Water Music


Composers, like painters and poets, have been constantly drawn to the natural world around them. Depicting babbling brooks, flowing rivers or crashing waves may be a simple task for talented artists, but seems nearly impossible for composers. That challenge didn't stopped Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert,  Smetana and others from creating works that call up images of water in all its forms. This Active Minds program will dip into numerous pieces that trickle, bubble, flow and roar in an exciting liquid display of musical greatness.


Forgive the pun, but when it comes to creating music about water, most composers view the glass as half-full. When it comes to depicting a river or ocean waves, a painting (or photograph) can instantly set the visual scene for the viewer. But in each case, the water represented is actually in motion, and that's not possible to capture on a canvas or photo (though some photographers intentionally create a blurred image to suggest movement). Remember that music is all about movement. It exists in time, not in space. The gentle rolling of an ocean can be depicted with vivid realism by creating an arching, repeating phrase, over which a mood-setting tune can be added. Richard Rodgers contributed a brilliant soundtrack for the World War II TV documentary series, “Victory at Sea,” supplying theme music that began with the orchestra offering quick upward and  downward scale passages that perfectly captured the rise and fall of steep ocean waves. It didn't hurt that the accompanying filmed images showed those waves. Mendelssohn and Debussy both wrote works that pictured a friendlier ocean, represented by a less violent, undulating repeated phrase. In most cases, repetition can become boring – but if it's depicting a flowing river, the effect is one of soothing regularity. When Beethoven's 6th Symphony (the “Pastoral”) visits a forested brook in the second movement, the lower strings play a suitably rippling phrase that continues underneath the quietly pleasing melody. A similar approach marks the start of Wagner's massive Ring Cycle, which begins in the Rhine River. This concept goes way back in music, and is referred to as an ostinato, a short musical phrase that is heard over and over. Contemporary composers such as Philip Glass rely on this to create an intentionally modern pulsation that boldly avoids traditional melodies (and can drive some listeners crazy). When Schubert set to music a poem about a trout fisherman, he began by calling on the piano accompaniment to deliver an innocent repeating phrase that conjures an image of a river among the trees. But what if the water in question is not flowing? What if we're at the seashore, watching the waves crash violently against the rocks? In Debussy's La Mer, the wind howling over the ocean is handled by the high wind instruments (appropriately), while the crash is handled by sharp bangs from crashing cymbals (also appropriately). Naturally, any music meant to depict an image or story requires listeners to use their imaginations, to visualize a scene rather than merely hear the musical instruments. That is why composers, particularly in the later days of the 19th Century gave descriptive titles to their works. French Impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel rarely used such dry terms as sonata or symphony. Ravel loved writing “water music,” and created vivid piano pieces such as Jeux d'eau, a term that literally means “water game,” but is the French equivalent of “fountain.” Speaking of which, over in Italy, Ottorino Respighi wrote strikingly visual orchestral works that paid homage to the beauty of Rome. In one suite, he sought to describe the lush forests around the Eternal City. In another, he depicted some of the glorious Roman fountains. In The Triton Fountain in the Morning, a horn call leads to a super-fast ascending passage that culminates in the highest notes an orchestra can produce. This dramatic opening is repeated two more times, followed by a sustained, tingling sound at the top and then a descending scale, as if this elevated display of water simply gave up and fell back to earth. Of course, nothing beats seeing this fountain in person, but Respighi's brilliant orchestration is the next best thing. It's a reminder that music can take us to places we could only imagine.

Exploration Questions

  • Can you name some works that re-create other sights and sounds of Nature, such as thunderstorms, mountains, forests, sunrises and sunsets, etc.
  • Numerous pop songs have called up images of water, such as Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain, sung, appropriately, by the Cascades. What effects did they use to create rainfall? What are some other water-related songs?
  • In their Water Music Suites, Baroque composers Handel and Telemann never made musical suggestions of water. Why not?

Reflective Questions

  • How would you expect a piece of music to depict a still lake or pond?
  • Which sections of the orchestra are best suited to describe water elements?
  • Why were composers such as Bach and Mozart not interested in creating musical portraits of Nature?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Gerhard, Ana. Amazing Water: An Introduction to Classical Music. The Secret Mountain. 2016. 68 pages. Yes, this is a book and CD intended for children, but its musical selections and descriptions are illuminating, enhanced by Margarita Sada's charming illustrations.
    Click here to order
  • Rothenberg, David. The Book of Music and Nature: An Anthology of Sounds, Words, Thoughts. Wesleyan. 2001. 272 pages. As the title suggests, this is a collection of essays by numerous writers, musicians and composers, each taking a thought-provoking look at the curious and inescapable relationship between music and Nature. Included is a link to an online CD of musical excerpts.
    Click here to order