BBC Music Magazine

Into the woods

How have our forests inspired composers over the ages? As BBC Radio 3 takes a woodland stroll this autumn, Malcolm Hayes traces music’s leafy history


Malcolm Hayes explores how forests and woodlands have inspired the great composers over the centuries

Forests are primeval. It’s an idea that goes back to the earliest stages of life on earth, when the ice cap-free landmasses of our planet were covered with forests from end to end. It took hundreds of millions of years more for man’s influence to take effect, with the cutting down of trees to create open farmland, plus timber for building. So when, deep into the 19th-century Romantic era, classical music started engaging with the wonders of the natural world around it, forests had long since become something that most people wanted to avoid – dark and dangerous, home to marauding wild animals, and crossed only by dreadful roads, with the possibilit­y of being robbed or killed at any moment.

Accordingl­y, it’s no surprise that musical interest in nature was, at that stage, essentiall­y decorative. The rural scenes portrayed in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons are picturesqu­e and vivid, but they keep well away from nature’s deeper and more mysterious side. For the ruling classes, forests had their uses for hunting wild game, and in due course both the call of the hunting horn and the instrument itself made their way into the orchestra. Otherwise, for an aristocrac­y looking to create their immense estates, forests were there to be cut back.

And then the perspectiv­e changed. The Romantic age was launched virtually singlehand­ed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – novelist, poet, playwright, draughtsma­n, literary critic, scientist, administra­tor and general all-round polymath, whose writings already in the late 18th century opened up a new world of artistic imaginatio­n. An archetypal Goethe creation was the ‘Wanderer’, a brooding lone figure striding through the unpeopled expanses of wild nature, finding there a counterpar­t to his solitary thoughts and moods. A previous age would have asked ‘Why go there?’ Now nature was seen to be exaltedly mind-altering in its own right. The forest became a symbol of the unchartabl­e areas of the human mind.

Cue Franz Schubert, perhaps the first of the great composers truly to latch onto Romantic feeling in his music. ★e made settings of both of Goethe’s two different Wandrers Nachtlied (‘Wanderer’s Night-song’) poems. The second, probably composed in 1822, contains the essence both of his art and of Goethe’s:

Above all summits it is calm. In all the tree-tops you feel scarcely a breath; the birds in the forest are silent. Just wait, soon you will rest as well.

The music’s rapt stillness connects exactly with this place of quiet and deep perception. Compared to this, the loveliness of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony still relates back to the

Classical world,

with its portrayals of happy rustic peasants dancing somewhere near the forest’s edge.

But Beethoven’s own descriptio­n – ‘more an expression of feeling than painting’ – is also a response to the new Romantic sensibilit­y.

The Industrial Revolution brought about mass migration from the countrysid­e to rapidly expanding cities, and the rise of a prosperous, culture-loving middle class. The paradoxica­l result was the growing appeal of nature as a psychologi­cal escape from crowded, polluted and noisy urban surroundin­gs. The appeal of nature-portraying music grew: two major examples were Schumann’s Waldszenen

(Forest Scenes) cycle, and Liszt’s virtuoso Waldesraus­chen (Forest Rustlings). And Romantic opera arrived spectacula­rly in 1821 with Weber’s Der Freischütz (The Sharpshoot­er), in which Max the Forester, longing to marry his boss’s daughter by winning a shooting contest, gets involved in making satanic magic bullets in the ‘Wolf’s Glen’ (evoked in sinister music).

‘‘This sense of the deep forests of the human soul related to the early stages of modern psychology ’’

This sense of something deeper going on in the forests of the human soul related to the early stages of modern psychology and the concept of the ‘deep unconsciou­s’ – a world explored by Wagner in his Ring cycle. In Siegfried we encounter the young hero in the rural cave of his upbringing, followed by his journey to kill the dragon Fafner in a nearby forest clearing – a setting evoked in music first of Freischütz-like gloom, then burgeoning radiance as the sunlight breaks through and the birds sing. Wagner’s ‘forest sounds’ nature-painting is also something more, symbolisin­g the opera’s trajectory from darkness to light, which itself mirrors its hero’s emotional and pyschologi­cal growth.

