Trees and Forests in Classical Music
I’ve been a big fan of walking in the woods ever since I was a child. There was a wood right behind my parents’ house – a rare and special thing in a Boston neighborhood. Other than being surprised by a red fox when I was around 10, this ability to commune with nature right in a city neighborhood has been an important way to enter a magical world of pretty leaves and shade, bird song and bunnies, close-ups with bugs and mushrooms, and soul-searching quiet.
About 20 years ago I heard about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” The idea is older than that by at least another 20 years. This 2018 Time magazine article explains it.
Throughout history, many classical music composers included trees and forests in their artistic output. Beethoven understood shinrin-yoku two centuries before the Japanese practice made its way around the world. It was well known that as he gradually lost his hearing, he sought peace and solace in daily walks through woods and countryside. Those walks inspired his Symphony No.6, the “Pastoral.” But he wasn’t the only composer to key into the charms of trees and forests.
Back in the late English Renaissance, William Byrd (or Wyllyam Byrde as he himself spelled it) wrote a set of variations on a song known as “Will you walk the woods so wild.” It is commonly referred to as simply “Woods So Wild” today. The earliest known version of the song is from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book from the Elizabethan era. Although believed to be for keyboard originally, today it is a favorite of lutenists and other string players. Here’s lutenist Ronn McFarlane and his ensemble, Ayreheart.
Poems by German poet Wilhelm Müller inspired Franz Schubert to set two dozen of them to music in 1828 as a song cycle. The over-arching theme of what Schubert eventually titled Winterreise is lost or unrequited love. Song No. 5 is “Der Lindenbaum,” (“The Linden Tree”). The singer knows the tree would represent some comfort, (“Here you would find rest,”) but he continues, heartbroken, on his sad journey, through the winter snow. The lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was particularly lauded for his performances of WInterriese. Here he is accompanied by Alfred Brendel.
Schubert wrote Winterreise when he was dying of syphilis. Musicologists have posited that he was able to channel his grief about the disease into the heart-wrenching music.
Franz Liszt wrote Two Concert Etudes for solo piano in 1862-63. The first of the pair is titled “Waldesrauschen” or “Forest Murmurs.” Liszt paints the picture of the forest by creating sounds that reflect shadow and light. Additionally, he wanted the listener to concentrate not only on the trees but even more specifically on the wind blowing through them and rustling the leaves. Claudio Arrau plays it:
It is said that Queen Elizabeth of Romania was so taken with Liszt’s “Forest Murmurs” that she wrote a poem about the scene. In his letter of thanks Liszt wrote, “Infinitely better than my poor musical notes has the royal poet known how to express the Waldesrauchen and the mysterious murmurings of the forest.”
“Forest Murmurs” was a title used again by another composer just a few years later. In the description of the forest scene in Act 2 of his 1876 opera Siegfried, Richard Wagner writes that the character Siegfried “stretches himself out comfortably under a lime tree.” He becomes enchanted by “the forest murmurs.” Whenever I hear this piece, I always picture the tree canopy moving in the breeze, and the birds singing up in the branches above. George Szell conducts the Cleveland Orchestra here:
English composer John Ireland wrote “The Almond Tree” in 1913, but not much is known as to how or why this solo piano piece came to be. Some have said that this piece showed how Ireland was influenced by the great French impressionist Claude Debussy. Eric Parkin plays it here.
Out of the ten pieces that make up Edward MacDowell’s 1902 10 New England Idyls, two are specifically about trees: “In Deep Woods” and “To an Old White Pine.” Idyls are all about observing, musically, the great outdoors, and while MacDowell included two with “indoor” sounding titles, (“From a Log Cabin” and “From Puritan Days”), all 10 solo piano pieces allow you travel through old New England’s fresh air. Pianist James Barbagallo plays “To an Old White Pine.”
In 1924, Ottorino Respighi celebrated four areas of Rome and the city’s distinctive pine trees in the four movements of his The Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma). The first movement, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” opens with children playing in the massive public park. Cheery flutes imitate the birds in the trees. The mood changes dramatically in “Pines Near a Catacomb,” to a sound more dark and mysterious.
“The Pines of the Janiculum” honors the ancient Roman double-faced god Janus, who was responsible for gates and the new year (it’s from his name we get January). Another moody movement, the Janiculum Hill is depicted in moonlight. And finally, in “The Pines of the Appian Way,” Respighi takes us back to the Roman Empire as we hear the Roman army marching in victory down the famous cobblestone road tourists can still visit today. Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic.
There was also a "first" associated with The Pines of Rome. Respighi asked that an actual nightingale’s song be recorded, and then indicated in the score that the recording must be played at the end of the “Pines of the Janiculum” (third) movement.
A final piece about trees comes from Australian-French contemporary flutist and composer Jane Rutter. She “talks trees” in many of her pieces, where she uses the flute to reflect on humankind’s historical/anthropological connection to nature. Her hauntingly beautiful In Their Branches: Musical Reflections on the Magic of Trees is a great example of this. In this recording for flute and voice, Jane Rutter is joined by Bertie Rutter Boekmann in part of the piece, “Kodama Tree Spirit.”
In 7th grade we had to memorize the 1913 poem Trees, by Joyce Kilmer. You probably know it by its first line, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as tree.” Poets and painters and certainly composers through the centuries have understood...
CODA: There’s a scene in the 1938 movie The Great Waltz where Johann Strauss, Jr., and the opera singer Carla Donner escape a protest by jumping into a carriage and heading into the Vienna Woods. The highly fictionalized account shows Strauss, known in his day as “the Waltz King,” being inspired to write his Tales from the Vienna Woods by incorporating everything he hears, from shepherds playing their lonely sounding flutes to the carriage wheels keeping a waltz pulse. French actor Fernand Gravet plays Strauss, opera singer Miliza Korjus plays Donner. Watch the entire scene.