The town of Heiligenstadt in Beethoven's time.
In our first concert, we celebrated love and the many ways it has been represented through art song and opera over centuries. Yet, another common element explored by composers is nature. From Beethoven’s groundbreaking Pastorale symphony through to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, composers have undoubtedly been fascinated by the world around them, and sought to express this admiration through sound and song.
To get you in the mood for our next concert, Scenes of Nature, we wanted to take a look at some of the striking examples where composers have expressed flora and fauna through music. Be sure to check out our Spotify playlist at the bottom to hear even more!
Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 'Pastorale'
Beethoven is one of the most admired composers in the history of western classical music with his works being amongst some of the most performed in concert halls across the globe. His symphonies radically redefined the genre and have influenced every generation of composers since they were written.
Beethoven himself was a keen lover of nature, often spending a great deal of time out on walks in the country and frequently opting to work in rural locations as opposed to Vienna. In December 1808, during a a four hour marathon concert, his Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale was premiered (alongside many other works). The composer stated that the work was "more the expression of feeling (rather) than painting".
The symphony has five, rather than the four typical movements of symphonies preceding that time, with the last three movements being continuous. The premise of these is fairly simple: country folk dancing and revelling in the Scherzo third movement are sent hurriedly scrambling for cover by a thunderstorm in the fourth, and then they emerge to rain-washed fields and begin a shepherds' song of thanksgiving in the finale.
In the fourth ‘storm’ movement, the story is musically reinforced by the use of loud timpani representing the thunder, and the entry of trombones for the first time in the work. Vigorous use of rapidly repeated, scale-like figures in the lower strings is another way the composer suggests the thunder.
Listen below to the London Symphony under Bernard Haitink perform this movement below.
Hahn - L’Heure Exquise (The Exquisite Hour)
Venezuelan-born French composer, Reynaldo Hahn is admired for his contribution to mélodies, a popular form of French Art Song. With over 100 works composed for the voice, plus a large swathe of instrumental pieces, Hahn remains a staple for many recitalists.
L’Heure Exquise (The Exquisite Hour) was composed as part of his 7 Chansons grises (7 Grey Songs) and used text from poet Paul Verlaine which translates to:
The white moon
Gleams in the woods;
From every branch
There comes a voice
Beneath the boughs…
O my beloved.
The pool reflects,
Of the black willow
Where the wind is weeping…
Let us dream, it is the hour.
A vast and tender
Seems to fall
From the sky
The moon illumines…
Originally set for soprano and piano but often sung by all voice types, the piece speaks of an exquisite hour where night has fallen and the world has become peaceful. The text speaks of a gleaming white moon reflecting on a pool of water and off the natural surroundings. Accompanying the singer is a simple and delicate piano line that complements and allows the vocal line to sing and represent the poet’s words
Listen below to tenor, Ben Bliss performing this song.
Ottorino Respighi - Gli uccelli (The Birds)
Ottorino Respighi was an Italian violinist, teacher, and musicologist as well as one of the leading Italian composers of the early 20th century. His works span the genres of opera, ballet, orchestral suites, choral songs and chamber music, and he displayed a keen interest in music of the 17th and 18th centuries with the composer often turning to this music for inspiration.
One such example of this is his suite for small orchestra titled Gli uccelli (The Birds). In this suite, the composer turns to works by prominent Baroque composers such as Pasquini and Rameau, using their melodies and themes as the foundation, and interspersing them with transcriptions of birdsong to illustrate bird actions such as fluttering wings or scratching feet.
The third movement, La gallina (The Hen), is based on a harpsichord piece by Rameau. In it we hear the hens clucking and pecking, represented by the short, sharp staccatos in the strings and winds, with the work ending with a tremendous trumpeteering rooster.
Listen and watch along below as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs the movement below:
Want to hear more?
If you’re interested in hearing more music inspired by mother nature, we’ve created a Spotify playlist below for you to continue your listening journey. You’ll find everything from Saint-Saens through to Grieg and early Monteverdi.
You can also attend our next concert, Songs of Nature, and hear Voxalis artists Shelli Hulcombe, Jolanta Kudra, Camilo Lopez, and Francis Atkins perform works such as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles, and Australian composer Betty Beath’s In This Garden amongst others.
When: Saturday 28th May 7pm
Where: Old Museum Building, Studio 1