WaterWorks - Masterpieces Are On Tap At Ravinia

In late 1999 Disney Studios released Fantasia 2000, a sequel to the nearly legendary 1940 Fantasia film that coupled imaginative animation with classical music. One segment from the original film was repeated in the sequel: the iconic cartoon interpretation of Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice featuring Mickey Mouse in what is unquestionably his greatest role.

The story of that piece, of course, centers around the subject of water (click here for more information about The Sorcerer's Apprentice). What impressed this viewer of the sequel, however, was how prominent the element of water seemed to be throughout the entire film. The flying abstract triangles of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 soar past waterfalls and over ponds, setting off ripples; a school of whales cavorts to Respighi's The Fountains of Rome; The Steadfast Tin Soldier goes on a mad paper-boat journey through a city sewer to the strains of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2; a flock of flamingos indulges in high-speed horseplay as they skim over and splash into a lake during a movement of Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals; Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches underscore Donald Duck as he assists Noah in collecting animals before the torrential rains of the Biblical flood; and after the scorching devastation inflicted by The Firebird to Stravinsky's score, life triumphantly returns with the coming of rain. The Disney animators, it seemed, were obsessed with H20.

Looking back on it, the association of water with music—and animation—seems quite obvious, since the essence of all three is movement through time. And water not only moves; like music, it can reflect a multitude of moods. It can flow, gush, gurgle, babble, splash, drip, swirl, engulf. Like music, it has variety of amplitude, ranging from a gently bubbling stream that softly caresses to a tsunami that devastates everything in its path. It can be steady, like a rushing river or a roaring waterfall; or it can reflect a range of rhythm, from the dripping of a leaking faucet to the majestic sweep of ocean waves. It can be billowing clouds of steam rising upward, or frozen crystals of snow floating down.

Water also has unique acoustic properties. Whales are said to be able to communicate over many hundreds of miles with their unique "songs" because the water of the oceans is such an excellent conductor of sound (or at least it was, until human noise pollution from boats, Jet Skis, undersea drilling and such reached such high levels as to obliterate the sounds of nature). And the sounds of water itself are therapeutically soothing, as witness the small table-top fountains or ocean-wave-sound generators that have become so popular.

The only thing water should not be, and which music cannot be, is stagnant. It is lively, and life-giving, only when it is in motion.

Perhaps that is why water has ignited the inspiration not only of animators, but also of composers. Some have sought to depict actual geographical features, especially since the 19th century, when the new surge of nationalism was gripping many composers, such as Bedrich Smetana, who immortalized The Moldau in his cycle of tone poems titled Má Vlast ("My Country"); or Robert Schumann, who named his third ("Rhenish") symphony after the Rhine River; or, more recently, the several musicians who arranged Xinghai's Yellow River Cantata to create the Yellow River Piano Concerto, which is enormously popular in China and which the dazzling Lang Lang will perform on July 17. Closer to home, not many people are familiar with Ferde Grofe's Mississippi Suite, but virtually everyone in this country knows the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic "Old Man River." Perhaps the most famous river music of all, however, is Johann Strauss, Jr.'s waltz tribute to The Beautiful Blue Danube, which will be part of Christoph Eschenbach's "Night in Vienna" concert on July 28. That waltz has come to symbolize Vienna itself, and every year it is the penultimate encore at the Vienna Philharmonic's internationally televised New Year's Day concert.

Rivers occasionally had a far more malignant influence on the lives of some composers. Shortly before being confined in an asylum in 1854, near the end of his life, Schumann wandered off one day and jumped off a bridge over the Rhine River in an attempt to drown himself. Similarly, shortly after his disastrous wedding in 1877, Peter Ilyich Tchiakovsky waded waist-deep into the frigid Moscow River in hopes of contracting a fatal case of pneumonia. Both composers survived the attempts.

The nearly universal popularity of fountains demonstrates how fascinating we find water in motion—certainly one of the major tourist attractions in Chicago is the Buckingham Fountain (seen on the home page of this website). Many Baby Boomers will recall seeing the "Dancing Waters" that accompanied Liberace on some of his television appearances. Controlled from an actual piano-style keyboard, the Dancing Waters exhibited a seemingly unlimited variety of movement to music. Their descendent today is the impressive fountain display at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, but their predecessors go back centuries, even to the ancient world. The fountains of Rome, which today number some 280, date back to the time of Augustus Caesar. The imperial palace of Austria's Hapsburg emperors, for which construction began in 1696 near Vienna and encompasses several fountain complexes, is called "Schönbrunn," meaning "Beautiful Spring."

Picture Of Fountain
This fountain once adorned the grounds at Ravinia

Composers have been as fascinated by fountains as have non-musicians. One of the most popular compositions of Ottorino Respighi is The Fountains of Rome, a musical portrait of four of the Eternal City's most popular water displays. Ravel described his own Jeux d'eau ("Fountains" or "Playing Water") for solo piano as being "inspired by the noise of water and by the musical sounds one hears in spraying water, cascades and brooks," but it was also inspired by an earlier piano work by Franz Liszt, called Les jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este ("The Fountains of the Villa d'Este").

Other compositions have been inspired by the movement of water in a more natural setting. The "Summer" concerto from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (Sarah Chang with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on June 14) Beethoven's Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony (Paavo Järi conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, July 31) and Rossini's ever-popular overture to William Tell all feature thrilling orchestral depictions of thunder storms. Tchaikovsky found inspiration in snow (The "Dance of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker) and even the mist generated by a waterfall (in the second movement of his Manfred Symphony, "The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall").

Needless to say, the largest bodies of water, the oceans and seas, have triggered musical responses from composers as well. Rimsky-Korsakov's multimovement symphonic tone poem, Sheherazade, which will be performed on July 12, opens with a portrayal of "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship," and concludes with a demonstration of the mighty forces of an angry sea that cause a shipwreck. And Debussy tackled the ocean itself in the three "symphonic sketches" that make up La Mer, which will be heard on July 22 (for more information on La Mer, click here).

Creatures of the sea have inspired other music that will be heard at Ravinia this summer, among them "The Aquarium" from Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals (July 1) and the work that prompted the water theme for this year's One Score, One Chicago, Zemlinsky's The Mermaid, which will be performed on August 12 (for more information on The Mermaid, click here).

Entire genres of music have sprung from the inspiration of water. The songs of Venetian gondoliers became the barcarolle (Chopin's Barcarolle will be performed by pianist Jeffrey Kahane's August 7 recital in the Martin Theatre), while sailors' songs, or sea chanteys (sometimes spelled shanties) provide some of the most ravishing moments in Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd.

Another operatic masterpiece with aquatic overtones is Puccini's beloved Madama Butterfly, which will receive a concert performance starring soprano Patricia Racette and tenor Frank Lopardo with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Conlon. The Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San, whose friends call her "Butterfly," loves Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American naval officer, and in the first scene of the second act, she looks out over the harbor from her house to watch the return of his ship, unaware that he has abandoned her for an American wife. Towards the opera's end, after she learns the truth, Butterfly finds she cannot conceive a future without her beloved Pinkerton.

That is one other quality that water shares with music, perhaps the most important of all. A life without music, for many people, would be as impossible to conceive as a life without water.

Essay by John Schauer
Associate Director of Communications at Ravinia Festival
Editor of Ravinia Program Magazine
Mermaid painting by Russell Jenkins

Return to top of page

Entire site contents Copyright ©2007 Ravinia Festival, a not-for-profit organization.