Johann Ludwig Uhland’s poem Frühlingsglaube has proven a popular fountain of spring songs. Schubert, who never met a poem he didn’t put to music, created a setting that just needs the right singer to be very beautiful.15 Louis Spohr tried the same thing, but with less success and lesser interpreters having had a go at it. Franz Liszt took Schubert’s song and ran with it beautifully in one of his song transcriptions for piano.16 Among choral settings, it is Alexander von Zemlinsky who found Uhland’s poem an ideal way to elicit his late-Romantic orchestral-choral gorgeousness17 — a wonderful way to warm up to Zemlinsky’s music, if you don’t already know it. Christian Lahusen, the Argentine-born German World War I fighter pilot-cumcomposer, used Uhland’s text, along with several other spring poems, for his “Spring Songs,” a part of his large, simply beautiful choral cycle Ein Schopfungsgesang (“Song of Creation”).
For a Norwegian, spring must have had that extra bit of importance. Little wonder, then, that Grieg should have actively engaged himself on that topic, often to famous effect. Spring — Varen in Norwegian — can be found in a great number of his opus numbers, but it’s often the same lovely work regurgitated in another form: for voice and piano (Op. 33/2), solo piano, piano two hands, orchestra (all Op. 34/2), and voice and orchestra (EG 177). The transcription Til varen (“To Spring”), Op. 41/6 is based on the song Op. 21/3.19 20 21 The famous lyric piece “To Spring,” Op. 43/6 is one of a kind, while the “Spring Dance” is an all-too-literal mistranslation of Springdans, which literally means “leaping dance” and might best be translated as “folkdance,” the Norwegian Springar. More romantic Norwegian spring incidences come from Christian Sinding’s short and effective piano piece “The Rustles of Spring” (Frühlingsrauschen), which helped the onetime Eastman School of Music professor (1921) to fame in his lifetime, if not in posterity.
There are many other worthy spring-themed works — by the likes of Eben, Hindemith, Koechlin, Kunneke, Ladmirault, Liapunov and Milhaud — that go unnamed here. But the following works deserve at least a nod for their gorgeousness: Ernest Bloch’s variously dancing, then ardent spring in Hiver-Printemps; the reconstructed version of Debussy’s original Printemps for orchestra and chorus (rather than the standard version for orchestra, two pianos and no chorus by Henri Busser) that Emil de Cou concocted and recorded with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra24; and Benjamin Britten’s rousing chorale “Spring Symphony,” Op. 44, with its very robust reawakening of everything in nature.
Shortly after endeavoring to “collect” spring music for this article, I was invited to a Boulanger Piano Trio concert on the outskirts of Munich. Even amid special moments of Beethoven and Brahms, the definite highlight was the namesake-honoring encore D’un matin de printemps by Lili Boulanger. It was already on my list, but undiscovered. Now it came to life, and how! This superb miniature contains all the hints of budding modernity and lingering Debussy — in under five minutes.
Lili Boulanger, the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, was as physically feeble as she was musically gifted. Few other composers achieved so much in so little time; she died at the age of twenty-four. Her famous older sister Nadia, teacher of a who’s who of twentieth-century composers and musicians, subdued her own composing urges because even if she was very mildly defensive about Lili’s output (“There are no technical novelties in Lili’s writings — she lived in an age when intellectual speculation had not yet arrived, but she was able to find the necessary elements for expressing her own very personal message”), she thought that her own talents as a composer did not hold up to the standards Lili had set. D’un matin de printemps, its moods as volatile as April weather, is hardly Lili’s most important work, but it is a perfect example of all that is magnificent about her compositions, regardless of which version one listens to: the one for colorful orchestra, violin and piano, piano trio, or the two-piano arrangement by Jean Françaix. Of all the above works, this has become the dearest to me while writing and listening to spring.
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