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Classical Music Inspired By Clouds

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

Stratocumulus Clouds


Every cloud has a silver lining, so the saying goes. Some look pretty, while a mackerel sky has a dramatic quality, but clouds generally have a bad press, the bringer of rain and storms, the harbingers of doom, although those who live through drought welcome the clouds that form as a precursor to a downpour. Composers have their own take on clouds, all with a different viewpoint, some more optimistic than others.

Franz Liszt 1811-1886

Photograph of Liszt in 1886.

Photograph of Liszt in 1886.

Liszt. Nuages gris

Clouds are set to obscure and oppress in Liszt's Nuages gris. They are not light puffs scuttling over a brilliant blue sky, these are a low blanket reducing the height between it and the ground. Light does not penetrate, there is a permanence of grey.

The first bars feed a sense of slight disorientation, followed by steadiness, as if the leading foot is on an uneven verge, and the other on the tarmacked road. Tremolandos in the left hand that come in shiver the bones while chords displace shallow water in puddles, seemingly random.

Tonality is deliberately ambigious, a cryptic wander by way of augmented triads, where one note of a conventional chord we are familiar with, is raised. It is like pushing a boulder, settled and secure in its depression, up onto a new resting place, unsure if it will roll this way or that.

Liszt loved the use of the tritone, the sound that was associated with the devil, dropping onto a grating last note of the phrase. He was infused by gypsy music, all around him while a child in Hungary. His love of their particular scales infiltrates his compositions, bringing with it mystery and danger and an unwillingness to be tied down, harmonically speaking.

There is no finality to Nuages Gris. Climbing up a set of semitone steps over the opening bars, where have we come to, as we look up at the leaden heavens? We could be anywhere.

As a composer firmly seated in the nineteenth century, Liszt was visionary when it came to tonality, stretching its boundaries and paving the way for later experimenters like Debussy.

What I love about Nuages Gris is the veil of simplicity. None of the virtuosic fireworks designed to emblazon the sky are present, rather, it is totally subdued. Of course it is not simple at all, it is a tonal mind game leaving you just that bit unsure.

For more classical music inspired by the devil click here.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918

Photograph of Debussy in 1908.

Photograph of Debussy in 1908.

Debussy Three Nocturnes - Nuages

Debussy wrote his three Nocturnes just as the nineteenth century drew to a close with Nuages being the first of the set.

From the outset we are enveloped in the world of the riddle where nothing is as it seems. At each turn another question is posed, and you are left to wonder exactly what the subject is alluding to.

Add to this a cor anglais seducing us into the world of eastern promise and sensual beauty, exotically curvaceous, an orchestral harem imagined behind soft clouds to be imagined and not touched, for the cor anglais sounds a warning as much as to beckon.

As our imagination makes out faces in the cloudy formations, so Debussy's Faun peers quizzically at us before the music peters out. No rhythmic jolts disturb the langour. It is a moving sound palette conveyed on an even platform of chordal progressions, just as clouds slowly progress, subtly changing shape and finally disappear.

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Richard Strauss 1864-1949

Photograph of Straus in 1904.

Photograph of Straus in 1904.

Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony - Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise)

Strauss was a great lover of mountains. He bought a house in Germany's Bavarian region at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, towered over by the snow-capped Alps. He and his wife, the singer Pauline de Ahne, undertook daily walks, enjoying the outdoor life.1

The Alpine Symphony was conceived to take the traveller on an alpine journey through most of the day, starting before dawn and carrying on until night time. Encountering nature along the way, waterfalls, meadows, a storm, and a forest, Strauss re-enacts these themes by way of his enormous orchestral score, featuring no less than 12 off stage horns as well as 8 in full view, cowbells, a wind machine and a thunder machine, and all sections generously appointed. Oddly no expense spared or consideration of available nusicians, composed as it was in 1915, the First World War well on its way to killing populations of several countries, including his own.

We join Strauss on the descent from the summit, meeting mist, the high strings nebulous before the weak strains of the sun struggle to penetrate through the hazy prism.

Leos Janacek 1854-1928

Photograph of Janacek c1890.

Photograph of Janacek c1890.

Janacek. In the Mists

It will come as no surprise on hearing this work that Janácek was in the depths of despair when he wrote In the Mists. Both his children had died, and on a professional level, he was still awaiting international recognition.

