Warmth, reflection, and adventure: summer can be a time for all of these and more, and classical music has explored the season in all its expressions. From Vivaldi’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons, to Frederick Delius’s Summer Night on the River, the literature is full of favorites perfect for summertime. In this list, we’d like to share some lesser-known romantic, modern, and contemporary pieces of classical music for your summer playlist.
Tune in to All Classical Portland at 89.9fm in Portland or worldwide on our web stream to hear sounds of summer like these—and check out All Classical Portland’s Summer Playlist on Spotify for some of the works featured below.
Cover image: Landscape in Summer by Pierre Emmanuel Damoye, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Emma Lou Diemer courtesy of the composer's website
From Suite for Violin and Piano (2008) by Emma Lou Diemer
American composer and organist Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927) is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara: she taught music theory and composition there for two decades. She composed her three-movement Suite for Violin and Piano for violinist Philip Ficsor, who premiered the work on May 7, 2008, at the Faulkner Gallery of the Santa Barbara Public Library. “Summer Day,” the work’s opening movement, is cheerful, lyrical, and tonally adventurous.
Image of Fanny Hensel courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
From Das Jahr by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
In 1841, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) completed a cycle of piano pieces entitled Das Jahr (The Year). Containing a piece for each month of the year, this set was an interdisciplinary work: Hensel’s score prefaces each piece with a quotation from a German poem or hymn, and her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, adorned each piece’s opening page with a hand-drawn illustration. Fanny Hensel prefaced her somber music for July with a quote from Friedrich Schiller:
“The meadows thirst
For livening dew; people are languishing.”
Image of William Grant Still courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
From Three Visions by William Grant Still
William Grant Still (1895-1978) composed his piano suite Three Visions for his wife, Verna Arvey. She played the work’s premiere in 1936 in Los Angeles. Still’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, describes the suite as “the composer’s explanation of what happens to individuals, regardless of skin colour, when their time on earth is over. All are judged. Noble persons, who achieve in spite of obstacles and bigotry, find blessings and advancement in the realm of the spirit.” “Summerland,” the work’s ecstatic second movement, is a vision of heavenly afterlife, heard here in a version for string quartet.
Summer Dreams, Op. 47
Image of Amy Beach courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Amy Marcy Cheney Beach
Summer Dreams, Op. 47, is a suite of six pieces for piano duet which Amy Beach (1867-1944) composed in 1901. Like Hensel’s Das Jahr, the suite features poetic quotations at the head of each movement: music and literature enjoyed close ties in the minds of many Romantic composers. As the title implies, Summer Dreams explores fantasies. It opens with “The Brownies,” a dance of fairy sprites prefaced by a quote from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The suite continues with a picture of a “Robin Redbreast;” a movement entitled “Twilight,” prefaced with poetry by Beach herself; “Katy-Dids,” with a quote from Walt Whitman; and an “Elfin Tarantelle,” again inspired by Shakespeare. The suite closes with a “Goodnight,” accompanied by lines from Canadian-American poet Agnes Lockhart Hughes.
Summer: Tone Poem for Orchestra, H. 116
Photograph of Frank Bridge courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Frank Bridge
British composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was a multifaceted musician: he was a violist with the English String Quartet, a conductor of both classical and theater orchestras, and he taught composition to a young Benjamin Britten. Summer: A Tone Poem for Orchestra is one of several evocative tone poems Bridge composed on themes from nature and the change of seasons. Bridge completed Summer in 1915, and he conducted the work’s premiere on March 13, 1916 at the Queen’s Hall in London.
Concierto de Estio
Image of Joaquin Rodrigo courtesy of Joaquin-Rodrigo.com
By Joaquin Rodrigo
Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) is well known for his guitar concertos, but his Concierto de estio (Summer Concerto) is for violin. A neobaroque work, Rodrigo’s concerto takes inspiration from the style and structure of Vivaldi’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons; that famous set which first appeared in Vivalid’s Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op. 8, published in 1725. Rodrigo’s 20th-century take on the Vivaldian formula premiered in Lisbon on April 16, 1944, in a performance by violinist Enrique Iniesta and the Orquesta Nacional de España.
Words of the Sun
Image of Zhou Long courtesy of White Snake Projects
By Zhou Long
Zhou Long (b. 1953) is a Pulitzer-prize winning Chinese-American composer, who was educated at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and Columbia University. Dr. Zhou is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. Words of the Sun is an exquisite work for unaccompanied chorus, setting a poem by Chinese poet Ai Qing. The choir Chanticleer commissioned the work, and it was published in 2002.
A Summer Day
Image of Lena McLin courtesy of African Diaspora Music Project
By Lena Johnson McLin
The Rev. Dr. Lena Johnson McLin (b. 1928) is a composer, a minister of music, and a legendary music teacher in the Chicago public school system. She has been called the “woman who launched a thousand careers.” Just a few of her famous students include Aretha Franklin, R. Kelly, Jennifer Hudson, and Metropolitan Opera baritone Mark Rucker. McLin’s compositions fuse gospel and classical styles, as can be heard in her joyful work for piano solo, A Summer Day.
Summer Shimmers Across the Glass of Green Ponds
Photograph of Jennifer Higdon by Andrew Bogard, courtesy of the composer's website
From Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams by Jennifer Higdon
American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) composed Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams, a five-movement work for string quartet and piano left hand, in 1999. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commissioned the work, and Higdon dedicated it to Gary Graffman and the Lark Quartet. In her program notes, Higdon draws a parallel between her eponymous poet and the piano within the quintet texture:
“What kind of dreams would a poet have? Because they presumably work in a world of imagination, would their dreams be different than what others might dream? Or are we all poets in our own dream worlds? The poet might be the main character or s/he might also be just a part of the fabric, observing from the sidelines. This also represents the pianist’s role within a piano quintet, prominent but also just part of the story.”
Higdon goes on to describe the second movement, “Summer Shimmers Across the Glass of Green Ponds:” “…here, the stillness is glasslike, as the dreamer sits by a pond, on a Summer’s eve, at twilight, watching the float, which does not even jiggle in the water, at the end of a fishing pole…even the fish are still.”