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Winter Music: Ten Classical Pieces for the Coldest Season

What's the most wintery piece of music?
What's the most wintery piece of music?

The days are short, the weather's awful. Time to put another log on the fire and warm the soul with our seasonal round-up of winter classics.

1. Rimsky-Korsakov: Orchestral Suite from The Snow Maiden

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden (1881) is one of the composer's best-loved pieces, full of colourful musical set pieces inspired by an endearingly zany Russian folk tale (this must be the only opera in which the heroine ultimately melts). The four-movement orchestral suite drawn from the opera evokes winter at its jolliest, featuring twittering birds, a stomping march, and the energetic "Dance of the Tumblers", depicting the acrobatic feats of a troupe of street performers.

2. Glazunov: The Seasons

Vivaldi wasn't the only composer to be inspired by the seasons. Haydn's late oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) is probably the most famous "other" four seasons, although for true winter spirit we've opted for Alexander Glazunov's fantastical The Seasons ballet of 1899, with its gorgeous late-romantic orchestral textures and swooning harmonies. The work opens with Winter on stage, followed by dances for Ice, Frost, Hail and Snow, accompanied by a troupe of snowflakes, before a pair of gnomes enter and light a fire - causing all present to disappear.

3. Offenbach: "Grand Ballet of the Snowflakes" from Le voyage dans la lune

It's minus-fifty degrees on the surface of the moon and the snowflakes are dancing . . . Welcome to the gloriously madcap world of Offenbach's Le voyage dans la lune ("A trip to the moon"), based on a novel by Jules Verne and featuring a cast list including characters named Microscope, Rectangle, Coefficient and A-Plus-B. Offenbach's music may be more light-hearted Parisian froth than genuine lunar winter, but really, when the premise is this surreal, who cares?

4. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1, "Winter Daydreams"

Subtitled "Winter Daydreams" by the composer, this is generally considered Tchaikovsky's first major work - even if the programmatic idea behind the symphony's subtitle remains obscure. The first movement's title, "Dreams of a Winter Journey", hints at the snowy landscapes of Mother Russia, but it's the hauntingly melancholy second movement ("Land of Desolation, Land of Mists"), with its hushed strings and plaintive oboe melody, which really captures the spirit of the season.

5. Chopin: Étude no. 11 in A minor, "Winter Wind"

Wrap up warm for Chopin's famous A minor étude, nicknamed "Winter Wind". The study's technical demands present an Everest-sized challenge for even the finest pianists, with an endless swirl of chromatic semiquavers over a relentless chorale-like accompaniment - a musical blizzard like no other.

6. The Little Match Girl Passion, David Lang

Premiered in 2008, American composer David Lang's choral interpretation of the famous Hans Christian Andersen story "The Little Match Girl" is an instant modern classic. Deconstructing Andersen's story into a sequence of Passion-like tableaux, Lang's austerely minimalist, hauntingly repetitive vocal adaptation offers a searingly intense musical journey, as Andersen's unfortunate heroine slowly freezes to death on the street by the light of her last matches.

7. Debussy: Des pas sur le neige.

Debussy clearly had a thing about the white stuff, writing not one but two snow-inspired works for piano. "The Snow Is Dancing" from Children's Corner (1908) is an exquisite miniature inspired by swirling flakes, but for a real evocation of the dark season it's "Des pas sur le neige" ("Footprints in the snow") from Book One of his Préludes (1910) which takes pride of place. Marked "Triste et lent" ("Sad and slow"), the hauntingly bleak textures and aching whole-tone dissonances evoke a feeling of hushed loneliness as a nameless person (or perhaps animal?) slowly traverses some imagined winter landscape.

8. Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony no. 7)

OK, so it's not actually about winter, but for an epic musical portrayal of all things cold and frosty few works beat Vaughan William's Sinfonia Antarctica. Based on music originally composed for Charles Frend's film Scott of the Antarctic, the sinfonia's glacial sonorities conjur up a memorable image of nature at its most forbidding, complete with ghostly wordless vocals and sighing wind machine.

9. Vivaldi: "L'Inverno" ("Winter") from the Four Seasons

Given how well known the Four Seasons are, it's easy to forget just how original and remarkable a work this is, and nowhere more so than in "L'Inverno" - perhaps the finest, and certainly the most dramatic, of the four. Vivaldi's winter is bleak, harsh and sometimes scarey sort of place, memorably captured in music which alternates between frostbitten desolation and moments of blind panic, with raking demisemiquavers and slithering scales evoking the season's bitter winds or a perilous walk over breaking ice.

10. Schubert: Die Winterreise

Often considered the greatest song cycle of all time, Schubert's Die Winterreise ("Winter's Journey", 1827) might be the bleakest piece of classical music ever composed - "terrifying songs", as Schubert himself described them. Composed as he was slowly dying of syphillis, Winterreise sets 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller depicting the imaginary wanderings of an unnamed protaganist, abandoned by his sweetheart, as he travels across the frozen countryside into a dark winter of the soul.

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