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  • Writer's pictureClaire Biek

Every Tree Speaks to Me!: the relationship between nature and music

Ancient bone flutes Source: National Geographic

With increasing global concern over how humanity has affected our planet, the topic of nature, its relationship with humankind, and the role it plays within the arts has never been more pertinent. The themes that Odyssey chooses for its concerts always seek to engage audiences in new ways and nature is a topic that younger generations feel especially passionate about, particularly given the way that it’s been brought into political discussion. 


So why nature and classical music? The link between the two might not immediately seem that obvious. The thing is, nature is much more intrinsically linked to music than we appreciate. First off, a lot of materials for musical instruments are from the natural world: 40,000-year-old flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory have been discovered and of course many modern instruments are made of natural materials such as wood and hair. So that’s the first connection: music has always been created by sounds made from the natural world.


 

NATURE AND MUSIC 


Let’s start by thinking about the nature of music by harking back a few hundred thousand years to a time before humans. It’s difficult to imagine a pre-human world without music but, as it turns out, humans didn’t actually invent music. In fact, experts believe that music may have preceded language. Some animals, such as birds and whales, produce music which is eerily similar to a lot of modern music. Believe it or not, birds and whales sing. What’s more, they don’t just inherit songs their parents teach them, but also create new ones - just like human composers.


A palm cockatoo holds a stick in its beak. Image credit: Christina N. Zdenek

Birds use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, and combinations of notes as humans and are even able to transpose to different musical keys! Their voice isn’t their only instrument; some use special feather structures, while others pound on objects with a ‘preferred resonance’. For example, the male palm cockatoo from Northern Australia and New Guinea breaks a twig from a tree to shape into a drumstick which he then uses to drum on a selected hollow log as part of their courtship ritual.


Meanwhile, humpback whales’ undersea songs are also remarkably similar in structure (using the ternary ABA form - A is the first idea, B the contrasting second, and then a return to the first idea), rhythm, and length to humans’, because their large cerebral cortex means that we have similar attention spans! They’re capable of singing over a range of at least seven octaves, and the intervals between their notes are similar to (or indeed the same!) as intervals in human musical scales. Insects also feel rhythm: katydids or bush crickets can pulse in regular time in mass choruses. This all proves then that humans aren’t actually as musically ground-breaking as we think - how much of human music was actually copied from animals?


 

THE NATURAL WORLD AS A SOURCE OF MUSICAL INSPIRATION


Nature has long been a source of inspiration for artists. Nature’s ‘powerful beauty and majestic splendour’ [String Ovation, Connolly Music, 2017] in particular is a great source of inspiration for composers. Its infinite diversity triggers endless inspiration, with many composers reflecting on the relationship between humankind and nature, seeking to express these images in sound. First, let’s examine the music we’ll be performing in January. Ludwig Van Beethoven was renowned for being a great lover of nature and frequently left Vienna to work in rural locations. His Symphony No.6 (primarily known as his Pastoral Symphony with subtitles for each movement) not only represents the experience of being in nature, but also expresses the composer’s personal and emotional connection to nature through its narrative form, evoking natural and pastoral scenes such as birdsong, a bubbling brook, and a thunderstorm. It’s notably very different from anything else Beethoven wrote, particularly following his rather fiery and tumultuous Symphony No.5. Beethoven’s love of nature was evident in the letters he wrote to friends and acquaintances – for him, it wasn’t just about the beautiful scenery and fresh air, but also the refuge it provided him from his deafness and loneliness. In some ways, this symphony can be viewed as the yearning for the peace of mind gained from experiencing nature. Even Beethoven’s choice of the key of F major for his symphony was one he associated with nature - a key traditionally characterised as representing the pastoral world. The music’s furious climax with the storm in the fourth movement is particularly iconic, using the timpani to suggest rumbling thunder in the storm itself, the sudden entry of two trombones and the insistent use of rapidly repeated scale-like figures in the low cellos and double basses at full fortissimo to suggest thunder. 


