Caspar David Friedrich / Berglandschaft

Music inspired by nature

»There's nothing more musical than a sunset« – The 2022 Hamburg International Music Festival takes an extensive stroll through nature.

»How would that sound if Debussy was the composer?« my girlfriend asked. »No idea,« I answered. »I've never heard a fog like this in his music.« We were taking  a winter's walk on an island in the North Sea and wondered how the panorama before our eyes could be expressed in music: the dark waves rolling into shore with a visibility of just a few hundred yards, the yellowish sand with the morning sun coming out between the fog and the clouds, the sandpipers scurrying across the beach, the gentle breeze, a handful of people stretching their legs. All this would have to be included in a musical depiction, colours, thoughts and feelings too, but no clichés, not on any account. That's how we arrived at Claude Debussy, the composer of »La Mer«.

Listen: »La Mer« by Debussy


It was Debussy who rediscovered nature at the beginning of the modern era. »There's nothing more musical than a sunset,« the French composer once wrote. »For anyone who can see with his heart, this is the finest lesson in development, written in the book that musicians don't read as often as they should, namely: nature itself.« Debussy wrote with his emotions, and a love story linked him to the sea. But independent of that, emotion is of fundamental importance in terms of how artists view nature. The view they have is always a personal one: nature doesn't tell anyone what to think. The transcription of birdsong, such as Olivier Messiaen chose to do 50 years later, likewise triggers creativity – although the composer himself would never have put it that way. The Catholic that Messiaen was saw himself as a translator of the transcendental; to his ears the birds were the voice of God.

Listen: Olivier Messiaen – »Réveil des Oiseaux«

Hamburg International Music Festival

28 April – 1 June 2022: In this year’s International Music Festival the big Hamburg orchestras and top-level guests focus on the motto »Nature« for four weeks.


And already we find ourselves in the jungle of meanings, ambivalences and perspectives that appears beyond the topic »Nature and Music«. It's not only about when and how and why one hears the cuckoo's call or the roaring of the waves. It's not only about what a composer's intention is, it's also about what we actually hear in the music. The composer Helmut Lachenmann once said of the new playing techniques that he makes more diverse use of than anyone else: »When 45 strings play on the wooden bridge of their instruments instead of on the strings themselves, it sounds truly fantastic! It's not just a sound, it's the sound of the ocean, of breaking waves.« He went on that every individual can hear it »as he feels fit. What goes on in the listener's mind has nothing to do with the composer.«


»It is perfectly possible to experience something completely different from a hike through the mountains in Richard Strauss's »Alpine Symphony«, and by the same token it's possible to hear the sound of the surf, asunsets or impressions of the landscape where no composer had them in mind. And one can enjoy Messiaen's birdsong without converting to Catholicism.«


There is no way past the laws of physics. Pythagoras noticed 2,500 years ago that musical intervals are based on numerical proportions. For example, the interval of a fifth above a root is produced when a vibrating string is shortened by one-third. 440 hertz turn into 660 hertz, and when heard together, both have a pleasant sound. As he also observed numerical proportions in the movements of the stars, the Greek philosopher came to the conclusion that music and the cosmos were based on common principles; using this analogy between the universe and music, people still regarded the world as a harmonious whole as recently as the 17th century.

A lot of things have altered since then, but not physics. Nature and music cannot be separated because music is »alive«. Music is not static, it is always a process; it literally needs air to breathe, otherwise it cannot be heard. And while it is being heard, music itself turns into a reality that surrounds us and has a physical effect on us. »At the opening of Bruckner's Fourth,« says Helmut Lachenmann, »the entire auditorium is in the key of E flat, it's akin to a meteorological event«. And no lesser figure than Gustav Mahler found it »strange that most people, when they talk about ›nature‹, only think of flowers, birds, the scent of the woods and so on. But no one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan. And there you already have a kind of programme – a sample of how I make music. My music consists solely of the sounds of nature!«

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler


Though it's fair to point out Mahler wrote these lines in 1896, after completing the score of the Third Symphony, whose colossal first movement was written last and bears the title »Pan awakens – summer marches in«. But this the composer intended only for his private use; he didn't want people to hear his music as being so programmatic. »Like a sound of nature«: this was his performance marking back in 1889 above the beginning of his First Symphony, where the note A in the flageolet of the strings flickers up into the highest registers. This reminded German musicologist Theodor Adorno in 1960 of the »unpleasant whistling sound emitted by old-fashioned steam engines«; but he meant this comment positively – for him it bore witness to the »rift« in the work.


