Few things can be as majestic in music as a sunrise – composers trying to recreate in orchestral sound a daily occurrence we may take for granted, but which still inspires awe. Inevitably, crescendos feature prominently, decibels whipped up as the full sun stretches above the horizon, but other effects can be used as well, often to depict the sense of calm as a new day unfolds. But which are the best sunrises in classical music? Editors Mark and Elisabeth were up with the lark to argue the merits of their favourites.

1Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

For me, the sunrise from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé is one of the most evocative pieces of music ever written. You are plunged into the Aegean Sea, cool woodwinds rippling through chromatic waves, while seabirds wheel and dip overhead, sunlight glistening on the water. Ravel adds a wordless chorus, helping his daybreak reach an ecstatic climax. [MP]


2Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie

Imagine yourself standing at the foot of the Alps. It’s still dark when suddenly the first rays of sunlight sparkle between the tops of the mountains, the contours of the majestic peaks become visible and you breathe the clear Alpine air. It’s the beginning of a glorious day on which Richard Strauss takes you on a day-long hike over the mountains. For me, this is the grandest sunrise in classical music.

Fun fact: In 1981, a recording of the Alpensinfonie (Berliner Philharmoniker with Herbert von Karajan) was the first ever test pressing of a CD. [ES]


3Claude Debussy: La Mer

The first movement of La Mer is entitled “De l'aube à midi sur la mer” – “From dawn to midday on the sea” – prompting Debussy’s colleague Erik Satie to joke, “I particularly liked the bit at quarter to 11”. The music starts quietly, from a tentative harp and a cautious trumpet call above tremolando strings. Debussy depicts the play of morning sunlight on gentle waves, the brass gradually becoming more assertive. [MP]


4Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes

In exile in the United States, Benjamin Britten was struck by George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, in particular the account of the fisherman, Peter Grimes. Returning to his beloved Suffolk in 1942, he used it as the basis for what became his most successful opera. The score includes orchestral interludes depicting the sea. After the trial scene of the Prologue, Dawn leads into Act 1. High strings and sunlight break through the clouds, while forbidding brass melodies depict the bleakness of the sea and the grey Suffolk skies. [ES]


5Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt – Morning Mood

Technically, this piece depicts an entire morning, but it starts with a sunrise, so there you are! Edvard Grieg composed Peer Gynt as incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play which follows the title character’s adventurous journey from Norway to the North African desert. You may imagine sunlight, fjords and twittering birds when you hear the oboe and flute melodies, but knowing the context of Ibsen’s play makes you hear the music in a different light: “A clump of palm-trees and acacias. It is dawn. Peer Gynt, in a tree, is trying to defend himself with a broken-off branch against a swarm of apes.” (Act 4, Scene 4) [ES]


6Modest Mussorgsky: Dawn over the Moscow River

Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina charts convoluted Russian politics in the late 17th-century. The prelude, however, is a beautiful depiction of a Moscow sunrise, oboe and clarinet imitating a cockerel to punctuate a simple Russian folksong which is treated to a series of variations. Bells begin to toll heavily – shades of his other political opera, Boris Godunov – before the flute takes up the gentle theme from the strings. [MP]


7Frederick Delius: Florida Suite – Daybreak

Despite being called Florida Suite, the English composer Frederick Delius wrote his first orchestral work in Leipzig where he had enrolled at the conservatory. But it was his time in the Sunshine State that sparked his imagination and his desire to pursue a musical career. In 1884, the 22-year-old Delius, descendant of a mercantile family, had been sent to Florida to manage an orange plantation. Legend has it that the young composer was sitting on his verandah on a warm summer’s day, watching the gleaming orange trees and plantation workers singing a traditional song, when he had his epiphany. The first movement of the suite, Daybreak, depicts the bright colours of the plantation, luscious greens, glossy oranges and bright blue skies. [ES]


8Ottorino Respighi: The Fountains of Rome

Respighi’s tone poem – just like his Pines of Rome – depicts different locations at different times of the day in the Italian capital. Fountains begins quietly, with an oboe trickle of the Valle Giulia fountain as the first rays of sunlight finger above the horizon. Woodwinds curl and stretch skywards in a very gentle Roman dawn, far away from the raucous noise of the Villa Borghese which opens Pines. [MP]   


9Pietro Mascagni: Iris

Iris is set in Japan and is, in many ways, a forerunner to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It’s a tawdry plot where a girl is abducted by a prince, but cast aside in a brothel, where her father disowns her and she commits suicide by leaping into a sewer. After an orchestral introduction, Mascagni writes a choral sunrise – a Hymn to the Sun – which also closes the opera. It is almost Mahlerian in its lavish orchestration and packs quite a punch. [MP]


10Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Forget about Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and dozens of memorable TV moments and enjoy the first section of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra for what it is: the most epic musical sunrise. By far the best known part of this tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel is the brass fanfare, which – at the time of the première – the composer himself described as his “most prominent, interesting, perfect in form and peculiar of his pieces”. [ES]