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The Powell’s Playlist: Water Music by Peter Mendelsund

The Powell's PlaylistWe "see" when we read, and we "see" when we listen. There are many ways in which music can create the cross-sensory experience of this seeing... through sonic imitation, through poetic evocation, through dynamic mapping, through programmatic association, through the literal use of physical materials...

1. "La Mer" by Claude Debussy
The big kahuna of classical "water musics." So painterly in its orchestrational detail. The big move here by Debussy is paralleling the idea of a swelling of physical volume (a cresting wave) with a swelling of aural volume (a crescendo). In this mapping, louder=fuller.

2. "Sea Interludes" by Benjamin Britten

3. "Ondine" from Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel
The piano is particularly suited, in its instrumental color, to evoking water; specifically the sound of the tinkling, chiming of water drops. Here we have one of Ravel's programmatic water pieces, based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand:

Listen! — Listen! — It is I, it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows lit by the gloomy rays of the moon; and here in gown of watered silk, the mistress of the chateau gazes from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and the beautiful sleeping lake.

The difficulty for the pianist here, especially in the scintillating, shimmering opening of this piece, is to make something technically arduous sound fluid and effortless.

4. "Une Barque Sur L'océan" by Maurice Ravel

5. "Au Bord D'une Source" by Franz Liszt
The proto "Ondine." Many of Liszt's watery pianistic textures were co-opted by later composers. (Amongst the biggest thieves were the Frenchmen Debussy and Ravel.)

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6. "Au Lac de Wallenstadt" by Franz Liszt
Here, the evocation is not so much fluid dynamics as much as the feeling of being on a lake: the cadence of the oars and the shifting of light on the water as paralleled in the major/minor harmonic shifts...

7. "Water Music" by Tan Dun
Some pieces need water, actual water, in order to be performed. Mozart's "Adagio for Glass Harmonica" is one. This is another, more dramatic example.

8. "Sea Symphony" by R. Vaughan Williams

9. "Water Music" by G. F. Handel
Nothing in these three suites, to my ear, sonically evokes water. But these works were originally performed upon barges on the Thames, so I naturally think of water when I listen to them. They are included as a representative of the power of association.

10. Schwanengesang No. 12: "Am Meer" by Franz Schubert

11. The "Raindrop" Prelude by F. Chopin
From George Sand's Histoire de Ma Vie:

Chopin saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.

12. "Jardin Dans La Pluie" by A. C. Debussy
More rain — driving rain.

13. "Toward the Sea" by Tōru Takemitsu
This work, besides evoking the sea, contains a motif which spells out the word "SEA" (in the German configuration: E-flat – E-natural – A).

÷ ÷ ÷

Peter Mendelsund is the author of What We See When We Read. He is the associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf and a recovering classical pianist. His designs have been described by the Wall Street Journal as being “the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction.” He lives in New York.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. What We See When We Read (Vintage...
    Used Trade Paper $9.00

Peter Mendelsund is the author of What We See When We Read (Vintage Original)

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