The Music of a River that Flows through the Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.


Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

26 thoughts on “The Music of a River that Flows through the Soul

  1. I do like your choice of music, especially the Wagner and the Sibelius. I’ve been going through all Schubert symphonies on utube recently and much enjoying them. Something I had not done before. Our UK rivers are very important to us here too. Our local Arun runs through the beautiful South Downs and past the renowned Arundle Castle, just a few miles from here. It’s our favourite local countryside to visit. Greetings!

  2. Great post.
    Seriously, it’s great to come across someone with the creative ability to see the connection between not only all living things, but with creativity itself. I wrote, jammed, performed (only locally in small clubs) and recorded music for many years, then after getting Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome, only wrote and recorded music because I was unable to perform. I never knew when my hands would be able to fumction properly, but would record tracks when pain was at a minimum. I often wrote instrumentals that were sonic paintings of images – real and created in my own mind. I also wrote songs with provocative lyrics that were social and political commentary. Unfortunately, most of what I’d recorded is either lost or very low quality “rough drafts” that I’ve put on CDs for my own enjoyment. I also put together album artwork that I printed on jewel case sleeves that go with the music.
    Interestingly, in one offbeat “song” I wrote I borrowed a technique from Wagner. I used a melody from a previous song and brought it in to create a message, then used a rhythm from another old song and introduced it into the song. It was fun.
    As far as rivers, there are a few rivers I have a connection with, though in a different way than most people since I live in the NYC area. I enjoy the East River between Manhattan and Queens & Brooklyn, the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx , the Hudson River and the tiny Nissequogue River in Long Island which I took canoe rides in with a friend that has since passed away. Thanks, again, for an excellent post. I hope to listen to all of these pieces.

  3. Wow! What can I say! This blog really touched my soul. You see, I come from Salzburg, Austria, and grew up almost exclusively on classical music, and we sure have some of the most beautiful rivers there are, from little mountain brooks to large majestic rivers. I found it difficult to talk to many of my beloved fellow Americans, about classical music simply because the majority never listens to it. To read your descriptions of the 4 pieces was literally “music to my ears” 😉
    Thank you for your most delightful post!

  4. That is a lovely article, Mark. I particularly like your encouragement to honour our own local river. I hadn’t put it in those terms, but I do exactly that every day, walking by it, appreciating it, often photographing it (it’s the banner on my blog).
    I also love your choice of music. Vltava, from Ma Vlast, is one of my favourite works.

    1. Thank you, Penny. I love the music from Ma Vlast as well, so it seemed a natural choice. I try to honor the Eno through my writing, photography and music, but there nonetheless days when I wish had six hands and three heads, if only to do more.

      Have a nice week. 👍

  5. Super informative article Mark. I am bookmarking this to return to it and listen to all these great pieces of music, although I know and love the Trout Quintet already. Thanks!

  6. Thank you for this interesting and inspiring post. I couldn’t listen to all the pieces because of restrictions, but enjoyed those I did hear. I am blessed to have many lakes and rivers nearby in my adopted home. We even have a local lake where we swim and go for walks in the forest. Recently it was my chosen place of balm to say farewell to a friend who had died suddenly.

    1. I’m very sorry for your loss. Saying goodbye to a loved one is always difficult, but nature is one of the greatest healing forces we can tap into. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Great post! I love the Vltava and listened to it endlessly when my eldest daughter was a baby. Not being a fan of opera, I’d never heard the Wagner, but it’s also very evocative. As for Sibelius, what can I say?!
    I’ve just been doing a little research and discovered that the water in the little stream that runs through the village here follows an extremely circuitous route through Hungary and Serbia before eventually flowing, via the Danube, back into Romania and eventually into the Black Sea. It’s amazing to think of the huge diversity of life that it helps to support by doing so. As a lover of nature, I appreciated it before, but your post has led me to see it with new eyes. Thank you 🙂

    1. I’m so glad to hear you took the time to educate yourself about the river in your own backyard. Gaining the knowledge to expand your appreciation of the natural world is the first step to protecting our planet for future generations.

      Thank you for sharing.

  8. Beautifully communicated. Thank you for honoring our rivers and watersheds and encouraging others to do the same. It is more precious than many appreciate. So glad you’ve reconnected to your passions!

  9. I’m enjoying your blog, Mark. Although not as grand as Wagner, in case you haven’t yet heard Yiruma’s “River Flows in You”, you might like it (YouTube).

Leave a Reply to Mark Miles Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s