Leos Janacek’s seventh and most popular opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, explores man’s relationship with nature, delving into the connection between the human and animal worlds. Whatever the drama in the opera’s story, Nature continues its wondrous and eternal cycle. Much like Beethoven, Janacek was nature obsessive, keen to note down everything he heard in nature. To write this opera, he chose to study the life of foxes by watching a fox’s den and asking for reports on foxes. An idiomatic composer, he liked to accurately capture real-life sounds and was interested in the melodies and rhythms in human speech. The music itself vividly paints woodland wildlife, evoking different bird calls within the orchestra. The opera’s finale is radiant, evoking a hymn to creation and the cyclical nature of life. Janacek’s exuberant rhythms capture the joys, thrills, fears, and sorrows of our existence. 


Richard Wagner was a Romantic composer who was centrally concerned with the relationship between man and nature and the role of art in interpreting that relationship. This relationship is a key element in his four opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung (The Ring Cycle). Tanya Perkins argues that Siegfried, the third music drama of The Ring Cycle, presents environmental elements as active members of a ‘biotic community’ with voice, legitimate interests, and agency rather than a silent setting. The opening of Act II, Forest Murmurs, vividly depicts the hum of nature; beginning softly in the strings to represent the rustling breeze through the trees which then forms a backdrop for cheerful birdsong. Indeed, Wagner’s attentiveness to the natural world in his work can be viewed as nature writing. Wagner was an early environmentalist. He loved to hike in the hills of Bavaria and became a vegetarian for a while due to his abhorrence of cruelty to animals. The ending of The Ring Cycle brings about the utter destruction of civilisation, a direct result of humans’ interference with nature.


But what about other composers? Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons perfectly evokes the thrilling characteristics and weather of each season. Winter captures the frigid cold through the use of string pizzicato notes, contrasting this with the warmth of the violin solos that evoke a fireside, while in Spring the instruments mimic the rustle of leaves in the wind. Other examples of nature in music include Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, two pieces where composers recreate elements of nature in music, creating images with sound. Debussy’s La Mer was inspired by his lifelong attachment to the sea - in fact he had once thought about becoming a sailor: “my old friend, the sea; it is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which best puts you in your place.” He achieves sonority by augmenting the standard orchestra with more harps and a larger percussion section, as well as using harmonic changes to add colour, dissolving chords and a brass chorale to suggest the ocean’s depths.


Further listening section for classical music inspired by nature:

  • If you want to think more about birdsong - look no further than Olivier Messiaen's Catalogues d’oiseaux.

  • Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony.

  • Philip Glass' The American Four Seasons.

  • Franz Schubert's Winterreise.

  • Franz Liszt’s Forest Murmurs. It has been said that Queen Elizabeth of Romania, inspired by Liszt’s music, wrote a poem about the scene. In his letter of thanks Liszt wrote, “Infinitely better than my poor musical notes has the royal poet known how to express the Waldesrauchen and the mysterious murmurings of the forest.”

  • Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture. 


 

MUSIC AND NATURE TODAY - A CONVERSATION THAT LEANS TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY 


Why then, is the inspiration of nature on music a subject that needs to be talked about today?  Over the last three or four decades, there has been a growing human awareness and reconnection to the natural environment, one which has shifted the concept of nature away from the idea of it as an abstract opposite concept to civilisation and towards it being an essential asset of human existence. With growing concerns over climate change and humanity’s survival, it is only fitting that this debate also enters the realm of classical music, not only in relation to globalisation and challenging the energy consumption involved with performing, touring, and how the industry generally operates. There are several pioneering orchestras who have used classical music to respond to the climate crisis. The Beethoven Pastoral Project took Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, viewed as a celebration of nature, and used it to draw attention to the relationship of mankind and nature on Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020 on the United Nation’s World Environment Day (June 5th 2020). A non-profit organisation, it enlisted musicians and other artists to interpret the Symphony and upload their interpretations onto the project’s website to call for environmental action. Some examples of what musicians did as part of the project are:

Paul Barton playing to an elephant Source: Caters News Agency
  • Paul Barton played music from the symphony on the piano to pachyderms in the ‘Elephants World’ sanctuary in Thailand.

