through-the-grass music which conjures up simpler times.
Webern: Im Sommerwind
Just the name Anton Webern is enough to make nervous concertgoers squirm—and keep some of the less adventurous ones at home. But this idyll for orchestra (no, it’s not an orchestration of that Sinatra song) is a dreamy, atmospheric realization of the poem of the same name by Bruno Wille, which Webern had encountered while reading Wille’s novel Revelations of a Juniper Tree. Listen to this music and tell me you don’t feel the grandeur of the fields and forests of the Austrian countryside.
I’ll leave you where we began: in the world of simple, evocative music for solo piano. This time, it’s music by William Grant Still—the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936). In Summerland, Still channels the French impressionists while infusing the music with a feeling of American jazz as well.