Winter has arrived, and as we face a continuing pandemic, we seem to be more relaxed appreciative of the circumstances we're growing accustomed to. I personally find the darker hours rich with romance and coziness.
I am not alone in this. Composers around the world have settled into the winter months and have been inspired to create equally rich sounds. Here are some favourites that inspired by a Guardian article.
The Mamas and Papas (1965)
Its title and its harmonies suggest sunshine and freedom, but this beautiful song is incredibly bleak. A man goes for a walk on a winter’s day, the leaves are brown, the sky grey. He prays in a church, but it’s pointless: the preacher “knows I’m going to stay”. The line that packs the iciest punch is: “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”. Didn’t tell her what – that he loved her? Whatever the reason, safety and sunshine blaze on far away. Simon & Garfunkel’s A Hazy Shade of Winter, released 10 months later, features the “leaves are brown” as a pointed homage.
Famous Blue Raincoat
Leonard Cohen (1971)
Winter nights are coldest, but they’re also the darkest. Leonard Cohen’s slow lament begins at “four in the morning, the end of December”, with a man writing a letter. “New York is cold,” Cohen sings, mentioning the “music on Clinton Street”, stuff the Lower East Side renter would have heard in real life. Then his protagonist’s tone turns: “You’re living for nothing now,” he whispers. The tale of a complicated love triangle, and a death either literal or metaphorical (“my brother, my killer”), it is a song Cohen never thought he finished properly, despite it being one of his greatest.
Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow
This track begins like a twisted mystery story. Mona and Mary have gone out without their mittens, and Michael, Matthew and Mark are out in the dark, despite 4.572 metres of white stuff being on the ground. Then the cold hacks in: the protagonist begins to freeze, get icicles on his knees and later tells a doctor he’s paralysed by a lack of feeling. The cold of the body and the mind are perceptibly intertwined, as they would be four years later on Arcade Fire’s Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels), children digging through the snow as they leave their parents crying.
It May Be Winter Outside (But in My Heart It’s Spring)
Love Unlimited (1971)
When the temperature dips, reach for your lover rather than a jumper. So says Glodean James alongside her sister, Linda, and cousin Diane – and so she should, given her boyfriend was love-colossus Barry White. He also wrote this song, she adding pointedly: “He’s been the only one who can make my temperature rise.” Love Unlimited’s second UK hit followed the similarly weathered Walking in the Rain With the One I Love, which featured White as a deep, burly voice on Glodean’s phone. For similar sentiments in an indie-pop song, Aztec Camera’s Walk Out to Winter sparkles too.
Cold Weather Blues
Muddy Waters (1964)
By January 1964, Muddy Waters’s thunderous, electric blues were already known around the world, but here he embraced the mood of the times and went totally acoustic. His album Folk Singer, is a masterpiece of stripped-down, atmospheric sounds, with Cold Weather Blues feeling especially stark, sparse and chilly. His girl won’t come, and “hot spring water won’t help her none”, so he decides to go somewhere “where the weather suits my clothes” (a line that would crop in Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’ five years later). Whether he does is tantalisingly unclear, especially as it’s “so cold up north that the birds can hardly fly”.
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi
Vivaldi’s four violin concertos each depict a different season – and the closing piece is Winter, complete with chattering teeth sound effects and a chill wind. But the poem which inspired the piece finishes with the line ‘winter… nonetheless brings its own delights.’ Well, quite.
The Bells, Rachmaninov
‘Hear the sledges with the bells – Silver bells! What a world of merriment their melody foretells’. Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells uses a translation of the eponymous Edgar Allan Poe poem from which these lines come. The piece makes much use of the Gregorian Dies Irae melody and also includes a part – of course – for tubular bells.
Cold Winter Day
Blind Willie McTell
- Cold Winter Day
- from Statesboro Blues: The Early Years 1927-1935
Although "Statesboro Blues" is Blind Willie McTell's most famous song — it's been covered by many artists, including Taj Mahal and The Allman Brothers — he wasn't a one-song wonder. McTell was very prolific during the '20s and '30s, writing and recording some of the best blues numbers of that era. "Cold Winter Day" is just one the many great songs in his extensive discography.
When There Is No Sun
Sun Ra Quartet
This mostly vocal track is slightly experimental and lets your mind wander in the best way possible. The lyrics to the free jazz piece goes, “the sky is a sea of darkness when there is no sun,” which is fitting subject matter for the next couple of months. That being said, winter has never sounded better – Sun Ra helps us light the way home.