  • A jazz clarinettist interpreted the piece with nightingales, cicadas, and humpback whales. 

  • A sextet transposed the symphony into chamber music.

  • A DJ sampled motifs from the symphony and assembled them into a new track.


On the eve of COP26 (2021), the Orchester des Wandels (Orchestras of Change) whose aim is to ‘deal with the climate crisis in extraordinary concert formats, using music to reach and inspire people’, used the hashtag #17TARGET to create a flash mob. Musicians and orchestras from 17 German cities took part in a simultaneous flashmob, performing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to draw attention to the United Nations’ 17 goals for sustainable development. Meanwhile, in 2019, musicians from the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg adapted Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to translate climate data (gathered from research institutes, environment agencies and universities) into music using algorithms, in order to illustrate the effects of climate change in the musical arrangement, such as weather extremes and the extinction of bird and insect species. The result meant that the Spring and Summer movements became intermixed with harmonic structure decays with instrumental bird voices falling silent. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra did something similar; they took Vivaldi's piece and reinterpreted the original score to predict what each country’s seasons will look like in 2050, calling it The [uncertain] Four Seasons. For Sydney, they depicted Summer as an ‘anxiety-filled dream in a time where wildfires, food insecurity, and other disasters will become increasingly common’, whilst Shanghai has no music written, because it is predicted that the city will be underwater by 2050. 


It’s undeniable then that music is an effective art form to convey important messages while touching people’s emotions. Music is about communication, which means that its messages linger more with listeners. For example, who remembers Ludovico Einaudi’s Elegy for the Arctic (2016) which he played on a specially built ‘iceberg’ within 100 metres of a crumbling glacier as part of Greenpeace’s campaign to save the Arctic? It’s difficult to forget the sounds of the beautifully tragic descending scales he played as the breathtaking glacier crumbled around him. The classical music industry must therefore define success differently to what it has done in the past, not as something reliant on endless growth and international travel. In uncertain and frightening times like this, it’s important to remember the power of music, an art form which tells stories with more power, beauty, and urgency than reports and statistics. For many, it’s much easier to remember a tune or an image than complex facts and figures. The arts have the ability to reach hearts and minds further and faster, so creative responses to the climate crisis are vital in our fight against it. 


Odyssey’s concert in January hopes to do just this. We hope to inspire thought about how the natural world resonates with us both individually and collectively. Our concert’s title Every Tree Speaks to Me! illustrates this message. What we want to do, using the music Beethoven, Wagner, and Janacek composed in response to their natural surroundings, is to provoke personal thought and inner reflection, to think about the importance of the natural world in relation to humankind, as something beautiful and powerful, which holds infinite potential for inspiration. Michael Spitzer (Professor of Music at Liverpool University) describes music as ‘our umbilical cord to Mother Nature’, if we don’t protect and nurture ‘Mother Nature’, music, let alone humanity, cannot survive. The aforementioned palm cockatoo species is sadly declining due to slow reproduction, which has been greatly affected by the introduction of other species and the loss of habitat due to increased fires and mining. The population is set to halve in the next fifty years - it seems that environmental issues have not only endangered human musicians, but nature's musicians as well.




Our next concert will be at Cadogan Hall on the 11th of January and will explore how the natural world has influenced artists, particularly through the Industrial Revolution. With narration from Sir Thomas Allen and Roger McGough, the programme includes Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, interspersed with poetry by the poet John Clare, reflecting on the idyllic rural life before exploring Wagner and Janacek's reflections on nature. Wagner's epic Ring Cycle has, at its heart, a plea to respect the natural environment whilst Janacek presented a more hopeful vision of man and nature living in harmony in his opera Cunning Little Vixen. Wagner's Forest Murmurs and the Suite from Cunning Little Vixen will form the second half of the concert, along with readings from the composers themselves. See you there!



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