As warm summer turns to cooler autumn, we backyard gardeners start closing out the little patches that gave us purpose – and sore backs – throughout the growing season. There’s music for that!
There’s nothing like bringing in the last full basket of salad greens, herbs, string beans, zucchini and Concord grapes. It’s a moment of both pride at what your hard work has produced, and some sadness that the ability to feed the family, and even some of the neighbors, has come to an end until next year.
Numerous classical composers have honored harvest time specifically, pieces that are separate from those celebrating the autumn season itself. I didn’t find harvest music written for the backyard gardeners in my research, but there were plenty of pieces honoring farmers and acknowledging their hardships and challenges, as well as celebrating the harvest. Here are a few examples.
Australian-born Percy Grainger was perhaps best known for his arrangements of well-established old tunes (see my blog post about Flowers and Gardens to hear his take on “Country Gardens”). An original tune, “Harvest Hymn,” which paid respect to the hard work of farmers, was also Grainger’s only one that used the word “Hymn” in the title. Here’s Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields:
Tchaikovsky’s upbeat, even frantic sounding, “Harvest” from The Seasons is accompanied by a poem, as is each piece in this set of 12, one for each month of the year. "The harvest has grown, people in families cutting the tall rye down to the root! Put together the haystacks, music screeching all night from the hauling carts." Here’s Vladimir Ashkenazy:
Harvest, a 1945 tone poem by American composer Morton Gould, has a more serious beginning than Grainger’s or Tchaikovsky’s pieces, although the piece definitely lightens up as it goes on. The first time I heard this, it was played by a college orchestra in an on-campus chapel. The music made me wonder if Gould was thinking of the hardships farmers faced, like unpredictable weather, or insects, or even loneliness before any harvest could be had. Here’s The New Russia Orchestra conducted by David Amos:
“Autumn presents in abundance to the joyful farmer now!” The singers in the first part of “Autumn” from Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons praise the fruitful yield and pay all respect to the farmer’s exhausting work. This particular video also provides an English translation of the singers’ texts. Here are Le Concert d’Anvers conducted by Bart Van Reyn, and soloists and chorus:
In the early 1950s Aaron Copland took a different approach to harvest time. In his opera The Tender Land, set in the 1930’s, a young farm girl about to graduate high school falls in love with a drifter. He eventually goes on without her, realizing that his life is not right for her. In the end, she decides to leave home anyway – a poignant reminder about love and loss, staying (on the farm) or leaving. “The Promise of Living” contains the lyrics “... many a year we’ve known these fields, And known all the work that makes them yield, Are you ready to lend a hand? (We’re ready to work, we’re ready to lend a hand), By working together we’ll bring in the harvest ...”
This version is from The Boston Pops’ The Green Album. John Williams conducts:
I spent last weekend harvesting what was left in my garden, before frosty nights set in. I brought in the final baskets and buckets of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Jams, pies and … sharing … are ahead. And that’s what a harvest should be all about.
Coda: Maybe you first heard “John Barleycorn Must Die” in 1970 when Traffic released the song on their album titled John Barleycorn. Or maybe you knew it from the gazillion other recordings from folk singers to Celtic ensembles. This very old song is about the grain, barley, and how it is harvested, mashed and turned into malt (and not about some poor human who is tortured to death). It became popular at barley harvest time. One of my favorite renditions is by the British ensemble, Ayreheart: