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8 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired By the Sun

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Sunrise over the Black Sea at Neptun, Romania.

Sunrise over the Black Sea at Neptun, Romania.

We need the sun for our well being. If we don't receive enough sunshine it can result in SAD - Seasonally Affected Disorder and we associate it with happiness - remember the song 'I'm walking on sunshine!' When we go on holiday we generally think of days in the sun, making sandcastles on the beach, and lazing by a swimming pool.

Carl Neilson 1865-1931

Photograph of Carl Neilson c1908.

Photograph of Carl Neilson c1908.

1 Neilson. Helios Overture 1865-1931

The inspiration for the Helios Overture came about when Neilson was staying in Athens, where his wife, the sculptor Anne Marie Broderson had secured permssion to replicate the bas reliefs at the Acropolis. Neilson was taken by the sun rising over the Aegean Sea, writing,

"Silence and darkness, the sun rises with a joyous song of praise, it wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea."1

Horns announce the sun pushing above the horizon, round and warm and as it reaches its high point the trumpets enter in a blaze of glory. Daytime is a glorious tune, full of joy. The sun dies down back down over the horizon, the horn reappearing, taking the reins back from the busy orchestra and dying down to nothing.

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

Painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy , 1791.

Painting of Haydn by Thomas Hardy , 1791.

2 Haydn. String Quartet no 78 'Sunrise'

The fourth of six quartets published as his op 76, the Sunrise quartet owes its name from the rising motif in the first violin which opens the first movement.

In the sunny key of B flat it has all the optimistic surety of night followed by day. The whole of the first movement is based on this opening theme - the second main theme which is usually an entirely new contrasting tune, is not present here. Instead the first violin's opener is placed upside down and given to the cello and developed, on into the development section proper following the repeat of the initial section.

Haydn and Mozart expanded the complexities of the string quartet immeasurably at this time from a genre where the first violin tended to outshine the other three instruments to a far more equable handing out of glories to each participant. It made quartets far more interesting to listen and play to since a wealth of interaction between the individual parts was now taking place. Exploration of melodies were more intense and tightly bound and harmonic diversions ventured further afield.

The stately slow second movement belies its initial simplicity, roving from settled peaceful low chords to the apex of the world at top C, semiquaver triplets pushing the music onwards.

The Minuet and Trio retains the spirited jokiness Haydn liked to insert into his third movements. Although clothed in more traditional courtly dress of the earlier simpler type of quartet, with a wink and a certain amused smile upon its face. Haydn was still having a lot of fun.

And fun continues into the last movement. It sounds like a happy folk song which might be set to rather bawdy words and is in two parts, each repeated. For contrast the middle section is the same music but written in B flat minor instead of the cheerful B flat major. It's a very awkward key for string players, having five flats - Haydn teasing his quartet participants with tricky fingering- but it returns to the B flat major and sprints with a merry gallop to the finish.

Terry Riley 1935 -


3 Terry Riley. Sun Rings

The Kronos quartet are renowned for teaming up with composers who have, let's say, more unusual projects to project on to the musical scene. Ground breaking and inventive, as well as performing standard repertoire, they actively seek out the unorthodox. Because of their reputation for the atypical, they are in turn sought after for out of the ordinary propositions.

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In this case it was no less than NASA who contacted the Kronos quartet and asked them if they were interested in a venture to include sounds from space to celebrate the Year of the Astronaut in 2009.

They decided to get in touch with American minimalist composer Terry Riley to write a piece to incorporate sounds from the Voyager expedition which had recorded radio waves and they went to NASA to here and discuss them.

Terry Riley decided to include two types of wave - 'whistlers' produced by lightning, and what scientists have playfully termed 'dawn chorus' as it sounds like birds in early morning, created by the radiation belt.2

Two of the pieces from Sun Rings use recordings from Voyager echoing the electron cycotron frequency, and the dawn chorus which includes the whistlers that Voyager captured when passing Jupiter. Riley opens the work with a motif echoing the pitches activated by the phenomena.

It is not often that a string quartet is supported by visuals, but the movements of Sun Rings are accompanied by NASA's own pictures. They included those unfathomable physics equations, and shots of the recorded resonances from space, and, just in case Voyager happens upon other civilisations as it whizzes along, photographs of humans and other life on Earth.

Considering all the complicated physics and engineering involved, Sun Rings is an intensely interesting and easy work to listen to, not cacophonous at all, and emanates a harmonic and lyrically mystical air.

Space beamed into our consciousness, it marries sound and visuals so that you see space and hear time.

Richard Strauss 1864-1949

Photograph of Richard Strauss taken on his New York tour in 1904.

Photograph of Richard Strauss taken on his New York tour in 1904.

4 Richard Strauss. Four Last Songs: Im Abendrot (At Sunset)

The Four Last Songs have proved to be one of the most frequently requested choices for BBC's iconic radio programme, Desert Island Discs.

They are poignant in so many ways. Strauss was in his 80s when he set the texts, at the end of a long and highly successful career, married to a singer for whom he wrote nearly 200 songs. Im Abendrot is a farewell, to his life as a composer, to his wife's voice that had inspired so much, to their lives together coming to a close. In effect, the sun setting on an enduring if sometimes sparky married life. Could a husband bestow a more tender tribute to his beloved wife?

Strauss infuses it with subtle unpredictable shifts in harmony, little gentle nudges, the music doing its utmost to be peaceful and radiant, but an inevitable sadness pervades the entire song. Yet throughout the vocal line there is a serene satisfaction at a life fulfilled.

