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It’s easy to get springtime wrong. The history of classical music is rich with composers who seem to have never actually experienced the month of May, let alone April—composers for whom the end of winter is summed up by pretty melodies, soaring themes, bucolic strings. Basically: all lambs, no mud.

But spring is more than that. It’s ice-crack and tulip bud, wet basements and birdsong, mulch and meltwater. Lambs don’t just gambol: They’re born too, messily. Allergies ramp up, rain clouds open, troubles surface. With the exception of Stravinsky’s glorious Rite of Spring, teeming with primal appetites, the best-known vernal works render the season at its most banal: Schumann’s exhaustingly upbeat Spring Symphony; Mendelssohn’s dementedly Arcadian, Looney Tunes–like “Spring Song”; and, inescapably, the threadbare first movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So never mind that stuff. For me, spring is about disquiet—frozen feelings coming loose. It’s the inverse of fall, where the heart is slowly stilling. In spring things dawn, break, molt, change form, grow shoots. Stravinsky’s Rite is just an extreme portrayal—spring at its most terrifying, filled with fertile power. Rachmaninoff reflects the same vitality: His song “Spring Waters” is cheerful but riotous, a soprano running rampant over shattering piano chords. Delius captured a similar energy in “The March of Spring,” an orchestral piece from his North Country Sketches. Here, as with most classical music, the secret is to play it loud. Whereas modern rock and pop use sound as a fire hose, compressing as much as they can into FM radio–ready frequencies, classical music thrives on its dynamics, from whispering strings to booming horns. Listen too quietly and that power wastes away.

This isn’t just true of symphonies. Solo piano works are too often relegated to background music. Compositions like Tchaikovsky’s “May,” from his underappreciated series The Seasons, thaws beautifully from cool, glacial melan-choly into rushing—and nearly contented—cascades. A similar progress marks John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, from 1950. Although Cage is better known for experiments like 4’33”, this quartet is direct and luminous, each of its movements representing a different season. The section for spring is called “Slowly Rock-ing” and it does just this—a back and forth of swaying phrases, alternately gorgeous and dissonant.

In truth, this is spring in full bloom. Seasons don’t switch like records in a jukebox, the next one neatly clacking into place. They’re closer to cacophonies—intermingling melodies, two songs at the same time. Spring is like summer, like autumn, like winter: It’s a moment in motion, changing before you. It’s always transforming; its music should too.

Sean Michaels is the author of Us Conductors, a novel for which he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2014.

Sean Michaels is the author of Us Conductors, a novel for which he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2014.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Seven

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