Flowers & Gardens in Classical Music
Inspiration for composers comes from many places. Sometimes, it’s just from a peek out the window.
Gardening is something I was exposed to as a very young child from all the adults in the family. My mom fussed over her indoor plants most – and I always liked to watch her water, prune and propagate. We had cheery greenery and bright flowers in our house year ‘round. She also had a kitchen herb garden. Salt and pepper came from the grocery store, but basil, oregano, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” came from the sunny patch next to the back stairs.
My grandparents often babysat me and one of their great enjoyments was tending the vegetable garden in my parents’ back yard, baby Laura in tow. My young parents’ first house in one of Boston’s old neighborhoods was small but the yard was huge. The section directly behind the house got a full day of sun and was the perfect spot for rows of carrots, tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and sweet peas. Even though I was so little, I learned by watching and “helping” with the garden hose, my favorite part.
On the other side of the yard was the world’s biggest apple tree (well, at least I thought so) and my father’s rose garden. My father became a Master Gardener specializing in heritage roses, his life-long hobby. It wasn’t until he was in his early 60s that I got around to asking him if he could teach me about roses. He gave me many lessons, and towards the end of them, surprised me by hanging on the fence post a small sign he had had the local hardware store make that simply read: The Laura Rose Garden.
I’ve always had indoor plants, but the bulk of my gardening time is spent on the outdoor vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, flowers, and, yes, my own rose garden, which I have named “Daddy Carlo’s Rose Garden” in honor of the man who inspired me.
It’s easy to understand why I loved learning that just about every composer you can name was inspired at some point by nature, the seasons and gardens. Since gardens are exploding with color right now thought I’d share a soundtrack as you pull up weeds, um, I mean, “garden,” along with me.
The “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet brought floral beauty to a winter classic. And in my memory, it was also the music announcing the annual arrival of local chain Friendly’s Jubilee (Ice Cream) Roll every Christmas season for decades. Here’s the New York City Ballet’s version of the flowers and flower fairy dancing in the Palace of Sweets:
Although Edward MacDowell was born in New York City, he had great affection for wide open spaces and the nature therein. His Woodland Sketches were inspired by the natural beauty surrounding his summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire. “To a Wild Rose” and “To a Water Lily” were two of the most popular tunes from that collection:
Bedrich Smetana takes a different approach to a flower. Whereas MacDowell contemplated the simple, natural beauty, Smetana celebrates the dahlia’s dazzling colors. Here’s his “Dahlia Polka:”
In the late 1930’s American composer Florence Price wrote a series of piano pieces in 1939 with charming titles that seem to paint a 'sense of place,' including “Rocking Chair,” “Southern Sky,” “Bayou Dance,” and … “Dance of the Cotton Blossoms.”
And “The Waltz King,” as he was known, Johann Strauss II, was not one to let a good flower go unnoticed. One of Strauss’ better-known waltzes glorifies “Roses from the South.”
Alexander Glazunov’s ballet, The Seasons, starts with dances describing Winter frost and ice, and follows the calendar. One of the dances of Summer is the “Waltz of the Poppies and Cornflowers.”
Many composers also wrote pieces encompassing the entire garden, not just individual flowers. For example, there are three sections in Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain that describe the beauty of the gardens around the Alhambra Palace. One of the most beautiful renditions is with pianist Alicia de Larrocha:
English composer Albert Ketèlbey was extremely popular in his day, with the BBC playing his pieces daily in the 1940s and ‘50s. His In a Monastery Garden takes us to an English cathedral garden where one can see, hear and feel the work of The Master:
Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose describes scenes from such stories as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Tom Thumb” … but he ends the piece gently, in “The Fairy Garden.”
As I said, the pieces are many. If you’re up for a little exploration, let me recommend Ketèlbey’s lovely In a Chinese Temple Garden and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs and Daisies (played beautifully by Alessio Bax, by the way).
Coda: Percy Grainger arranged a number of folk tunes for the concert hall. One of the most famous is “Country Gardens.” This version of the folk song, sung by Jimmie Rodgers as “In an English Country Garden,” not only lists every flower, but every insect and bird that visits that garden, too. (The lyrics are posted on the YouTube page.)