Walter Bitner

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Rain Music

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Cliffs at Pourville Rain 1896 by Claude Monet (1840-1926)

It has been raining here for weeks. The rivers are overflowing their banks, school districts all over the region canceled classes yesterday because of flooding, and all of us who work downtown are watching the water rise anxiously.

It is difficult to escape a sense a déjà vu as memories of the 2010 flood that devastated our city resurface and fears that history could repeat itself arise.

As I drove into town this morning to produce our annual concerto competition, I found myself thinking about all of the music about rain that has been a part of my life.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, 1952

When I was a child, Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain was often broadcast as the afternoon movie rerun on television, but for some reason this iconic musical didn’t really capture my imagination and I have never managed to sit through it, nor do I associate its cheery title song with how rain actually makes me feel.

When it comes to snappy, upbeat rain music from my childhood, it is Walter S. Horsley’s “jazz cantata” about the biblical story of Noah and the Flood 100% Chance of Rain that still lingers in my memory.

I think I was in third grade when I sang this in my church choir – both at Sunday services and in a mass choir performance with (at least as I remember it) hundreds of other children from Chicago area churches under the direction of the composer. This would have been about 1974.

Years later, when I was in college, I held my first position as a choir director for Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida (I was the youth choir director). In 1987 my “Rainbow Choir” at PCPC performed 100% Chance of Rain, among  the first concerts I ever directed.

However, the song that first came to my mind this morning as my daughter and I drove into town was Randy Newman’s haunting Louisiana 1927.  Newman is one of America’s finest songwriters and composers. If Louisiana 1927 is a typical example of his ability to pull together many threads into a three minute masterpiece (in this case a history lesson, political commentary, exposition of loss and grief, and a musical arrangement that pulls at one’s feelings), it’s amazing nonetheless.

 

Louisiana 1927 by Randy Newman (1974)
“They’re tryin’ to wash us away”

 

When I was a teenager, the English band Led Zeppelin was a strong, dominating presence in the popular music that my friends and I listened to and played. When I first bought their 1973 album Houses of the Holy I was enraptured by the ballad (unusual for Page and Plant) The Rain Song, and spent weeks learning how to play it on piano and trying to find a way to emulate John Paul Jones’ mellotron parts on my Korg Poly-Ensemble. I still consider this song to be one of Zeppelin’s best.

 

The Rain Song by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant performed by Led Zeppelin (1973)
“Upon us all a little rain must fall”

 

The first album of solo piano music I remember owning was a collection of pieces by Chopin that I talked my mother into buying for me. It was part of a series of of records we saw one afternoon on an endcap display in the grocery store! Each LP featured popular pieces by a single composer: Beethoven, Brahms, etc. (Today we would call this a bargain release.)

My mother bought me the Chopin disc, we took it home, and I listened to that record repeatedly for months until it hissed, popped, skipped and eventually became unplayable. This was sometime in the early 1970s, around the time I started to play the piano, and several of the pieces on this record I went on to study in my teens and early twenties. Unfortunately I do not remember who the pianist on this album was, but that record made an incalculable impression on me, and I credit it (and Chopin) for a huge part of the early inspiration and love I developed for classical music, and for the piano and its repertoire in particular.

Of the pieces on that album, it was Chopin’s stirring and majestic polonaises that made the most immediate impression on me at that young age, especially the“Heroic” Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53 (which I tried to learn how to play when I was older) and the  “Military” Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40 (which I actually did learn how to play). But alongside those warhorses, the moody “Raindrop” Prélude, Op. 28, No. 15 touched me deeply, and often surfaces in my memory on rainy days.

Thanks, Mom.

 

“Raindrop” Prélude, Op. 28, No. 15 by Frédéric Chopin (1839)
performed by Maurizio Pollini (1985)

 

By the time I was 15 I had already been playing in rock bands for a couple of years. Wishing to have a band that played more keyboard-centered music, I put together my first trio with friends who played bass and drums. One of the first pieces I learned how to play with this trio (and sing, believe it or not) was The Doors’ Riders on the Storm.

I love this song (although I don’t think its lyrics are among Jim’s best), and its dark, brooding atmosphere can return my thoughts to that period of my life instantly. Ray Manzarek’s grooving, extended electric piano solo is one of the most satisfying to play in the entire rock canon. I remember how pleased I was when I finally managed to master Ray’s right hand descending “raindrop” passage (which recurs throughout the song) successfully against the relentless, driving left hand bass line. Tricky!

