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An Idyllic Scene

Red Hammock Tied Between Two Trees
Asad Photo via Pexel
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Red Hammock Tied Between Two Trees

Picture an idyllic summer scene: maybe you see yourself walking along a powdery sand beach in the magic hour just before sunset – or – you’re lying in a soft hammock strung underneath your leafy backyard trees, your favorite author’s latest awaiting your exploration. Whatever your idyllic summer picture might be...now translate it to music.

The dictionary calls an “idyll” a happy, peaceful or picturesque scene. A music dictionary says it’s a composition that evokes a rural or pastoral life. Some of my favorite summer pieces are idylls and I thought you might like to get to know some of them.

Frequent listeners to 99.5 WCRB may have heard Wagner’s Siegfried’s Idyll at one time or another.

Wagner wrote it as a birthday present for his wife Cosima shortly after the birth of their son, Siegfried, whose nickname was “Fidi.” The original title of the piece was

Triebschen [their home on the shores of Lake Lucerne] Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard.

Cosima’s birthday was Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning she awoke to a small group of musicians playing this piece for her on their villa steps. The full piece runs about 20 minutes but here’s Sir Simon Rattle conducting a chamber group from the Berlin Philharmonic in the opening minutes:

And if you have the time here’s a lovely full-length version, with Cristian Măcelaru conducting the WDR Symphony:

American composer Edward MacDowell wrote several pieces with the word “Idyl” in the title, such as Six Idyls After Goethe, New England Idyls, and Forest Idyls. Some of them sound pastoral enough, and some of them sound like he’s foretelling the jazz age! As a pianist who learned much of his output, I like all of MacDowell’s music, and I think they’d be fun for you to explore. I found this pianist who doesn’t identify herself by name, only by a social media handle, but this is a lovely version of “With Sweet Lavender” from the New England Idyls collection:

Sir Edward Elgar definitely had a handle on what an idyllic summer day looked like.

Check out this video which pans out to show you a still photo of the composer, outdoors, drinking a respectable amount, on a fine summer day. Elgar’s Une Idylle, Op. 4, No. 1, is played by violinist John Georgiadis with pianist John Parry:

Czech composer Leoš Janáček couldn’t have rendered a better pastoral scene with paints and canvas than he did with little black notes on white paper. His Idylle for Strings is played by the Prague Chamber Orchestra:

My favorite pieces titled “Idylls” have to be the Two English Idylls by George Butterworth. He dips into the vast reservoir of old English folk tunes to create two different moods. Here are both, back to back, as they are often performed, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields:

Back to your idyllic scene: Did you picture a beach? Hammock? Something else? Whatever is your ideal version I hope you’ll take along a few idylls to complete the scene!

Coda: “Sweet days of summer, the jasmine in bloom, July is dressed up and playing her tune.” I was a kid in grammar school when Seals and Crofts released “Summer Breeze” in 1972. The teenager who babysat me was so excited that this song was going to be her prom theme the next spring. What Seals and Crofts didn’t know when they wrote this “soft rock” hit was that they really wrote an idyll: