Guest Post: Nature in the Classics

After his wonderful presentation at our most recent Nature in the Classics concert with the Music Institute of Chicago Academy, we asked Jim Setapan if he would share a few more words about the relationship between nature and the great classical canon.  Jim is Director of the Academy and Conductor-in-Residence at the Music Institute of Chicago.  Don’t forget, our last Nature in the Classics concert is coming up on Sunday, March 18!  For more information, please see our Events listing. 

It is clear that love of nature was of paramount interest to many of the great composers. A brief list of some of those for whom a daily communication with nature was a necessity would include Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Elgar, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, and Mahler.

The list of works inspired by nature shows that many, many composers drew their inspiration from all matters outdoors.  A short group would include:

Vivaldi- The Four Seasons

Respighi – The Birds

Messiaen – many pieces inspired by bird calls

Prokofiev – A Summer Day

Joan Tower – Sequoia

Ferde Grofe – Grand Canyon Suite

Samuel Joners – Palo Duro Canyon Symphony

Frederick Delius – On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Borodin – In the Steppes of Central Asia

Many German Lieder (songs) speak of the beauty of nature

Beethoven – Symphony #6 (Pastorale)

A list of musical pieces inspired specifically by water would include:

Debussy – La Mer (The Sea)

Johann Strauss jr. – Thunder and Lightning Polka

Benjamin Britten – Four Sea Interludes from the Opera “Peter Grimes”

Wagner – Flying Dutchman Overture

Smetana – The Moldau (a river running through Prague)

Handel – The Water Music

Schumann – Symphony #3 (Rheinish)

The inspiration continues today; the Chicago Symphony’s 2012-13 season includes a section called Rivers, with music based on this feature of nature.

Nature informs not only the content of classical compositions, but their form as well.  Take for example the Golden Section – a sense of perfect proportion ( a division of a length so that the ration of the smaller part to the larger is the same as that of the larger part to the whole; approximately 0.618) which occurs widely in nature, and also in architecture, the visual arts…and music. Some composers used this perfect sense of proportion of form, pitch, rhythm, and tempo instinctively – Bach, Mozart, Brahms; and others, such as Bela Bartok, used it consciously.

A similar relationship has often been at work in the creation of a musical motive, such as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: its development and growth throughout a piece of music parallels nature’s life cycle.

What a wonderful giftt nature has given us musicians!

Jim Setapen
Director of the Academy
Conductor-in-Residence
Music Institute of Chicago

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