The song begins high in the strings; by the end Strauss has brought the pitch down, slowly the orchestra rolls the red-orange sun out of the field of vision, having left the soprano behind to watch its final setting.

Ola Gjeilo 1978 -


5 Ola Gjeilo. Sunrise Mass

Contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo's Sunrise Mass is not quite the normal liturgical setting we are accustomed to. He precedes each section with a secular title, saying he wants the mass to be a spiritual journey and the development of man, from childhood to adulthood.3 The movements are as follows:

The Spheres (Kyrie)

Sunrise (Gloria)

The City (Credo)

Identity and the Ground ( Sanctus, Benedictus and Angus Dei)

The small string orchestra Gjeilo writes for is both light and comforting, like a 4.5 tog duvet. It dovetails with the rich choral sounds and the overriding feeling in any recording you might care to seek out is that the players and singers have taken this Mass to their hearts.

Spheres pulses, double choir and string orchestra tidal in its ebb and flow, a supernatural transcendence. The drops of minor thirds create blown bubbles of sound that appear and disappear, like passing spheres you can hear but not touch, before the Kyrie proper begins.

Sunrise ,high up in the strings, unaccompanied by the choir sets the scene for the Gloria, radiating a widening glow. In the true spirit of a Gloria it transforms into an animated spiritual ride along the heavens, before returning to the afterglow of contemplation.

There are echoes of John Adams, incessant accompanying motifs in the strings. The City is alive with population, pedestrians hurrying along the sidewalks, the steady flow of traffic. The hubbub subsides and makes way for downtime and inner reflection before giving over once again to the busy schedule of city life leading to a spine tingling cinematic final section.

Leos Janacek 1854-1928

Photo of Janacek c1890.

Photo of Janacek c1890.

6 Janacek. Šárka: Just Like the Sun Setting O'er the Hills

From the first bar, one hears the turmoil this opera is enveloped in. Šárka herself is a feminist, wanting to restore women's rights withdrawn by Premsyl, the widower of Libuše who founded Prague. Premysil's young follower, Citrad, reinvigorates the troops who are opposing Šárka. She directs her maidens to tie her to a tree to trap Citrad but fall in love with him. As is so often the way of things, duty calls, Šárka summons her maidens by hunting horn to kill Citrad, but at his funeral she throws herself onto his funeral pyre.

Commanding and determined, in the opening aria of the opera, Just Like a Sun Setting O'er the Hills, Premsyl is rousing his troops. The sense of all will not be well is declared by the trombones before he sings. The music is low pitched and dark, only softening towards the end when the strings and woodwind rise high after the chorus and sprinkle a little brightness onto the ominous proceedings. Clearly, Premsyl thinks he is in a winning position, but the tossing and turning of the music predicts an uncertain passage.

In truth nothing is bright here, Premsyl is berating Libuše, saying she has gone, just like the sun setting o'er the hills, leaving her people and their golden age behind as she lies in her tomb.

Ferde Grohé 1892-1972

Photograph of Grohé, held in the Library of Congress.

Photograph of Grohé, held in the Library of Congress.

7 Ferde Grofé. Grand Canyon Suite: Sunrise

Very much in the vein of Delius, Sunrise opens out to a world of bird calls and pastoral music. It's as if you are flying, like one of the birds high over the landscape, catching the thermals as the sun rises in the sky and heats the air.

As the music comes to a close, the orchestration becomes more jagged, mirroring the towering arid layers of the Grand Canyon, and the brass are called on to project their magnificent but harsh tones with a final sweep over the majestic scenery.

8 Andrei Krylov. Sunrise Sonata

Russian composer Andrei Krylov, born in 1959, is a guitarist and composer who mixes traditional classical music from the Renaissance style onwards with a more contemporary feel, and also mixes influences from Flamenco, jazz and from the far east.

Sunrise Sonata has its feet very much in the Baroque era and reminds me a little of Vivaldi with a touch of Bach and a Spanish tang.

Typical idiomatic guitar figuration features here that could easily be played on the violin. The miniature one-movement Sunrise Sonata begins simply, without much embellishment, then begins to build on the opening theme, increasing the complexity of finger work and embellishment and the intensity, just as a sun rises in the sky.

Andrei Krylov has written music for films and guitar enthusiasts looking for new repertoire might like to research his compositions.5


1 Kindred Spirits Orchestra


3 Ola Gjeilo

4 Encyclopedia Brittanica

5 Krylov Music

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on August 24, 2018:

Chitrangada - thank you for your kind comments, good to know you find the article interesting.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 24, 2018:

Excellent information and great classical collection!

Thanks for sharing another of this interesting article!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on July 16, 2018:

Hello Flourish. Thank you as always for a lovely comment. Sarka is tragic as so many operas are. I love Janacek's dark evocative sound world.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 14, 2018:

The Sarka piece is so tragic. I enjoyed the Grand Canyon Suite in particular. I like your thematic presentations of classical music.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on July 14, 2018:

Hi Linda. As ever I appreciate your lovely comments. I've actually played both the Haydn and the Helios Overture - many years ago now and still love to hear them.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on July 14, 2018:

Audrey - how lovely to have brought memories back for you with the Grand Canyon Suite. Makes writing the hub worth while!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on July 14, 2018:

The Grand Canyon Suite was a favorite of my mother and she played it often, turned up the volume to hear it all thru the house. What a marvelous hub this is. So much interesting information and background. Any reader will appreciate these classical pieces after reading your article.

Thank you.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 12, 2018:

This is another lovely collection of music. I especially enjoyed the first two pieces, but they are all interesting. As always, your commentary is very educational. I love the way in which you group pieces in relation to certain themes.

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