Saturday, June 13, 2015

Landscapes in Sound: Seven Composers in Their “Natural” Environment

It seems natural that music would try to emulate nature, since music itself comes from nature: bird song, the howl of wind, the patter of rain, the roar of thunder, and so forth.  Early vocal music often imitated the natural world, though its palette was relatively limited; only with the rise of instrumental music could a composer invoke breezes and storms, rivers and oceans, and the chirpings of a summer night.  It’s fascinating to trace the development of ‘nature’ music in the orchestral repertoire, since a specific delineation of natural elements required increasingly abstract music.  In many ways, the pursuit to make music more than itself led to a breaking point, unshackling music (temporarily) from tonality until it became something totally alien to human ears (the music of Schoenberg onward).  While it might be misleading to say that serialism and twelve-tone music is the direct result of programmatic music, I think nature served as an expressive ideal, tempting artists to capture the ‘real’ music that lives all around us.  After all, what could be more otherworldly than the chattering of icicles on snow-covered trees in the bitter wind of a winter evening?  Vivaldi attempted a rudimentary form of tone painting in his famous Four Seasons concertos, though it remains a gesture more than a true embodiment.  Only the expanded orchestral language of the late 19th century would approach nature as it truly sounds: not always harmonious, and often downright barbaric.  Here are a few unique pieces throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that attempts to paint nature with the brush of the symphonic orchestra, though without devolving into mere scene painting or crude mimicry.