The following is by retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.
On a day when there’s lots of snow to go around, if not in the Washington, D.C. area, let’s examine the wintry precipitation in song. You may be surprised to learn how lyricists of the late 19th century responded to forecasts.
While the modern researcher may eagerly anticipate happy snow scenes in the historical record, the white stuff was viewed in a more negative light. Of course, life could be much harder then, and a warm, safe place might be hard to come by in winter. The image of dying from the cold seems to have been popular, as seen in Louise Miles’ “Beautiful snow” (Detroit: Whittemore, Swan & Stephens, 1870).
Ah, the snow is beautiful when it is new and pure. But it can be trampled by the passing crowd into a messy pulp. Thus is the end of the life of the fallen woman this song depicts. The poor girl has been reduced to living on the street, and dies bereft of friends and family. The whole sordid story is presented, tabloid-style, before the music. This probably led to many a sale. Although the long introduction to this edition suggests that Miles herself wrote the poem, it was first published in 1869 by J.W. Watson. Read the full text here.
The poem was wildly popular and set to music several times Apparently everyone liked to hear about a sad soul who perished from bad fortune in the cold snow. The first two verses are hopeful and happy, setting the hearer up for the bad news to follow, and then—disgrace, and a pitiful death.
Yet an 1871 edition with music composed by V. Gabriel provides an upbeat setting of the same text, including only the first two verses, completely happy and innocent. They were obviously looking for a different audience.
These are but two of dozens of frozen tragedies. Maj. J. Barton’s “Little Wanderer out in the Snow” ( East Saginaw : Tyler Bros. & Co., 1874) offers another tale of woe, with a beautiful cover. The temperance song “In the Snow” (Chicago : Root & Sons Music Co., 1880) tells the woeful story of a drunk who throws his own wife out into the snow to die of exposure. Other, even more lugubrious titles are vividly self-descriptive, like “Little Hands under the Snow,” “Perished in the Snow,” and “Dead in the Snow!”
My hopes for a simple, happy song were fulfilled in W. Veskalow’s “The Child and the Snow Bird” (Boston : G. P. Reed, 1848), in which a little girl wants to help the poor creature by providing it with a full set of clothing. The bird cleverly decides it would look rather silly in a dress, and declines the kind offer. This happy little song is a full generation older than the soulful, morbid offerings of the post-Civil War era. By the 1870s and beyond, living conditions in cities were deteriorating as immigrants poured into the country, and their hardships made for riveting (and popular) songs.
Snow’s reputation fares better in compositions for piano, most of which are dances evocative of the snow itself: “Snow Storm Waltz;” “Snow Flake Galop;” “Snow Flake Polka;” “Snow Flake Mazurka;” Snow Flake Schottische”(for banjo!).
R. A. Newland’s “Snow Flakes” (Richmond, Ind. : Frank A. Drake, 1879) is as entertaining to look at as it must be to hear. From the whimsically random-looking notes on the first page of music to the frenetic patterns on the second and the pounding blizzard of 32nd notes that follow, I can imagine the sheer will power required to pull this one off.
It seems that on the musical subject of snow, singers wanted pathos and pianists just wanted a lot of notes to play. Carl Le Duc’s “The Snow-flake” (Philadelphia : Lee & Walker, 1875) features a one-horse open sleigh on its beautiful cover and a sweet little verse before the music, which once again is full of 32nd notes. As the ads always said, try THESE over on your piano!
Finally, here’s a recording of Johann Resch’s “Snowflake Waltz” as performed by the Victor Dance Orchestra