Nature has always been a major source of inspiration for music. This connection started to become more explicit already from the Baroque era, with Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni [The Four Seasons] being the most famous example or early program music. However, it was mostly in symphonic works that musical allusions to nature would find their most complete and powerful expression.
Known for his love of nature, Ludwig van Beethoven would often leave Vienna and embark on expeditions in rural locations, spending much of his time walking around the countryside. His feelings and impressions from his frequent contact with nature would be depicted in his Symphony No. 6 (also known as the ‘Pastoral Symphony’), one of his few works that include programmatic notes. Beethoven’s annotation of the first movement is characteristic of his mood (“awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside”), while subsequent movements include wonderful imitations of nature such as the sound of flowing water (strings), the singing of the nightingale (flute) and the cuckoo (clarinets), or a fierce thunderstorm that builds up from the initial raindrops to a heavy rainfall coupled with thunder and lightning (strings, wind instruments, timpani).
Nature was of central importance in the Romantic era, as was nationalism. These two themes would merge exemplary well in Má Vlast ("My Homeland"), a set of six symphonic poems by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana that includes the famousVltava [The Moldau]. Composed in late 1874,Vltava is a musical depiction of the great river as it passes through Bohemia. In Smetana’s words:
“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe.”
A form pioneered by Franz Liszt, the symphonic poem reached its culmination with Richard Strauss, whose admiration of nature is famously expressed in the multi-movement symphonic composition Eine Alpensinfonie [An Alpine Symphony], written in 1915. Depicting the experience of climbing an Alpine mountain from dawn to dusk, the work was influenced by Strauss’s fascination and interest in nature (which was in turn linked to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy), and its inspiration partly came from his own experience as a mountain climber. Eine Alpensinfonie is the last symphonic poem composed by Strauss and one of his largest non-operatic works in terms of orchestra requirements, as it takes a total of around 125 players to perform it.
Known for his extraordinary relationship with nature, Jean Sibelius was often inspired by the Finnish landscape for his compositions. Written in 1926 and regarded as his last major work, the tone poem Tapiola ("Realm of Tapio") portrays Tapio, a forest spirit that figures prominently in theKalevala, while evoking the atmosphere of the Finnish pine forest, so dear and familiar to Sibelius. This is how the composer himself prefaced his score:
Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.
Majestic and awe-inspiring, nature has continued to arouse the imagination of composers well into modern times. While continuously being used in new, innovative contexts (e.g. the subtle sounds of Toru Takemitsu or the avant-garde compositions of George Crumb), nature will no doubt remain a key influence and help reshape the musical landscape of the future.