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.   

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No.6 “Pastoral” (1808): this was among the first true attempts to evoke nature’s harmony and thunder from a Romantic perspective.  While some of it remains in the Vivaldi mode (bird song, etc.), its success lies in the overall impression of nature.  After all, Beethoven didn’t want to simply compose a hill or a sunset: he wanted to record the restorative qualities of nature upon the soul of man.  As Wordsworth reminds us, “We must run glittering like a brook/In the open sunshine, or we are unblest,” so, too, Beethoven wanted to “bless” his listeners with the memory of the countryside.  To underline this, he gave each movement a subtitle, so we could follow him on his musical journey: “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon returning to the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” “Merry gathering of country folk,” “Thunder, Storm,” “Shepherd’s song, cheerful feelings after the storm”).  The symphony contains some of Beethoven’s most unbuttoned music, particularly after the storm and stress of the Fifth Symphony.  “The Scene by the Brook” is perhaps the most evocative movement, as it paints nature in a glorious summer afternoon—a scene that justly inspired Disney’s animators in Fantasia.  A more predictable—but no less powerful—illustration occurs in the “Storm” episode, full of thunder in the basses, wind in the higher strings, and lightning in the percussion.  It’s a fascinating, dramatic, yet ultimately peaceful work which shows how the symphony orchestra was more than a collection of instruments playing abstract tunes: it really could reflect the totality of nature itself. 

Felix Mendelssohn, The Hebrides Overture (or, Fingal’s Cave) (1830): This is one of the great Romantic statements of nature in music.  Much shorter than Beethoven, it’s also more atmospheric, evoking a complete sense of place from the opening bars.  Even Wagner, who detested Mendelssohn (and most Jews, at that) grudgingly admitted the piece’s worth, and freely borrowed from it—and other pieces, such as The Fair Melsuine—in his operas.  Mendelssohn wrote the piece influenced by his first trip to Scotland, where he traveled to the Hebrides and saw the legendary Fingal’s Cave.  Of course, it would be naive to assume that this piece is a literal description of the natural landscape; Mendelssohn also read what all Europe was reading at this time—the best-selling poems of Ossian, the so-called bard of the Celtic world.  This forgery by the writer James Macpherson set composers abuzz with the heroic exploits of a forgotten world, and Mendelssohn’s overture is no exception.  It opens with a gently rocking theme, like oars cleaving through the water, the boats rocking through the mist, until a grand vision appears.  Heroics ensue, with much allegro writing in the strings in Mendelssohn’s best manner: my personal highlight is when the piece reaches a thunderous climax, only to tumble back down into the ‘rowing’ theme, as if the adventure never occurred (perhaps Mendelssohn closing Ossian’s book, the reverie shattered?).  Yet whatever his inspiration, the piece speaks of a misty, brooding landscape with brief patches of light to reveal the sublime cliffs of antiquity. 

Claude Debussy, La Mer (1905): “Impressionism” as an artistic force changed the way artists examined their world.  Plein air painting, impressions of light, and reflections of the water trumped the more academic notions that graced the salons.  Musicians quickly responded to the work of Monet, Renoir, etc., with compositions that similarly broke down musical expression into plays of light and shade, where themes and melodies dissolved into washes of color.  Debussy is often singled-out as the chief musical impressionist, a term he detested, since it pigeonholed him into a single mode of expression (he would later turn to more neoclassical means in a series of late chamber works).  However, no one can deny the impressionistic aesthetic of La Mer, which is subtitled “three symphonic sketches for orchestra.”  That word, “sketches,” has replaced “symphony,” which any other composer would have called this massive contribution to the orchestral canon.  Each piece seems part of a larger scheme, though there is no symphonic development in the mould of Mozart or Beethoven.  Rather, it’s a mood and an atmosphere that is extended throughout disparate times of day, much like Monet’s numerous paintings of a certain cathedral.  The three sketches are entitled: “From dawn to noon on the sea,” “Play of the Waves,” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.”  In some ways, it mimics a traditional symphony with Introduction, Slow Movement, and Finale, but only loosely: the best way to follow the music is to simply “flow” with it, and like a painting, to watch the colors melt into recognizable shapes (or themes).  The piece opens with incredible mystery, evoking the endless expanse of the sea shimmering into existence at dawn.  Harp and strings evoke the world beneath, while an oboe cries overhead, like a lone seagull.  Though largely subdued, the piece slowly gathers steam before reaching a triumphant climax, only to sink into the depths once more.  The second movement is the loveliest, with melodies that almost become full-fledged tunes before being swallowed up by the orchestra.  The final movement is the most dramatic, a true contest between sea and sky, perhaps with a few boats struggling for land.  Anyone who has stared out into the ocean can instinctively ‘hear’ it here—both its calm beauty and its sublime rage.  It is not only one of the most masterful evocations of nature, but perhaps one of the greatest pieces for orchestra ever composed. 

Frederick Delius, “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in the Spring” (1915): Delius excelled at translating the smells and colors of natures into highly cultivated music like few other composers.  Chiefly he enjoyed capturing orchestral sketches of gardens, hills, and—like Debussy—the water.  Some of his notable evocations include Sea Drift, Appalachia, Florida Suite, In a Summer Garden, North Country Sketches, and his miniature masterpiece, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in the Spring.  Over shimmering, forest-dark strings, a cuckoo cries out, not a naive evocation of one, but a truly musical, impressionistic likeness.  Delius takes this a step further by quoting an actual Norwegian folk song, giving the piece a further tint of rusticity.  Though quiet, the piece is surprisingly haunting, also speaking of quiet longing that remains buried in the heart.  Like La Mer, and even going back to Beethoven, this piece speaks as much of nature as man (or woman’s) reflections in nature.  

