Rivers have been a source of inspiration for composers of classical music throughout history, and the music they have created reflects the power, beauty, and ever-changing nature of these vital waterways.
We’ve collected some great pieces of classical music about rivers that transport listeners on a musical journey through the many moods and movements of these life-giving waterways.
Classical Music About Rivers
1. The Blue Danube (Op.314), by Johann Strauss II
I suspect this might be the most famous waltz ever composed, and possibly the most famous piece about a river, but I’m always eager to hear the alternatives.
This piece did not begin life as an orchestral work. Just before the defeat of Austria in the seven years’ war Strauss was asked to compose a choral piece for the Vienna Men’s Choral Society. That work never reached fruition.
What happened was that Strauss was then asked to write an uplifting piece to rally the spirits of the Austrian nation after the war. Strauss looked back to his early sketches of the choral work, selected a poem well known to him by Karl Beck, and composed a waltz for choir.
The link is that the ending line of each stanza contains the line “By The Danube, beautiful blue Danube”. As it turns out, the choral waltz didn’t raise the morale of the nation and was considered by many to be a disaster.
Strauss undeterred orchestrated the work in that same year. The Blue Danube as it became known, premiered in Paris at the World Exhibition and the rest is history.
2. The Yellow River (1939) by Xian Xinghai
At the time this piano concerto was composed China was embroiled in the Sino-Japanese war that lasted until the end of 1945. This war was an integral part of the Second World War that left China as well as countless other nations in a terrible way.
Out of these ashes came the piano concerto, supposedly composed in six days. The Yellow River is powerfully symbolic to China so the concerto is designed to be an act of defiance against the invading Japanese forces.
The way the composer does this is by weaving traditional Chinese folk tunes into the concerto. It is important to remember that the original score was a cantata, not a piano concerto.
This piece is a reworking of that original vocal piece. In this way, the traditional melodies remain perfectly intact and representative of vital aspects of Chinese culture.
The four movements are Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen, Ode to the Yellow River, The Yellow River in Anger, and Defend the Yellow River. It’s patriotic stuff magnificently upheld by the Romantic nature of the concerto.
3. Vltava by Bedrich Smetana
Completed in 1874, this is one of Smetana’s best-loved compositions. Like the Yellow River Concerto, this composition is deeply patriotic. The tone poem conjures the journey of the river Vltava as it travels from Bohemia right through the Czech countryside to its destination in Prague.
This piece is actually part of a larger set of works composed by Smetana that includes a total of six pieces. Vltava is the second of the six and Smetana’s most enduring. The work is in the key of E minor with a duration of around thirteen minutes.
If you recognise the melody of this work it’s because it is an adaption of La Mantovana that allegedly was composed by Guiseppe Cenci in the Renaissance. Music is more than a single melody and Smetana proves this in his homage to the river.
4. The Rio Grande (1927) by Constant Lambert
Constant Lambert is not a name one hears these days, yet he was an English composer, conductor and founder of the Royal Ballet. Much of Lambert’s life was devoted to his conducting career and his devotional commitment to the ballet.
Without Lambert’s work with the Royal Ballet, it is unlikely to have been the brilliant establishment it is today. As a result of his tireless work with ballet, his composition suffered. He didn’t have enough time for both passions.
Of the works from Lambert that have lasted, The Rio Grande is one even if it is not performed often now. The forces he scored the work for are substantial and include a solo piano, alto soloists, a chorus as well as a full orchestra.
What we hear in this vibrant piece is the influence of jazz in its syncopated rhythms and harmonies that at times come close to atonal. The words for the composition were provided by Sir Sacherverell Sitwell.
In this work, we hear what has sometimes been described as the English Gershwin. The music is cleverly crafted and great fun.
5. Florida Suite: By The River (1887) by Frederick Delius
The suite comprises four movements of which the second is titled By The River. Even though Delius was an English-born composer, the Florida Suite stems from a time when he was managing an orange grove in Florida.
From here the title and the music came although Delius completed the work when living in Leipzig, Germany.
If you’re familiar with Delius’s work, you may already know that the first movement of the Suite titled Daybreak includes a version of the melody called La Calinda from Delius’s opera Koanga.
The music is as fluid as the river; simple yet directly appealing. In some of the music Delius composed later in his life, he was accused of using dense harmonies in his orchestration. In this piece, it is uncluttered, clear and even haunting.
6. Dawn on the Moskva River (1881) by Modest Mussorgsky
Death caught up with Mussorgsky before he could finish his final operatic work called Khovanschina. Dawn on the Moskva River was intended by the composer, to be the prelude before this grand work.
Imagine the first light casting its golden light across the Russian landscape and the Muscovy river. Listen for how at the start the opening idea gradually evolves, passing through the sections of the orchestra.
There is also a wealth of Russian folk music here in the prelude. Mussorgsky masterfully orchestrates his material and makes ingenious variations to simple melodies.
The opera, as Mussorgsky’s other works, lean towards, orientates itself around Russian history. The case of Khovanschina, centres on the Russian uprising of 1682 led by the hero of the opera Prince Ivan Khovansky.
This five-act opera was all but completed in a piano score. No orchestration was made by the composer. What happened was several notable composers then took on the challenge of orchestrating and completing the opera.
Rimsky-Korsakov was the first with Dimitri Shostakovich dutifully following some seventy years later. These two composers viewed the work in different ways but in the end, audiences preferred Shostakovich’s take on the opera.
His orchestration was commissioned as a result of the opera being turned into a film in 1959 directed by Vera Stroyeva.