The undulating wanderings, passionate and desperate, are infused with traditional Czech tunes. Janácek pours it all out. That three of the movements are marked slow in some form or other recognises the difficulty of moving forward under the torment of depression. Yet these movements have their moments, surging forward with heartfelt emotion, cascading downwards to a more contemplative respite.

Any optimism is quickly overcast with uncertainty and anxiety. An improvisatory nature pervades In the Mists. All is transitory, a feeling of only a tenuous grip on the here and now, the realistic literally clouded by way of internal troubles and thoughts. You are left to wonder whether there is any path to deliver solace through the fog.

Albert Roussel 1869-1937

Photograph of Roussel in 1913.

Photograph of Roussel in 1913.

Roussel. Bacchus and Ariadne - Les nuages s'accumulent dans le ciel and Les nuages dissipent, sol reparait

The lively ballet score Bacchus and Ariadne was divided into two suites by Roussel. Les nuages s'accumulent dans le ciel and Les nuages dissipent, sol reparait are part of the first suite.

In the story, Ariadne helps Theseus by way of a ball of thread so he can find his way back out of the labyrinth having slain the Minator. After dancing together, Bacchus appears in disguise and envelops Ariadne in his cloak. Theseus and his companions wish to seize Bacchus but God intervenes and forces them into the sea. Clouds form in the sky but as Theseus heads for the shore, the clouds dissipate. While asleep, Ariadne dances with Bacchus.

When she awakes, Ariadne realises Theseus has abandoned her and as she prepares to throw herself into the sea, she falls into Bacchus's arms and they resume their dance. After drinking grape juice from a golden cup, there follows a bacchanale and Ariadne's coronation.

Rich, at times delicate and exploding with colour, Roussel easily retains our attention.

As the clouds appear at 10.29 in the video, the bass rumbles with the onset of impending conflict, and the horns signal the sun's struggle to reappear and shine down on Bacchus dancing to allure Ariadne.

Edward MacDowell 1860-1908

Painting of MacDowell in 1906.

Painting of MacDowell in 1906.

Edward MacDowell. Six Idyls After Goethe -Silver Clouds

MacDowell took a poem by Goethe, May, as his source for the short piano piece, the fourth in the set of Six Idyls.

MacDowell paints a watercolour by way of the piano keys, a roll for the ocean waves, high registers to suggest the glint of silver on the cloud and a little hopping rhythm to salute the idea of dancing light wind.

Essentially it is a miniature for the salon, a pretty little thing designed to amuse at that moment in time, but like the cloud floating above, disappears in to thin air.

John Luther Adams 1953-


John Luther Adams. Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing for orchestra

According to John Luther Adams, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing is a work of 'musical contemplation' and of 'voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence for larger than ourselves....suspended between heaven and earth'.2

Whether you are a believer in God or not, there is a definite listening experience embedded in John Luther Adams' work.

The nineteen sections are divided logically, systematically rising up through the scale, examining the intervals of seconds, where the tones are squashed together, through thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths and sevenths. The titles for some of the sections include the cloud theme - Clouds for mixed seconds and thirds, Clouds of Perfect Fifths, and so on.

Soft focused wind and the bubbling of the hushed marimba rumble, reminding us perhaps of music for a disquieting Sci-fi film. The clouds are those, not necessarily those here on Earth, but out in the darkness of deep space, cosmic clouds left over from the Big Bang, everlasting radio waves echoing through Time, resolving at last on the octave.

To find out more about classical music inspired by the solar system, click here.




© 2019 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on January 31, 2019:

Hi Bede. I love your description of Adam's music. It is somewhat oppressive. Poor Liszt, though, maybe I'll choose a photo next time when he was a bit more youthful! Love his Nuages gris, mind you, as I do his later more thought provoking works.

Bede from Minnesota on January 31, 2019:

Hi Frances – you have a quite an ability to describe musical compositions. I happen to like clouds (except overcast ones), like the ones found in paintings by Renoir or Monet. Unfortunately, I found most of this music somewhat lugubrious. The one from John Luther Adams, for instance, sounded like someone trapped in a haunted house.

The warts of Liszt – what a contrast to photos from his younger years!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on January 30, 2019:

Hi Flourish. The pilot story is utterly amazing. He was very lucky to survive. Liszt's warts are somewhat unmissable but his later music can be quite unconventional for the time.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 30, 2019:

I especially enjoyed the piece by Strauss and was amazed by the story of the ejected pilot. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that photo of Liszt with those big moles on his face.

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