A fascination of forests
March 25, 2016
It may have passed you by, but Monday of this week marked the UN’s International Day of Forests, observed each year on 21st March. Covering nearly a third of our planet’s landmass (for the time being) and home to incredibly diverse ecosystems, I reckon it’s a resource well worth acknowledging in this way. Forests and woods, of course, have also been acknowledged by composers. You will have your favourite examples from the classical catalogue’s own ecosystem, but today I thought we could wander off the well–beaten paths to explore a few works that might not have found their way into your collection yet.
First up is a piece that takes us well outside the calming atmosphere that forests generally evoke, and into the chatter of the jungle. Written in 1997, Etienne Rolin’s Space Forest Bound (8.555779) features wildlife represented by what are three pretty rare musical creatures: the ondes Martenot, alto flute and soprano saxophone. Hard to think that the sonic array of the last movement, Creature Beat, is achieved by just this simple trio. Rolin was a student of Messiaen, by the way, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at his skill in imitating exotic birds.
The forest at night has often been a source of spookiness for composers; look no further than the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (8.572886), titled Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. The pot–bellied orchestra used in that music teems with resources for a colourful and scary portrait of the subject mater. But the Serbian composer Konstantin Vassiliev (b. 1970) chose the simpler medium of a solo classical guitar for his Three Forest Paintings (8.573308). The last movement, Dance of the Forest Ghosts, uses a system for its harmonies that falls between major, minor and non–tonal systems—a sort of musical twilight zone where ghosts might well feel at home. Here’s that movement’s closing section.
Painting: Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis
If Sibelius is your favourite conduit for experiencing forest grandeur, but you don’t mind taking a small step outside his sound world, then you might consider In the Forest (1900) by the Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (a feast for anagram compilers!). Ciurlionis distinguished himself by being able to dedicate his life to no less than three specialisms—as a composer, artist and writer. Several of his paintings were based on musical structures; one of his poems has the form of a sonata; and much of his music is pictorial—a rare synthesis, I’m sure you’ll agree. Here’s an extract from his tone poem In the Forest (8.223323), which might well put you in the mood to go out and hug a tree!
Written some 30 years earlier, Joachim Raff’s Third Symphony (8.555491) was for long considered his masterpiece. It’s subtitled In the Forest (again!) and moves from daylight to twilight, through darker episodes of the night and back to a radiant dawn. Raff (1822–1882) was a Swiss composer who is a prime example of someone barely known today, yet considerably renowned in his time. He courted the attention of Mendelssohn, Liszt and Hans von Bülow, ending up in a rainbow of relationships with them—from student to friend to general factotum. With the recent observance of International Women’s Day in mind, maybe he deserves a note of credit here for his encouragement of women musicians following his appointment as director of the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt: he engaged Clara Schumann, for example, as a piano teacher when the institution opened in 1878; he also established a class for women composers, the first of its kind in Germany.
Returning to a day in the life of a woodland, Glazunov’s The Forest (8.554293), completed in 1887, attracted more than its fair share of negativity, when the ink on the score had barely dried: Rimsky–Korsakov was scathing about the piece; Balakirev found no logic in it. Here’s a taster for you to form your own quick opinion, as the forest begins to burst into mid–morning life.
George Templeton Strong
We end today with a composer who was also no stranger to criticism (giving it this time) and to being multi–talented—a composer, painter and writer (like Ciurlionis)—and whose music, for some listeners, sounds reminiscent of Raff. George Templeton Strong (1856–1948) was an American composer who eventually settled in Switzerland after a period of study in Germany, where he frequented the circles of Wagner and Liszt. He had little good to say of Stravinsky’s music, particularly his handling of dissonance which he advised should be used only “in a way cayenne pepper is used in culinary art.”
Scored for large symphony orchestra, Strong’s suite Die Nacht (8.559048) is perhaps his most characteristic work. Subtitled ‘Four Little Symphonic Poems’, the last of them is titled The Awakening of the Forest Spirits. Strong provided his own poem for this movement, which you can read as an accompaniment to an extract from the piece.
Oh how I love the whisperings
Of Kobolds, Gnomes, Fairies, Elves—
These small triumphant Immortals!
A green Gnome, lovelorn sighing,
Was greeted with fairy laughter—
Elfish, mocking laughter:
When from afar there came the call
O’ a wandering hunter’s horn, all
The Sprites vanished!
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