Antonio Vivaldi: Le quattro stagioni
Nature is one of the most popular musical subjects of all. Be it the River Moldau or a Norwegian dawn, be it the Alpine Symphony or »La Mer«, be it a pastoral idyll, a hunting opera or the »Wanderer« Fantasy – there is hardly a composer who hasn't taken inspiration from nature. But no-one gained such fame with a depiction of nature as Antonio Vivaldi with his »Four Seasons«, which gives vivid musical expression to thunderstorms, oppressive heat and icy cold.
The popularity of the »Four Seasons« is reflected by countless arrangements, some more successful than others, and works that pay tribute to the Vivaldi original, from electric guitar to Astor Piazzolla's tango cycle. One of the best of more than a thousand recordings of the original was made by the Italian Early Music ensemble Il Giardino Armonico: in their reading, you can really hear the ice crunching in the biting cold of winter.
Hamburg International Music Festival
Programme highlights to close the season: in a four-week festival the great Hamburg orchestras and star guests explore the theme of »nature«
Jean-Philippe Rameau: La poule
A special place in the repertoire of nature depictions in music is the sub-category »Animals« – and not only since Saint-Saëns composed his beloved »Carnival of the Animals« in 1886. Nearly a century earlier, Joseph Haydn provided a musical encyclopedia of the Earth's fauna from the worm to the whale in his oratorio »The Creation«, and many composers have tried their hand at imitating birdsong, one of the most prominent examples being Beethoven's »Pastoral« Symphony.
In 1726, French harpsichord virtuoso Jean-Philippe Rameau made a particularly amusing contribution to the genre with his »Pièces de clavecin«; the score describes them as suites, but in truth they are a sequence of stylised dances. But joker Rameau incorporated numerous movements based on a theme, among them »La poule«, which accurately reproduces the clucking of a hen. Incidentally, the chords in the accompaniment are all set in three parts, so a chicken could play them with its claws.
Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World
Green trees, red roses, blue sky and white clouds with a colourful rainbow on the horizon – Louis Armstrong's 1967 ballad paints a picture of a world so ideal as to be almost suspicious. And then he manages to make his rasping voice sound as warm as spring sunshine, grinning into the camera like a Cheshire cat at every unlikely syllable.
In reality, these were anything but rosy times: the Vietnam War was getting out of hand, as was police brutality against the black civil rights movement. Singing about a »wonderful world« to a society deeply divided was either (a) hopelessly naïve or (b) incredibly optimistic. Armstrong's producer tended towards the former opinion, which is why the song only became known in American 20 years later; at this point, people began to see its inherent optimism.
Marvin Gaye: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
»Where did all the blue skies go? Poison in the wind, oil wasted on the ocean, fish full of mercury, radiation underground and in the sky…« Marvin Gaye is normally known as the »Prince of Motown«, as a dependable source of party hits with a feel-good soul groove. But with his 1971 album »What’s Going On« he dashed his record label's expectations and sang about the destruction of the environment, racial unrest, his brother's Vietnam trauma and his own heroin addiction. All of a sudden,
Gaye's soft voice sounded all fatalistic. Until then, Man's exploitation of nature was not something people were generally aware of: the singer's manager didn't know the word »ecology« at all. Another nine years were to pass until the Green Party was founded in Germany, and other artists only gradually joined the environmental movement. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine voted Gaye's visionary concept album the best record ever made.
Listen to the whole Playlist
Elbphilharmonie Magazin | Natur
Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind
In the summer of 1904, everything was peachy in the world of the 20-year-old Anton Webern. On holiday in the Austrian province of Kärnten, he surrendered to youthful rapturous feelings about nature and dashed off the tone poem »Im Sommerwind« – a quarter-hour of pining and yearning set for a huge orchestra. Like so much fin de siècle music, it is almost consumed by its own beauty, but it doesn't really know where it's trying to go.
Webern broke the mould a few months later when he took lessons with the radical innovator Arnold Schönberg. Henceforth, reduction was to be his most important stylistic tool. Thus »Im Sommerwind« probably contains about as many notes as the entirety of his late work.
Franz Schubert: Heidenröslein
In earlier times, nature was often used as an innocent metaphor for risqué or politically controversial topics that couldn't be spoken about directly. Goethe's famous »Heidenröslein« (Little Field Rose), for example, makes use of the image, common at the time, of a young woman or virgin as a flower that can be »picked« by a man at any time. The poem ends with a frightening shrug of the shoulders: »Und der wilde Knabe brach / ’s Röslein auf der Heiden / Röslein wehrte sich und stach / Half ihm doch kein Weh und Ach / Musst’ es eben leiden.« (Now the cruel boy must pick / Heathrose fair and tender; / Rosebud did her best to prick – / Vain 'twas 'gainst her fate to kick – / She must needs surrender.) Thus it was only logical of Franz Schubert to end his 1815 setting in similarly succinct fashion.
But the opposite applied as well. In Goethe's »Das Veilchen« (The Violet), set to music by Mozart in 1785, the man is the flower that hopes to be picked by a girl and pressed to her bosom – in vain, as it happens: the object of his affections doesn't even notice the violet, but simply treads it underfoot.
Charles Koechlin: Dschungelbuch-Zyklus
»Try taking things easy for a change!« This maxim of the first unofficial chill-out apostle, the bear Baloo in Rudyard Kipling's »Jungle Book«, definitely wouldn't have cut the mustard with Charles Koechlin. The French composer (1867–1950) wrote music on a production line: literally hundreds of works flowed from his pen. As a maverick of music history, he cultivated an eclectic style that fluctuated between impressionism, expressionism, neo-classical and free atonality, sometimes within one and the same piece.
No less wide were Koechlin's interests, ranging from medieval music through stereoscopic photography, archeology, astronomy, tennis and communism to Hollywood cinema. The »Jungle Book« occupies a special place in this obscure list: he made it the subject of no fewer than four symphonic poems and three orchestral songs. »Les Bandar-log«, for example, illustrates how Mowgli is kidnapped by the monkeys. Koechlin's idiosyncractic mixture of styles was not really to anybody's taste, so that his splendid music, sadly, has hardly been performed to this day.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean
»Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and the sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.« A forecast of the future of mankind that is as simple and plausible as it is shocking. It comes from the pen of the composer and environmental activist John Luther Adams, now 69, who spent many years living in Alaska. And he didn't hesitate to translate his preduction into music: his 45-minute orchestral piece »Become Ocean« of 2013 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy award.
In keeping with his forecast, the work is symmetric in structure, and starts to run backwards from the middle until the opening state is reached again. But the music seems tame relative to its dramatic subject matter: the New Yorker called it »the loveliest apocalypse in musical history«.
As part of the International Music Festival, some 40 percussionists will perform »Inuksuit« by John Luther Adams in Hamburg's Planten un Blomen park on 15 May 2022. Admission is free.
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 25.03.2022
Translation: Clive Williams