Composers on Nature
Countless musicians have been inspired by nature, and many have left us quotations describing their feelings for the natural world. Here is a collection of seven quotes about nature from classical composers, paired with compositions that reflect their love of the natural world.
Ludwig van Beethoven
“I am happy as a child at the thought wandering among clusters of bushes, in the woods, among trees, herbs, rocks. No man loves the country more than I; for do not forests, trees, rocks re-echo that for which mankind longs.”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a great lover of nature, finding musical inspiration in long walks through the countryside. This charming quote comes from a letter he wrote to his pupil and friend, Therese von Malfatti, in 1807.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is his most famous work about nature, and rightly so. It was also one of the first classical works to explore the natural world through purely symphonic music.
Hildegard of Bingen
“…No creature, whether visible or invisible, lacks a spiritual life. And those creatures that human beings do not perceive seek their understanding until humans do perceive them. For it is from the power of the seed that the buds sprout. And it is from the buds that the fruit of the tree springs forth. The clouds too have their course to run. The moon and the stars flame in fire. The trees shoot forth buds because of the power in their seeds. Water has a delicacy and a lightness of motion like the wind. This is why it springs up from the Earth and pours itself into running brooks.”
Composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote extensively on the natural world, both in theological works and in medical and scientific texts. This quote comes from a letter she wrote to Bishop Eberhard II of Bamberg.
Hildegard’s hymn to the Virgin, O viridissima virga, is one of many compositions in which she draws imagery from nature.
O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.
Hildegard is depicted in the lower left corner of the above illustration, a depiction of the four seasons from her Liber divinorum operum.
“He was a great walker, and had a passionate love of nature. It was his habit during the spring and summer to rise at four or five o’clock, and, after making himself a cup of coffee, to go into the woods to enjoy the delicious freshness of early morning and to listen to the singing of the birds. In adverse weather he could still find something to admire and enjoy.
‘I never feel it dull,’ he said one day, in answer to some remark about the depressing effect of the long-continued rain, ‘my view is so fine. Even when it rains, I have only another kind of beauty.'”
English pianist Florence May was introduced to Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) by her piano teacher, and Brahms’s close friend, Clara Schumann. In 1905, May published her Life of Johannes Brahms, which opens with her own reminiscences of the composer, including this reflection on early morning walks and the delights of rainy weather.
Brahms’s Horn Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 40, was inspired by one of his walks. In Recollections of Brahms, Brahms’s friend Albert Dietrich recounted how Brahms once showed him a spot among the fir trees near Baden-Baden where he’d thought up the first movement’s theme.
“There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little — the book of Nature.”
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) offered this famous observation in “Considerations of the Prix de Rome from the Musical Point of View,” a piece he wrote for the French publication Musica in 1903.
“Nuages,” the first movement from Debussy’s Three Nocturnes for Orchestra (pub. 1900), offers a musical portrait of the sky’s rolling clouds. The music develops gradually and subtly, much like a sunset does.
“When I was your age … I did not yet feel, in relation to nature’s towering mountains, the sense of sadness that has since cast itself over my outlook … For me, mysticism has always prevented jubilation from taking the upper hand. I could indeed rejoice inwardly over the free life. But nature itself? Face to face with nature I stood in silent reverence and awe as if before God himself.
Certainly I love science’s urge to clarity. But the mystical attracts me nonetheless …”
This reflection on the solemn mysteriousness of nature comes from a letter Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote in 1905 to his younger friend, Frants Beyer.
One of Grieg’s loveliest nature-inspired works is “Til våren,” No. 6 from his Op. 43 Lyric Pieces for piano (pub. 1886).
“It’s probable that in the artistic hierarchy birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.”
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was an ornithologist as well as a composer, and he worked birdsong into many of his compositions. This quotation comes from Claude Samuel’s 1976 interview-style biography, Conversations with Olivier Messiaen.
Messiaen’s Réveil des oiseax (1953) for piano and orchestra quotes the songs of more than 36 different species of birds.
“…Like the welcome rain on a quiet spring night that nurtures the budding seeds, our new society is pushing us forward to the new future.”
Composer Chen Yi (b. 1953) offered this description in the program notes for her chamber work Happy Rain on a Spring Night. Dr. Chen is a Distinguished Professor at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, and her work has been performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, Chanticleer, Yo-Yo Ma, and many other respected soloists and institutions. Another nature-inspired work, Si Ji (Four Seasons), made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006.
John Luther Adams
“Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
This is how composer John Luther Adams (b. 1953) inscribed his orchestral work, Become Ocean. The piece was commissioned in 2013 by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Become Ocean won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music as well as the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Composition.
“The message is that, essentially, in the coming century water, and water management, is going to be the most important global issue to all people and across all countries. Between melting Antarctic ice sheets and rising ocean levels and droughts and increased devastation from hurricanes and so forth, water is literally going to shape the way we draw our maps.”
Thus did Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin (b. 1976) describe his Billboard-Chart-topping environmentalist album The Drop that Contained the Sea (2014) in an interview with PRI. He also described the vivid natural inspiration for one of the album’s tracks, a setting of a passage from the Norse Poetic Edda entitled “Haf gengr hríðum” (The Storm-Driven Sea).
“Much in the way that a hurricane starts as a small swirl of winds and moisture and darkening clouds, I just wanted something that started off ominously and sort of built with just this feverish powerful presence until it exploded just the way a hurricane does.”