The Scent and the Sound of Roses

April 30, 2021

It is that time of year when I love to putter about in my garden, which somehow feels simpatico with the creativity of composing music. As a matter of fact, a number of great composers have loved nature’s flora and have responded in music. It would be lovely to explore some flower-inspired compositions, but we should first look at the soil in which they grow, the composers’ working methods.

When you think about it, it is rather remarkable that flowers can somehow translate into music. To paint a picture of flowers is one thing, but it is quite another to transform them into the entirely different medium of sound.

Flowers must enter the eyes and nose of the composer and by some alchemy come out as lovely music, with all the delicacy and grace of pink petals. Some composers seem to possess the transformative ability Frances Hodgson Burnett wished for in “The Secret Garden”: “I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”

Out in Nature

How does this metamorphosis happen? If there is a formula; it is this: Composers of the music of nature are often the composers who immerse themselves physically in it. To cite just a few examples, Beethoven was well known for his daily walks in the Vienna Woods. There he sketched much of his sixth symphony in 1808 and personally titled it, “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.”

In a letter of 1810, Beethoven wrote, “How delighted I will be to ramble for a while through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.”

Here Beethoven has coined a useful word for how the transformation happens: “echo.” If a composer shouts “nature” from the top of a cliff and listens very closely, perhaps music is the echo that answers.

The composer who so exquisitely captured the Norwegian landscape, Edvard Grieg, could not write a note in the city. He said he could only compose in the beautiful haven of his country getaway, Troldhaugen (“Troll Hill”) in Bergen, Norway, where he had a tiny composing hut that you can visit today.

Mahler had two similar composing huts in Austria, both also museums now, one in the country near Carinthia, and one by the lake in Maiernigg. With barely room for a piano and a desk and a chair inside, plus a window with a view, he could focus on nature and on composing without distraction.

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