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The Seasons: Sumer is icumen in!—5&1 Classical Playlist #29

[Editor's Note: This post resumes Mark Meynell's 5&1 series on classical music which ran in 2020-2021. In this series, we share five shorter classical pieces followed by one more substantial piece—all inside a given theme. With over 600 years of music to draw from, the hope is that you find a few old favorites combined with one or two new discoveries in each post.]

by Mark Meynell

During our four years living in Uganda, one of the things I never really got used to was nice weather almost constantly. But then I am English. It was nearly always shirtsleeves' weather, hot but not usually unbearable. Downpours, when they came, tended to come in big bursts with what we called 'fat' rain; but normality quickly resumed. If the temperature did fall, the most one would need was a light sweater (which I would have to retrieve perhaps 2 or 3 times a year). It was perfect. Apart from the fact that it doesn't change much. There were supposedly rainy and dry seasons, but climate change has messed all those up.

So while we loved it out there, I did miss the seasons. I missed the variations in light, colour and temperature. I missed the anticipation of the next season as it began to turn. I missed the way each season had its own version of perfect days. There's a reason that Brits always talk about the weather; there's simply so much to discuss! No wonder the seasons have inspired composers. So this is the first of a 5&1 miniseries on the seasons, helping us to get in the mood for what is coming (for those of us in the northern hemisphere that is).

Sumer is icumen in

  • Anon (13th Century)

  • Dufay Collective, John Potter (cond.)

This song is old; I mean, mind-bogglingly old. The earliest available manuscript dates from around 1260 (which means the song itself could be considerably older).

The words were written in Middle English (modern translation attached) and sung as a 'round'. That means the singers stagger when they start, with each new part coming in from the beginning while the others continue with their lines. In this case, it happens 6 times, giving an accumulative effect of musical sophistication. That's astonishing when we remember that it is perhaps 800 years old.

But more than that, we can sense the sheer joy, excitement, and perhaps relief, once the summer has arrived. It's infectious.

Summertime (Act 1, Porgy and Bess, 1935)

  • George Gershwin (1898–1937, American)

  • Cynthia Haymon (sop.), Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)

There is no way of omitting Gershwin's classic from this list, a song that has become a staple of the Great American Songbook. Porgy and Bess was unlike any opera before it, one that pioneered the depiction of impoverished, African Americans in Charleston without condescension or caricature (mostly). It has always attracted some controversy and divided opinions. But it was based on the novel, and then play, Porgy, by the white Dubose Heyward, who was hailed by the great Langston Hughes for bringing the characters to life. Heyward then worked on it again with help from George Gershwin's brother Ira, to produce the opera's text.

The song is a lullaby which comes very early in Act 1. It is sung by Clara, a young mother who is desperately trying to sing her baby to sleep, while other members of the community gradually stroll onto the stage. It is lilting and evocative of the pleasantly soporific effect of summer heat.

Summer from The Four Seasons (Violin Concerto in Gmi, Op. 8 No. 2, RV 315)

  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741, Italian)

  • Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger (violin)

Now for a purely instrumental depiction of the summer's heat, this time from Antonio Vivaldi, the famously red-haired Catholic priest from Venice. In around 1720, he wrote a set of 4 violin concertos which were ground-breaking (each evoking a single season and comprised of 3 movements). It is not hard to imagine the intense Mediterranean heat in Summer.

  • 1st movement: We alternate between indulgent lethargy (you can almost see the heat haze) and frantic activity caused by the sense that a storm might be brewing.

  • 2nd movement: Imagine a shepherd lying in the heat with his flock, vainly swatting at the flies and other insects buzzing around him. Now the storm is clearly on its way as we can hear thunder rumbling in the distance from time to time.

  • 3rd movement: The storm breaking at last, with wind and hail wreaking havoc on farmers' fields.

On the Nature of Daylight (Entropy) (2018)

  • Max Richter (1966- , German/British) 

  • Max Richter, Louisa Fuller, Natalia Bonner, John Metcalfe, Chris Worsey, Ian Burdge

Max Richter originally wrote On the Nature of Daylight for his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which he described as a 'protest album about Iraq, a meditation on violence – both the violence that I had personally experienced around me as a child and the violence of war'. He made a revised version of the album in 2018, with more or less the same musicians (the version here), which if anything intensified the power of the original.

This track is powerful in part because it is so restrained. It is not strictly about summer per se, but to my mind seems to waft us gently into the longer evenings of summer. It is meditative and wistful, even melancholy. No wonder it has been used in countless soundtracks (including Stranger than Fiction, Shutter Island, Arrival, plus episodes of The Handmaid's Tale and The Last of Us).

The Seasons: III. Summer (Op. 67, 1900)

  • Alexander Glazunov (1865-1935, Russian)

  • Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (cond.)

Glazunov was a titan of Russian music who taught and led the St Petersburg Conservatoire for many years. Among many, his most famous student was the teenage Dmitri Shostakovich. While many thought him old-fashioned, with a style that seemed nostalgic for the nineteenth century rather breaking new musical ground, he somehow managed to navigate the hazards of the Russian Revolution and his music remained popular. He continued as director until leaving for France in 1928 (citing ill-health as the primary reason), where he remained until his death.

The Seasons is one of his most popular works: an allegorical ballet in a single act, split into four scenes. The third scene has 5 short sections to convey a sense of the exuberance and vitality of the natural world in Summer. It is full of resounding orchestral colours and lush harmonies, topped with gorgeous melodies. What's not to love? And if you spent half the year enduring the harsh winters of ice-bound St Petersburg, it's no wonder you would want to let your hair down when the world warmed up.

  • Summer scene

  • Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppies

  • Barcarolle: Enter Naiads, Satyrs and Fauns

  • Variation on the Spirit of Maize

  • Coda

Les Nuits d'Été 'Summer Nights' (Op. 7, 1841)

  • Hector Berlioz (1803-1869, French)

  • Brigitte Balleys (mezzo-soprano), Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Philippe Herreweghe (cond.)

Berlioz was a French maverick, in both life and music. His wore his turbulent heart on his sleeve and defied the customs of the bourgeois world into which he was born. He graduated from medical school in Paris but immediately walked away from it despite his father's protestations. He soon returned to student life, this time at the Paris Conservatoire.

He composed the cycle of six songs, Les Nuits d'Été (Summer Nights), in 1841, setting poems by the esteemed poet Théophile Gautier. Initially the mezzo-soprano was accompanied by piano, but Berlioz gradually wrote orchestral versions over the next few years. The result is one of his most popular works.

The first and last songs are exuberant and rich, but these bracket the more melancholy, middle 4. Berlioz expresses the agonies of unrequited love or an ache, rather akin to our old friend sehnsucht. These darker feelings seem at odds with the beauties and glories of the season, but in true romantic fashion, they are ever-reliable in inspiring a great artist.

  1. Villanelle [a poetic form associated with rustic life and pastoral subjects]

  2. Le spectre de la rose (Ghost of the Rose)

  3. Sur les lagunes: Lamento (On the Lagoons: Lament)

  4. Absence

  5. Au cimetière: Clair de lune (In the Cemetery: Moonlight)

  6. L'île inconnue (The Unknown Island)


Mark Meynell is the Director (Europe and Caribbean) of Langham Preaching. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1997 serving in several places including 9 years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, (during which he also served as a part-time government chaplain). Prior to that, he taught at a small seminary in Kampala, Uganda, for four years. Since 2019, he has helped to bring Hutchmoot to the UK and in 2022 completed a Doctor of Ministry (at Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis) researching the place of the arts in cultural apologetics. Mark and his wife, Rachel, have two grown-up children, and they live in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

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