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Finding Music in Nature and Nature in Music

Classical Music for Outdoor Reflection

"There is nothing more musical than a sunset.”

So wrote Claude Debussy in a 1903 article that appeared in the French publication Musica. “He who feels what he sees,” continued the pioneering composer, “will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little — the book of Nature.”

Considered by many to be the first “impressionist” composer, Debussy’s music was often inspired by nature. He was able to hear symphonic progressions in the swell of the ocean, or the natural movement of clouds in the sky. In fact, the first movement of his Three Nocturnes, "Nuages" was conceived of while crossing a bridge on a stormy day. The image of thunderclouds rolling into the sky while a boat passed by, sounding its horn, is represented in the gradual development of the music’s intensity. 

Over the course of the last few months in lockdown, with businesses shuttered, daily routines disrupted, social distancing guidelines to adhere to, and long stretches of time on our hands, it’s no wonder people have been spending more time in nature this summer. A recent opinion piece by environmental scientist Laurence C. Smith calls this trend of spending more time outdoors an “unexpected benefit” of these unprecedented circumstances. “Spending time outdoors,” he writes in Scientific American, “even in urban settings, even six feet away from the next closest person, offers a refuge of normality during these extraordinary times.” 

Let’s face it: we can all use a break from the anxiety of life in lockdown. During these stressful times, being outdoors and reflecting in nature can be psychologically restorative. Whether you have access to hiking trails, waterways, or even just an urban parkette, before the summer ends, try venturing outdoors to experience the healing capabilities of nature. 

While you’re taking a walk in the woods, or sitting still in the park, be sure to bring along your headphones, so you can listen to some of the greatest pieces of classical music inspired by nature.

“Morning Mood,” Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt

Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s sprawling, surreal play Peer Gynt has cemented itself in the halls of popular culture. The musical themes written for major moments of the action have been used in different contexts for centuries now, appearing in film, television, and even video games!

Perhaps the most recognizable musical moment of Grieg’s score is the very beginning. The first few notes of Suite No. 1 alone are enough to conjure a sunrise over a pastoral scene. Listen to this on your morning walk, or while sipping freshly brewed coffee in your backyard, and start your day with peaceful reflection. 

"Appalachian Spring"

Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" is considered a quintessentially American orchestral suite.

Originally commissioned as the score for a new ballet choreographed by the legendary Martha Graham with funding from the Coolidge Foundation, Copland’s rapturous chamber piece won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. The ballet tells the story of a young married couple on an American farm, at the outset of their lives together. Facing uncertainties and hardships, together they find resiliency, and the strength to overcome their difficult circumstances.

Evoking the overwhelming beauty of nature, the music conjures images of rolling hills and sweeping plains. It can also serve as a reminder of the pioneering American spirit that, traditionally, stands tall in the face of adversity. 

"Thunder and Lightning" Polka

If you’re looking for a bit of whimsical music to underscore your time outdoors, look no further than Salute to Vienna’s regular repertoire. Johann Strauss’s "Thunder and Lightning" Polka is an old favourite from our annual New Year’s Concert. 

Replete with the frenzied mayhem of running home after getting caught in the rain, Strauss’s Golden Age polka paints a landscape of bad weather in a joyful light, proving that representation of nature in classical music don’t need to be simply reflective. They can be extremely fun, too. 

So, if you’re feeling cooped up inside, if you’re restless at home, feeling stressed and bored and in need of some respite, find a spot in nature to escape to, even for a few minutes. Clear your head. Breathe fresh air. And open your ears to the healing musical sounds of the great outdoors. 


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