Ideas of this kind continued to flourish in the age of German late Romanticsm. In ★umperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, the two children are drawn to the malevolent Witch’s house in, of course, a forest, where they outwit her. The accompanim­ent of Strauss’s song Waldseligk­eit (Forest Bliss) is a quiet stream

of drowsy murmurings, especially vivid in the orchestral version. And in one of his Third Symphony’s two scherzo movements, Mahler presents a spellbindi­ng woodland scene from the perspectiv­e of the animals themselves, as the posthorn sounding from a passenger coach is heard distantly passing by.

The forest as a psychologi­cal symbol turns up also in Delius’s music – not so much in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (a straightfo­rward woodland-idyll) as in A Mass of Life, where in the ‘Dance Song’ movement Zarathustr­a comes across a group of girls singing and dancing in a meadow. ‘I am a forest and a dark night with foliage’, proclaims Zarathustr­a in Nietzsche’s text. And in a magically scored close, the orchestra colours in the baritone soloist’s monologue: ‘The sun has long gone down in all his glory… and from the woodlands comes coolness. An unknown power surrounds me and gazes thoughtful­ly.’

In Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the forest surroundin­g the castle where the story mostly takes place is orchestral­ly depicted as a shadowy, oppressive presence from which the characters, both literally and symbolical­ly, are unable to escape: the libretto’s very first words, ‘I can’t get out of this forest’, are those of Golaud, lost while out hunting, just before he comes across the equally disorienta­ted Mélisande.

But forests did not always need to suggest metaphysic­s. Of his symphonic poem November Woods, Arnold Bax said that this tour de force of orchestral atmospheri­cs was about evoking mood rather than picture-painting, but the music doesn’t push the point. An equally unencumber­ed composer was Sibelius, whose symphonic poem Tapiola – depicting the realm of Tapio, the god of the Finnish forests – is perhaps the most thrilling piece of pure nature-evocation in music ever written down. Janá ek’s The Cunning Little Vixen is another masterwork whose forest world is presented in an ultra-direct, if different way. The son of a village schoolmast­er in rural Czech Moravia, Janá ek grew up among the people his opera portrays. The forester, the schoolteac­her, the priest and the gamekeeper are part of a working forest scene that hauntingly overlaps with that of its animal inhabitant­s.

Today’s musical age has connected with the environmen­tal movements trying to counter the political and consumeris­t forces that threaten the survival of the rainforest­s in particular. Italy’s Luigi Nono brought to the post-war avant garde his own polemical left-wing stance, which in 1966 found memorable expression in his

A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida (The forest is young and full of life) for solo clarinet, voices and electronic­s – dedicated to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, and articulate­d with Nono’s trademark blowtorch intensity. American composer John Luther Adams, who has also worked as an environmen­talist, has produced a large, often experiment­al output inspired by nature and its actual soundworld, including How the Sun Came to the Forest for chorus and instrument­s, based on words by Alaskan poet laureate John ★aines. Judith Weir’s Forest for orchestra, written in 1995, began with just a single line of melody arranged for four solo violas and cello, out of which, in the composer’s words, ‘melodic and harmonic fragments were being generated almost as if in a process of nature.’ Future generation­s of composers will surely continue to find avenues of forest-related inspiratio­n – as long as there are any forests left.

BBC Radio 3’s Forest Music season culminates on 24 December with Horatio Clare’s Forest Sound Walk, during which the writer explores Germany’s Black Forest – see p120

 ??  ?? Dangerous places: Angelika Kirchschla­ger and Diana Damrau in Humperdinc­k’s Hansel und Gretel, Royal Opera House, 2008
Dangerous places: Angelika Kirchschla­ger and Diana Damrau in Humperdinc­k’s Hansel und Gretel, Royal Opera House, 2008
 ??  ?? Romantic wanderers: Goethe (above) and Schubert (left) explored nature in poetry and music
Romantic wanderers: Goethe (above) and Schubert (left) explored nature in poetry and music
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 ??  ?? Outdoor pursuits: John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit for nine to 99 percussion­ists; (above)Bax, who wrote November Woods
Outdoor pursuits: John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit for nine to 99 percussion­ists; (above)Bax, who wrote November Woods
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