Winter Themes in Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Winter Themes in Music

In the 19th century a number of winter-inspired piano pieces or songs for voice and piano were published, including Canadian Winter Galop (1864 or before) by Charles J. Millar, Winter Carnival March (1884) by C.A.
<em>Winter Carnival March</em>
Composed by C.A. Gregory. Artwork published in 1884 by J.L. Lamplough, c. 1884 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

Winter Themes in Music

Winter has always played a determining role in the lives and imaginations of Canadians, and has made the country known abroad, from the "few acres of snow" dear to Voltaire to Gilles Vigneault's famous song "Mon Pays" - "My country is not a country, it's winter." Meditations on our winter landscape and environment, so much a part of our national identity, have become a unique part of Canada's musical heritage.

Popular Songs

In the 19th century a number of winter-inspired piano pieces or songs for voice and piano were published, including Canadian Winter Galop (1864 or before) by Charles J. Millar, Winter Carnival March (1884) by C.A. Gregory, The Ice Palace Souvenir March (1885) by Isabel Howard-O'Keefe, and Winter Pleasures (1889) by Charles Bohner. The original printed music for many of these has been preserved in the Library and Archives of Canada collection Sheet Music from Canada's Past.

Winter continued to be a source of inspiration for Canadian songwriters in the following centuries. The quirky mining ballad "When the Ice Worms Nest Again" (ca 1898) was made popular in about the 1940s by Canadian country music pioneer Wilf Carter (Montana Slim) and was later arranged for strings by composer Murray Adaskin. With the rise of popular singer-songwriters in the 1960s and early 1970s, songs about winter became increasingly introspective and serious in nature. In his political song "Mon Pays," the chansonnier Gilles Vigneault used winter as a metaphor for Quebec's cultural isolation, writing "My country is not a country, it's winter." Relationships to each other, our country, and to our natural environment were also explored by Claude Léveillée ("Soir d'hiver," "Bonhomme hiver," and, to lines by Émile Nelligan, "Ah comme la neige a neigé"), Joni Mitchell ("River"), Gordon Lightfoot ("Song for a Winter's Night"), Leonard Cohen ("Winter Lady"), and Anne Murray ("Snowbird").

Following many of the same themes, later musicians such as k.d. lang ("Barefoot"), Sarah McLachlan (cover, "Song for a Winter's Night"), Joel Plaskett ("Snowed In," "Face of the Earth"), Julie Doiron ("Snow Falls in November," "The Longest Winter," "Winter Mitts"), Hawksley Workman ("3 Generations"), Malajube ("Montreal -40º"), Sam Roberts ("The Canadian Dream"), and many others have recorded songs about the season. Stompin' Tom Connors' famous "Snowmobile Song" and "Hockey Song" are two of Canada's favourite lighthearted songs about winter.

Classical Compositions

The subject of winter has also been explored broadly in Canadian classical music. André Gagnon wrote the instrumental piece Neiges as well as the set of four concertos Mes Quatre Saisons, of which the fourth ("Hiver") is based on "Mon Pays." Other examples have included Rodolphe Mathieu's Saisons canadiennes (before 1927); and Jean Coulthard's Ballade (A Winter's Tale) (1940), "Soft Fall the February Snows"(1958), and "A Cold Kingdom," the first part of her Choral Symphony (1967). Claude Champagne gave the title "Chanson d'hiver" to the third movement of his Images du Canada francais (1943). In Altitude (1959), "a sound fresco inspired by the sight of the Rocky Mountains," Champagne found in snow the inspiration for those passages describing the "light on the glaciers, the dread of the avalanche, the avalanche itself, the squalls, and the final desolation." Winter also appears in "In Winter Cold" (1950) by Leslie Bell, in "First Snow," the fourth piece in The Seasons (1952) by Lorne Betts; in Les Saisons (1954) by Maurice Dela; and in Boréal (1959) and IIKKII (froidure) (1971) by François Morel. Serge Garant drew on winter in L'Homme et les régions polaires, film music produced for the pavilion of the same name at Expo 67; the composer made a concert version under the title of Amuya (1968), an Inuit word meaning "thick and melting snow." The ballet Pointes sur glace, to a score by Edmund Assaly on themes of Calixa Lavallée, was premiered at Place des Arts by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1967.

"Soir d'hiver," a poem by Nelligan, was set to music by Jacques Hétu and is part of the cycle Les Clartés de la nuit, for soprano and piano (1972) or for soprano and orchestra (1986). R. Murray Schafer, in North/White (1973), uses a snowmobile (a motorized vehicle on skis invented in Quebec by the Bombardier company), as an orchestral sound and also as a realistic symbol of what he calls "the rape of the North." Mention should also be made of Arctic Images (1971) by Derek Healey; Pays de neige (1971) by Michel Longtin; "Snow Anthology," the first movement of Weatherscapes (1973) by Derek Holman; Nuances du Nord (1975) by Gary Hayes; Snowforms (1981) by Schafer, with text based on Inuit words for snow; Northern Sketches (1982) by Srul Irving Glick; Arctic Dances (1984) by John Beckwith; A Midwinter Night's Dream (1988), an opera by Harry Somers; Winter Music (1989) by Alexina Louie; Winter Poems (1994) by Glenn Buhr; Blow, blow thou Winter Wind, the Shakespeare text set by Harry Freedman (1995) and by Stephen Chatman (1995, pub 2004); and Le Voyage d'hiver (1999), an electroacoustic work by Daniel Leduc.

The 21st century has also seen a long list of works based on wintry themes. Interesting examples have included Martha Hill Duncan's Songs of the Tekahionwake: Lady Icicle (2001); Donald Patriquin's Inuit Weather Chant (2001), with text in Inuktitut; Denys Bouliane's La neige est blanche mais l'eau est noire (2003); Christos Hatzis' Winter Solstice (2004) and Okiatsâsiujut (Women Preparing for Winter) (2011); Allan Rae's harp trio Winter Chinook (2006); Dora Cojocaru's Three Sketches for a Fussy Winter (2007); Simon Martin's Icebergs et soleil de minuit (2007); and Ruth Watson Henderson's Winter (2010).

Examples of winter music can also be found through the CBC, the Canadian Music Centre, and Library Archives Canada.