Interior of a forest by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) / Public domain

Music and Nature: Trees

When we’re young and in dance class, we’re told to imitate trees – swaying in the wind, bowing down in a torrent of rain or just standing tall in the cold winter sun. Composers are equally inspired; they see trees as emblematic of spring and optimism or of winter and endurance. A.E. Houseman’s ode to rural England, A Shropshire Lad, includes a paean to the beauties of nature, and the cherry tree in his poem “Loveliest of Trees” and so we have Spring.

John Ireland’s ode to the Almond Tree also seems to be a Spring piece, but one very much in debt to the inspiration of Debussy and his outdoor pieces.

Ireland’s setting of Housman’s The Cherry Tree, is also a setting from A Shropshire Lad, but now without words. At the head of the piece, Ireland included this text “And since to look at things in bloom | Fifty springs are little room, | About the woodland I will go | To see the cherry hung with snow,” evoking Spring and the cherry blossom season neatly.

Moving into summer, we have Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree. The title comes from a 1983 semi-autobiographical novel by Kenzaburō Ōe, Atarashii hito yo mezame yo (Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!): “It was named the ‘rain tree’, for its abundant foliage continued to let fall rain drops from the previous night’s shower until the following midday. Its hundreds of thousands of tiny, finger-like leaves store up moisture, whereas other trees dry out at once.” The crotales’ percussion at the beginning gives us the rain drops, and the vibraphone gives us the rain’s effect on the leaves, before the wooden marimba gives us the tree itself.

In Autumn, the leaves fall and give us the bare sketches of tree limbs against the sky. Winter’s chill isn’t far away.

Christmas, of course, gives us the evergreen and its fine dressing of ornaments.

Be it Spring and all the trees are in their flower finery or winter, where the strength of the trees is visible everywhere, the tree stands as our season ode to nature.

By Maureen Buja. Republished with permission from Interlude, Hong Kong.