Listen: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1


The rift Mahler was referring to was the rift embodied by a change in consciousness, not the first nor the last such, with regard to »nature« in music. Around the year 1440, i.e. at the end of what we call the Middle Ages, the universal scholar Nicholas of Cusa wrote: »As art imitates nature, we can proceed from what we have discovered in detailed analysis of art to arrive at the forces of nature«. He still saw art and science as one. When art went on to discover the subject, it took the imitation along with it.


Nature and music cannot be separated because music is »alive«. Music is not static; it is always a process.

In the early 16th century, words and music still remained generally independent of one another, as composed music hardly ever took human emotions as its subject. But then, starting with the lyric poetry of Petrarch, a catalogue of feelings evolved that searched for a musical equivalent for every nuance in the text, for fear and joy, for light and darkness. The outcome was the most highly differentiated mutual vocabulary of all time in music. It contained not only fast successions of notes for escape and descending semitones for a sigh, there were also formulae for wind and waves and all manner of other echoes of nature.


It was at this time that the nightingale began its unstoppable ascent to prominence. Clément Janequin became the first composer to imitate the feathered coloratura soprano in 1537. And German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher enthused in 1560: »In the nightingale, nature has presented us with a perfect ideal of the art of dance music«. The little songster went on to survive all changes in musical aesthetics in the next 250 years: the nightingale's song is heard in Monteverdi (8th Book of Madrigals, 1638) and in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (Sonata representativa, circa 1670), in Alessandro Scarlatti (»Le nozze con l’inimico«, 1695), François Couperin (»Le rossignol en Amour«, 1722), and Vivaldi, whose violin concerto »Il rosignuolo« is just one work in his huge imitation repertoire. After that, it appears in Rameau's »Hippolyte et Aricie« (1733) and in several Handel works. Towards the end of the 18th century, composers start to lose interest in the nightingale: a classically tame flute solo in Haydn's »Creation« (1797) is followed by its final appearance in the premier league: the second movement of Beethoven's »Pastoral« Symphony of 1808 features a flute (nightingale), an oboe part (quail) and a clarinet (cuckoo).

The nightingale has been feeding off its appearance as a concert bird in the Beethoven to this day, but in 1903 it came in  for some biting criticism as a top model. Claude Debussy was not impressed by Beethoven's comment that the music was "more an expression of feeling than painting", and wrote after a performance of the »Pastoral« in Paris: »Look at the scene by the brook: this is actually a stream from which cows appear to drink (at least the bassoon parts lead me to this conclusion), not to mention the nightingale in the wood and the Swiss cuckoo, both of which fit better into the art of Jacques de Vaucanson (who built a mechnical duck in 1738 – editor's note) than into any nature that deserves the name. This is all senseless imitation for imitation's sake, or random interpretation.«

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Bergbach
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Bergbach © Jean Louis Mazieres

Debussy wanted to see an »emotional translation of what is ›invisible‹ in nature«. His  criticism summed up something that was already looming in the 18th century. As Helga de la Motte-Haber puts it in her comprehensive book »Musik und Natur«, the Baroque waves and storms, flashes of lightning, pastoral idylls and battles had turned into musical standards, into formulae; even the thunder and lightning in Bach's »St. Matthew Passion« seem more like quotations than direct depictions. Nature in music had been tamed like the gardens of Versailles, where Jean-Féry Rebel composed the opposite in the 1730s: a shapeless chasm at the beginning of his dance symphony »Les Élémens«: a big bang, a cluster that combines every note in the opening key. Rebel was 200 years ahead of his time with this idea.


Listen: »Les Éléments« by Jean-Féry Rebel


According to de la Motte, composers abandoned concrete reference to nature in the 18th century, rediscovering the subject once more. »Painting,« thus philosopher Johann Georg Sulzer in 1771 writing about thunder and lightning and the roaring of the waves, »is opposed to the true spirit of music, which is not supposed to depict inanimate objects, but to express the feelings of the soul.« In 1819, German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann found even this definition too narrow: »Music opens up an unknown realm to the listener, a realm that has nothing to do with the external world of the senses that surrounds him; it is a realm where he leaves all specific feelings behind him and abandons himself to an inexpressible yearning. Did you even suspect the existence of this strange creature, you poor instrumental composers, as you laboured to depict particular feelings or occurrences?«


From this point, one path led to absolute music, free of any programme at all, but this was not a path that all composers followed by any means. In his »Symphonie fantastique« of 1830, Berlioz combines shepherds talking amongst rustling trees with the hero's uncertainty in a new and suggestive fashion. Wagner has the ocean breaking disastrously into a score that he wrote in 1841 not far from the newly-opened railway line from Paris to Versailles: the seething metropolis of Paris is also behind »The Flying Dutchman«. And in Wagner's sounds of nature, culminating in the Good Friday music in »Parsifal« (1882), we also hear the rustling of the forest in Carl Maria von Weber's »Freischütz« (1821). The 20th century German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno commented that this was »not the Bohemian Forest where I was born, but incipient horror, magic from the early times of a demystified world«.

