Classical music inspired by nature: six of the best
From music inspired by animals and pastoral landscapes to music based on fractal algorithms, composer Rolf Wallin chooses some of the best pieces of classical music inspired by the natural world
The relationship between music and nature is innate in the world we live in: consider the sound of birdsong or the hum of bees. Composers have turned to the natural world to create some of the greatest pieces of music of all time.
Our friends over at BBC Wildlife Magazine have rounded up some of the best nature documentaries available to stream online now.
Jean-Philippe Rameau: 6 Concerts transcrits en sextuor: I. La poule
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
DG Archiv 4775578
This is a glorious and powerful portrait of quite an unassuming creature: the hen. She might lack grandeur, but Rameau has created a witty portrait of her nonetheless. There is a challenge for the musicians – hens don't make their sounds in notes of equal lengths, do they? Rameau notated the music in simple quaver patterns, knowing full well that any real musician would play them molto rubato. It's a mystery how Les Musiciens du Louvre are able to play in such tight unison here. It's stunningly organic, as though they were one creature – one hen!
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, 'Pastoral': I. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
DG Archiv E4470742
The symphonies of Haydn and Mozart were precious, perfect jewels. After that, however, music became grittier, with the opium-driven hallucinations of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. The pivotal figure here is Beethoven.
The first movement from his 'Pastoral' symphony is not music about nature itself, rather about the process inside a human being leaving the demanding bustle of the city for the peaceful countryside. It's very different from anything else Beethoven wrote. Listen to 4:55 in this recording, for example. It's the beginning of the development section, when one would expect the main themes to be dragged into a maelstrom of rapid and restless modulations. While Beethoven's Fifth Symphony took this to a feverish and tumultuous extreme, he now leads us gently into a joyful state, simultaneously swinging and static: 40 loops of one little motif. These are 40 bars without any chord change except for an unexpected but rather dizzying 'upbeaming' from B flat major up to D major.
Messiaen: Le merle noir
Patrick Gallois (flute), Lydia Wong (piano)
When people tell me they hate atonal music, I say, 'Oh, so you hate birdsong then?'. They get a puzzled look on their face, exclaiming, 'Of course not, that's beautiful!'. But the only bird I know that sings tonally is the cuckoo, whose song is so boring it has to compensate with granting us a wish when we hear it in spring. Nearly all the others are joyfully atonal.
Messiaen is the real master of birdsong. Although he searched for a new kind of music, he rejected the serialist systems of Boulez and Stockhausen, finding it too cerebral. Instead, he developed new ways of making music from non-western music and from birds, whose song he transcribed in summertime in the countryside. Through them he found a direct access to the divine, untouched by human hands. This piece is for flute and piano, using the song of the blackbird ('le merle noir') for inspiration.
Pierre Henry: Variations pour une porte et un soupir: VII. Gestes
It was not only Messiaen who opposed the purist approach of many leading composers in the years following the Second World War. The Paris-based Musique concrète movement took new technology like tape recorders, sound filters and artificial reverb to capture the dirty sounds of the real world. The artists involved achieved this with the anarchistic approach of surrealism and dadaism, combining strangeness, shock and humour.
A central figure in this movement was Pierre Henry. The physicality and plasticity of his music appealed to Maurice Béjart, one of the finest choreographers in modern dance. The recommended recording we've featured here was created as a tribute to their collaboration. Here, in his 'Variations for a door and a sigh', Henry uses the real sound of a creaky door and a human sigh.
More like this
Xenakis: Pléïades (1978)
Kroumata Percussion Ensemble
Another composer criticising serialism was Iannis Xenakis. He also used nature for artistic input, through natural science. Stochastic mathematics is a branch of probability theory and is one way we humans try to get to grips with the seeming unpredictability of nature.
The resulting music is just as raw and refreshingly free of human emotions as a mountain or a river. The title of this piece for six percussionists comes from the star cluster 'Seven Sisters' and its counterpart in Greek mythology, the daughters of the sea-nymph Pleione and the titan Atlas.
Rolf Wallin: Stonewave (1990)
SISU Percussion Ensemble
When Kroumata Percussion asked me to write for them, Xenakis was a natural role model. And as it happened, I was investigating another way humans have tried to emulate nature through mathematics: fractal algorithms. They are relatively simple, but generate fascinating and surprisingly organic patterns. They have been used by scientists to mimic the patterns of trees, clouds, tigers and mountain ranges. The mysterious figure on the front cover of TWINE is the exact graphical equivalent of the music three minutes into this last track of Stonewave. On the CD itself, you can see what the music 'looks like' at the two-minute mark.
One would assume that such a mathematical approach would lead to sterile and theoretical music, but the soundworld of Stonewave is not one you would associate with dense maths books.
Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin works with nature, fractals and mathematics in his music, and has recently released 'Twine' on the nonclassical label in collaboration with the SISU Percussion Ensemble. The album explores texturality and patterns in nature through sound. Download the album here.