 

Riders on the Storm by The Doors (1971)
“Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown”

 

Rain by The Beatles is the only piece of music I have ever performed on bass guitar in public (true story – at a party with friends in 1981). It was recorded during the sessions for Revolver and appeared as the B side to the single Paperback Writer in 1966.

It is famous as an example of The Beatles’ early experiments in the recording studio, including the first release of a pop song to feature “backwards” vocals:

I got home from the studio and I was stoned out of my mind on marijuana and, as I usually do, I listened to what I’d recorded that day. Somehow I got it on backwards and I sat there, transfixed, with the earphones on, with a big hash joint. I ran in the next day and said, ‘I know what to do with it, I know… Listen to this!’ So I made them all play it backwards. The fade is me actually singing backwards with the guitars going backwards. [Singing backwards] Sharethsmnowthsmeaness… [Laughter] That one was the gift of God, of Jah, actually, the god of marijuana, right? So Jah gave me that one.

~ John Lennon
All We Are Saying:
The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono
David Sheff, 2010
It’s credited to John and Paul, but it just seems much more like one of John’s songs to me.

 

Rain by The Beatles (1966)
“Can you hear me
That when it rains and shines
It’s just a state of mind?
Can you hear me?
Can you hear me?”

 

In my late teens I became deeply enamored with Beethoven’s music, learned to play many of his piano sonatas and other pieces, and spend hundreds of hours obsessively studying the scores of many of his other works, including of course his symphonies. My affection for his music has never subsided, even if as I got older I have spent more time studying and performing music other than his.

The fourth movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 – titled Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder, Storm) – evokes the imagery of rain and storm in the most visceral way.

 

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, 4th movement by Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink (2005)

 

But the rain music that has had the deepest impact on me is the four movement suite Concerto for a Rainy Day by Jeff Lynne, which comprises side three of the double album Out of the Blue by Electric Light Orchestra. It was released in 1977 and I bought it soon after it came out (ELO was one of my very favorite bands when I was a teen).

The concerto comprises four distinct tracks:

  • Standin’ in the Rain (0:00)
  • Big Wheels (4:00)
  • Summer and Lightning (9:28)
  • Mr. Blue Sky (13:39)

Jeff Lynne – one of rock’s greatest songwriters and visionaries – delivers some of his very best work here. Cathartically, listening to these four classics never fails to cheer me up when a rainy day gets me down. The dark and moody atmosphere of the first songs in the suite disperse with the clouds as the sun comes out for the closing number Mr. Blue Sky.

 

Concerto for a Rainy Day by Jeff Lynne, performed by Electric Light Orchestra (1977)
“Sun is shining in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped raining, everybody’s in a play
And don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day”

 

When I was the music director of Music City Youth Orchestra 2007-2012, I wrote an arrangement of Mr. Blue Sky which we performed as our encore at the end of nearly every concert.

 

*       *       *

 

On our way home from the first round of the concerto competition this afternoon, my daughter took over the rainy day playlist. She is a very dedicated and knowledgeable expert on Korean culture and pop music (she even attended Korean Saturday school for several years, can read and write hangul, and cook any number of delicious Korean dishes). We’ve spent hundreds of hours together in the car over the years by now driving to and from school, and I’ve probably listened to more K-Pop than most white American men my age have.

So here, in an unexpected conclusion to our Rain Music playlist, is the incomparable SHINee (샤이니), with their song Green Rain, which was produced for the Korean television program The Queen’s Classroom.

 

Green Rain by SHINee 샤이니 (2013)

 

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Playlists

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Rain Music


10 Comments

  1. Margie Way-Kiani says:

    Love this post. Thanks, Walter.

  2. Alena Pyne says:

    Dear Walter

    What a beautiful piece of writing and music. Thank you.

    Best wishes Alena Pyne

  3. Dennis Meehan says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. One of my favorite rain songs is The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

  4. cmbitner says:

    I, too, loved this post. So beautiful. Thanks so much for pulling this collection together!

  5. Susan Dupont says:

    Introduced me to a lot of new things! Thanks, Walter

  6. Loved it! I taught Horsley’s 100% Chance of Rain to students in three churches. Still charming. Lots of nice music to listen to in this post – as always, Walter!

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