The demystification of the world brought about by technology – in 1900 the European railway network was already 200,000 kilometres long – led to a backlash in music, to a boom of fairy-tale operas full of forests, lakes and mysterious, menacing women such as we find in Dvorák's »Rusalka«, as well as works written for a huge orchestra and set in nature. Among these are Schönberg's »Gurre-Lieder«, Ravel's »Daphnis et Chloé« and, last but not least, Richard Strauss's »Alpine Symphony«. The Strauss work,  completed in the first months of the First World War, has apocalyptic traits, albeit unconsciously: in the section entitled »Gewitter und Sturm« (Thunder and Tempest), the composer throws all his motifs – waterfalls and meadows and forests – into the shredder in a virtuoso orgy of destruction.

But there are also works that don't tell of demystification and the escape from it, works whose vitality is direct, despite all their complexity. One example is the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, long misunderstood, whose symphonic landscapes don't require a sign with »Nature« printed on it: the listener breathes fresh air here and feels free of projections. Another composer of such direct and vital music is the Russian Igor Stravinsky, whose »Sacre du Printemps« (The Rite of Spring) is like a natural phenomenon in its own right. One of the first people to hear it felt »knocked down as if by a hurricane«, and the power of Stravinsky's music remains undiminished to this day.

Caspar David Friedrich: Der Mönch am Meer / ca. 1810
Caspar David Friedrich: Der Mönch am Meer / ca. 1810

What connections between nature and music are still possible today?

The first nightingale to appear in music after the Great War is as real as it is distant: it is heard as a gramophone recording added to Ottorino Resphigi's 1924 orchestral piece »The Pines of the Janiculum«. The Respighi was written over 40 years before Paul McCartney's »Blackbird« of 1968, where the songbird of the title likewise warbles on tape, in support of the fight against racism that the song expresses. The first blackbird to be composed in the 20th century was a wartime child: it is heard in Olivier Messiaen's 1941 »Quatuor pour la fin du temps«, together with a nightingale; Messiaen wrote the quartet for violin, clarinet, cello and piano in the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A near Görlitz, where it was first performed.

The »Quartet for the End of Time« marks the beginning of the search for a new spirituality without a subject, which was carried on by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen (»Tierkreis. 12 Melodien der Sternzeichen«) and John Cage, who likewise used a map of the southern night sky as the  basis for the notes of his piano cycle »Études australes« in the mid-70s. Here Cage combines his chance aesthetics with the strict serial technique that Anton Webern followed as if it were a compelling natural law, and there are countless other works that pay tribute to a nature of numbers, working with Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio.

Find out more about 20th century music

Karlheinz Stockhausen bei den Darmstädter Ferienkursen
Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Darmstadt vacation courses © unbezeichnet

Not so new after all: a short history of 20th century music.


And now, after Man has spent two centuries destroying nature? What connections between nature and music are still possible?  Slightly surprised at the question,  the South Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan (b. 1945) answers: »Without nature I can't imagine music at all!«. In 2018 she wrote the ten-minute piece »Seerosen – Wurzelwerke« for the Korean zither geomungo, also playable on the guitar. In the sparing use of notes, the group of intervals linking them, we feel we are seeing and thinking. We see the waterlily roots of the title in the murky water, but it is like a sensuous abstraction that opens up the spirit and the soul.

Claude Monet: Seerosen
Claude Monet: Seerosen © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

One shouldn't underestimate the breadth of small formats! In a window like this, even the fog is an event in Debussy's hands. Only when I was walking along the beach did I find out that Debussy actually composed fog: »(… Brouillard)«, the French word for fog, appears discreetly at the end of the 52 bars of piano music. There are bar lines in the score of this 1913 Prélude, it's true, but they are heard as little as any kind of tonal support in the gossamer arcs of rapid notes. This is a dense fog – but it's also bright and permeable, so that no-one walking in it will get lost. And I find things in it myself: an A in the bass line, the dark roaring of the waves again, and the sun coming through in a consecutive fifth. Others people will find other things. Let's go on in this and all other music! Perhaps we'll even engage in a conversation with nature, that never speaks a word.

Author: Volker Hagedorn, last updated 24 March 2022

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