Playlist: WFMT Selects Classical Music to Help You Brave the Winter

By Keegan Morris |

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Blustery wind, slushy snow, and frigid temperatures. Winter can be grueling in Chicago and beyond, but music can be an oasis that warms and soothes you.

We asked 13 WFMT staff members to select music that helps them get through the winter. Whether you’re cozying up indoors or braving the elements, this playlist is for you!  (Jump to playlist)

Gaspard de la nuit, by Maurice Ravel

Ravel's music has always struck me deeply, pulling me into a candle-lit world of fantasy, into the darkened wings of an otherworldy ballet of sound. The suite of piano pieces titled Gaspard de la nuit is based on three poems by Aloysius Bertrand, poetry with rather dark and ominous imagery. Listening to this piece last week, and watching the snow swirl about over Lake Michigan, created the perfect wintry afternoon. I felt like the music and the atmosphere were almost one and the same. — Maggie Clennon Reberg, Program Host

Symphony No. 4, by Gustav Mahler

My favorite classical work for winter is Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Some would say designating a Mahler symphony is to cheat because, after all, the man himself said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything”. This work fits the bill, and the first movement opens with sleigh bells! It’s not program music, but as the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel wrote, “No composer is more completely absorbed in nature … He reveals its mysterious and potent force, from the bud to the flower and from wastrel profusion to decay – and again and again, death. The very symphonic form, the origin and development of the themes seem to repeat the fate of organic matter.” And to conclude, he brings us a depiction of heaven! Hearing the piece is to experience tragedy, but also hope. — Kerry Frumkin, Program Host

Sleep, by Eric Whitacre

The eight part choral setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” conjures up an idyllic yet dark wintry landscape. As in the source poem, even though the exhausted traveler has miles to go before the promise of sleep, the rich a cappella vocal textures feel just like a nice warm blanket on a cold, snowy night. — Mary Mazurek, Recording Engineer

Symphony No. 1: La Nuit des Tropiques (A Night in the Tropics), by Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Considered one of the first American symphonies, the piece sounds like it came right out of a concert in 1950s Havana – yet it was written in 1859! The second movement incorporates Cuban percussion with an infectious melody – this music will certainly keep you warm and help you remember that there is much to look forward to outside of frigid Chicago winters! — Michael San Gabino, Associate Producer and Program Host

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, II. Allegro appassionato, by Johannes Brahms

I’m generalizing here, but Johannes Brahms’s music is the hearty winter stew of the classical canon — solid, nutritious, filling and edifying, and thoroughly satisfying to hear all the way through. The second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 can transform my perception of winter weather, elevating it from its usual drab dampness to the heights of a raging, tempestuous whirlwind. — Robbie Ellis, Program Host

Fratres (Brothers), by Arvo Pärt

Fratres is a mesmerizing, minimal, and even mystical piece. It was written without a fixed instrumentation, and can be performed by many different types of ensembles from duo piano to chamber orchestra. However, the Kronos Quartet version, from the aptly named album Winter Was Hard, is my favorite due to the intense fragility and restrained emotion with which they present the music. Pärt stands out as being a master at blending the meditative and the minimal into a piece that is much more than the sum of its parts (if you’re familiar with Pärt’s more commonly heard Spiegel im Spiegel, you may recognize his signature style!). Fratres is perfect for pensive moments looking out into the falling snow or over the grey skyline, and I’ve spent many a January ride on public transit with the piece on repeat. — Estlin Usher, Station Relations Manager

Songs from Winterreise, by Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert composed his final song cycle in 1827, the year before he died, and the same year as the author of the verses, Wilhelm Müller, died. For Schubert, grief and barrenness were all around: ill health, little money, and a circle of faithful friends who’d tried, with mixed success, to win more recognition for his works. As one of those friends, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, put it, “Life had lost its rosiness, and winter was upon him.”

The protagonist of Winterreise is a man whose lover has been unfaithful. He’s left his home (or perhaps her home?) to set out on an undefined and seemingly aimless journey in the depths of a Central European winter. His increasing despair and sense of alienation and isolation are conveyed powerfully through both the vocal lines and the piano accompaniment – and poignantly reflect Schubert’s own anguish as he faces illness and death. At the same time, the songs vividly evoke the wintry landscape and the struggle to walk through snow and cold winds. Click here for the text and its English translation. — Andi Lamoreaux, Music Director

String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 – II. Andante, ma moderato, by Johannes Brahms

I first heard this striking String Sextet by Brahms when I visited Vienna in January 2010. The temperature outdoors was in the single digits and snow covered the roof of the Musikverein. To me, this Andante, ma moderato movement always paints a scene of wintertime. The opening viola melody is labored, like trudging through deep snow, while the backdrop of harmonies evokes winter’s relentless, chilly winds. Soon, the violins play a melody that is like spring trying to break through hard frost, only to be beaten back by the brutal wind (forte arpeggios in the celli). I can almost see Brahms in this setting, taking one of his customary morning walks around Vienna. — Joshua Sauvageau, Chief Engineer

"In the Pine Forest" and "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Though we certainly get our fill of this holiday favorite every Christmas, one section that works all winter long is the magical conclusion of Act 1. After the heroine, Clara, watches the toy Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King and his army, the Nutcracker is transformed into a young prince. He guides Clara to a snowy pine forest, where they are welcomed by snowflakes who perform a beautiful waltz. Tchaikovsky’s music perfectly captures the enchantment of a winter landscape. It never fails to move! — Lisa Flynn, Program Host

Danzón No. 2, by Arturo Márquez

Ready to brave the cold on the long walk to the El? What better way to get grooving through your snowy walk than with Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez. Its fun rhythms, bright melodies, and unforgettable harmonies are sure to make you forget the frigid weather and even heat things up.  You may just dance all the way to your train. An essential track to bring along with your coat, scarf, and hat on a long, cold walk. — Daniel Goldberg, Producer

Air: Lá fuar geimhreadh (On a cold winter's day), Traditional

Ireland may not be the first locale to arrive in one’s thoughts when cataloguing places where winter is especially challenging. But the Irish countryside can be pretty dramatic in winter time. And there’s no more perfect dish for cozy consumption this time of year than a hearty bowl of Irish stew made in the slow cooker. Here’s a traditional Irish folk song that, to me, the perfect accompaniment. It’s one of those tunes you just can’t get out of your head “On a cold winter’s day.” — Dennis Moore, Program Host

Erlkönig, by Franz Schubert

Erlkönig is a sad song by Franz Schubert composed to a poem by Goethe. Through a winter storm, a father rides home on his horse, clutching his ill son in his arms. His son hears the Erl King, king of the fairies, whispering in his ears and grabbing at him, and his father assures him there is no fairy. He’s confident he can outrace the storm. A driving ostinato intensifies, growing verse by verse with a key change. Just as the father and son reach their destination, the father looks down at his son and discovers it’s too late: his son has died in his arms. The Erl King has taken the innocent child. So, like the Erl King, winter lures you with inner coziness and hope for warm weather to come, but the wild storms of winter win! Click here for the text and its English translation. — Cydne Gillard, Producer

Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), by Manuel de Falla

The days may be short; still, winter feels endless. I’m over it. And it’s only January. I miss the pulsing heat of the summer sun on my neck, the way the sun makes my skin smell. The closest thing on record to these sensations is Manuel de Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain), the recording by the Paris Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim with pianist Martha Argerich. Atmospheric and evocative, this voluptuous work for orchestra with piano brings back the memory of languid summer nights, the evening’s breezes acting as a salve to sultry days under a burning sun. — Candice Agree, Program Host