Richard Strauss, Alpine Symphony (1915): 1915 proved a productive year for nature composers, though no one topped Richard Strauss, who in his final tone poem wrote an entire symphony depicting a mountain.  Or more accurately, of the ascent of a mountain which mirrors the spiritual journey of man (indeed, the piece was originally going to be subtitled Der Antichrist, after Nietzsche).  Not surprisingly, this descriptive-philosophical work mirrors the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, who always evoked the natural landscape in his symphonies, often with quaint orchestration such as cow and sleigh bells.  Broken up into several parts, but played without a break, the symphony/poem opens at “Night” and then experiences a transformative “Sunrise,” with shades of the opening of his famous work, Also Sprach Zarathustra.  We then follow the climbers up the mountain, through idyllic meadows and waterfalls to the “Vision” of something sublime in the peaks.  Mists swallow up the sun and submerge the climbers into a world between life and death until the storm arrives—a magnificent sequence which takes Beethoven’s Pastoral to new heights (forgive the pun).  Having reached the peak, the climbers quickly descend, and the exhaustion of the climb ends in a recapitulation of the “night” music.  Interestingly, in the section “Apparition”, Strauss more or less quotes the slow movement of Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto No.1.  When an orchestra once pointed this out to him in rehearsal, he got annoyed and replied, “who cares, it’s a great tune!” 

Jean Sibelius, Tapiola (1926): Sibelius became famous for his musical depictions of Finnish folklore and myth, which he never abandoned even when he became a more ‘abstract’ composer.  Everything Sibelius wrote seems to have a secret program, as the music never follows predictable lines, instead capturing the action of an unseen drama—film music before its time.  Nature looms large in Sibelius’ output, though it is usually a nature that is felt rater than truly ‘seen.’  The brooding Northern winters seem to define works like Symphony No.4, while majestic, sun-dappled mountains are evoked in all three movements of Symphony No.5.  However, in his final orchestral work, Sibelius explicitly set out to capture the frost-bitten terror of the primeval forest.  Tapiola, a work that pays homage to the Finnish god of the forest, is a surprisingly spare, yet remarkably expressive piece, with elements of Romanticism and Modernism existing hand-in-hand.  The piece opens with a menacing theme which, strangely enough, is a reworking of the mysterious clarinet theme from the opening of his early First Symphony (1899).   Here, too, it sounds like an invocation: we are introduced to a forbidding, snow-covered land, where the very earth seems to groan in warning.  Like a slumbering dragon, the piece rises to little more than a piano pulse, as the listener explores this blasted landscape.  However, the dragon soon awakes, and ferocious climaxes come one upon the other until the infamous ‘storm’ episode, which is one of the high-water marks of early 20th century music.  This is as close as anyone would get to true nature music, which never tries to tailor the experience to human ears, but instead evokes the wonder and terror of an indifferent environment.  Whether we live or die is all one to the god Tapio, who rules his domain with awesome rage...and then falls silent once more. 

Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Sinfonia Antarctica (1953): While many people often deride programmatic music as “film music,” in this case they’re entirely correct: Vaughan-Williams adapted his score for the film, Scott of the Antarctic, into his dramatic and surprising Seventh Symphony.  It remains one of the oddities of his symphonic canon, though its relative obscurity is baffling: besides ingenious orchestration, the work boasts amazing tunes and moments of jaw-dropping grandeur.  The first movement evokes the terror of the Antarctic wastes, complete with wind machine and a wordless soprano.  Amidst this terror strides the heroic theme of Scott and conquest—a theme that is doomed to fail, but still inspires for its bravado and resolve.  The second movement depicts the scurrying of penguins and the wonder that life manages to exist in this hellish realm.  Innovative percussion scoring is one of the highlights of this movement (which he would expand in his next symphony).  Yet the core of the work is the titanic third movement, a brooding Lento which evokes the terrible indifference of nature to man.  Like Tapiola, it broods for most of its length before erupting in an avalanche of terror, complete with booming organ.  A tender slow movement follows, depicting Scott’s letters to loved ones at home.  Then we get the finale, a final, heroic attempt to reach the Pole, only to be swallowed up by the ‘Antarctic waste’ theme once more. 

Other Great Nature Works for Orchestra:
·        Mendelssohn: Scottish and Italian Symphonies (Nos. 3 and 4)
·        Dvorak: In Nature’s Realm
·        d’indy: Symphony on a French Air for Piano and Orchestra
·        Debussy: Nocturnes for Orchestra (esp. “Clouds”)
·        Delius: Florida Suite, In a Summer Garden, Appalachia, etc. 
·        Respighi: The Pines of Rome
·        Bax: Tintagel, Spring Fire (Symphony), Summer Music, The Garden of Fand, November Woods, The Tale the Pine Trees Knew  
·        Alfven: A Tale from the Archipelago, Symphony No. 4 “From the Outskirts of the Archipelago”
·        Hovhannes: Symphony No.2 “Mystic Mountain,” Symphony No. 50 “Mt. St. Helens
·        Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus, Isle of Bliss
·        John Williams, Treesong for Violin & Orchestra