Reflecting on Nature: a Song Recital
1. Introduction. Contrasting moods:
The first song shows how different aspects of nature (in this case the cycle of day and night) bring different feelings – here happiness and melancholy. Blake was very concerned with how we feel about our lives, and with the opposing emotions and sides of a character (see Songs of Innocence and Experience).
Many songs illustrate how our feelings reflect the changing aspects of nature.
However, there are other ways that nature is used in song and poetry. For example:
2. Nature as metaphor:
George Butterworth: Look not in my Eyes (words by A.E. Housman).
John Ireland: Spring Sorrow (words by Rupert Brooke).
In these three songs, nature is used as a metaphor, so as to get us to reflect on life:
- daffodils represent the brevity of life,
- a narcissus is so named to warn us against vanity: Narcissus was a handsome but vain young man, who fell in love with his own reflection, and was turned into a jonquil (narcissus) as punishment,
- and the coming of spring after a hard winter is used to show how the recovery from
emotional numbness can be painful.
3. Aspects of nature used to give us a warning:
Robert Schumann: Ich Wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered beneath the trees).
Franz Schubert: Die Forelle (the trout).
Fauré: Adieux (farewell).
I don’t know what it is about the portrayal of birds and animals in song, but these three songs all carry warning messages, though the warnings are not always very serious!
Robert Schumann: Ich Wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered beneath the trees) (words by Heinrich Heine): An idea connected with birdsong reminds a young man that he doesn’t trust anyone (and perhaps he shouldn’t): “ the birds say they learned their song from a maiden who passed by singing – they want to learn my song, but I want to keep it to myself: I don’t trust anybody!”
Franz Schubert: Die Forelle (the trout) (words by C. F. D. Schubart): Schubert’s song about a trout has a hidden meaning: in the original poem there was another verse with a warning to young girls not to trust devious men! “I watch the trout swimming happily; the fisherman catches it by muddying the water – I am angry at this trickery.”
Fauré: Adieux (farewell) (words by Charles Grandmougin): Fauré’s song is from a set of three songs (called ‘poèmes d’un jour’) that tell of: a meeting, a brief love affair, and a farewell – all happening in one day! There’s surely something rather cynical about the message here, and yet how beautifully Faure sets this poem! “Everything in nature fades away quickly, even the most beautiful rose - and so does love: just as I am about to declare my love I have to say farewell.”
4. The beauty of nature:
Michael Head: A Green Cornfield (words by Christina Rossetti).
Michael Head: Sweet Chance (words by W.H. Davies)
English song is known for its celebration of nature. These two songs by Michael Head both have a wistful side to them: the first suggesting that the poet hasn’t got time to stop and listen to a bird singing; and especially the second, which suggests that the beauty of nature is sometimes both exceptional and transient – ‘this side the tomb’ we rarely experience something as beautiful as hearing a cuckoo and seeing a rainbow at the same time.
Here again the very act of reflecting on nature makes the poets reflect on life…
5. Nature, and song, can bring together those who have been separated.
Beethoven: An die Ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) (words by Jeitteles)
In this song-cycle, which is actually the first composition of its kind, Beethoven sets six poems in an uninterrupted musical sequence. Each song changes in mood as the poet tries to overcome his feeling of separation from his beloved.
Throughout, the piano accompaniment is an essential element which helps to convey the changing moods, all of which are reflected in nature. This is in the spirit of romanticism – nature changes as our moods change, nature reflects our moods.
- The first song in the cycle begins with a beautiful wistful melody expressing the poet’s sadness, but it ends with an optimistic and joyful line: ‘und ein liebend Herz erreichet, was ein liebend Herz geweiht’ - which is difficult to translate, but for me it’s roughly: if you love something deeply and sincerely enough, it will come to you. “I look at the hills in the distance and think of the one I love: a loving heart will attain what it sincerely loves.”
- The second song is wistful, describing a peaceful valley, with a gently rocking accompaniment. “I wish I were among the peaceful hills, with my beloved – I would never leave her!”
- The third song speeds up considerably with the accompaniment imitating the rustling of a brook, the clouds flying, and the gentle breezes; but it ends sadly, as the poet says the brook carries his endless tears (the last word in the phrase ohne Zahl – ‘without end’ is held on for several bars into the beginning of the next song). “I wish the brook and the clouds could greet my beloved, tell her how I feel!”
- In the fourth song the mood is at first more sensual: the poet imagines the breeze playing with his beloved’s hair, and wishes he could be carried to her; the middle section becomes sad as he imagines her among the brown leaves of autumn, and asks the birds to carry to her his sadness; this song ends with an excited plea: if her reflection should appear in the brook, then he hopes the brook will carry it quickly back to him… “I envy the wind playing with my beloved’s hair – I wish the brook would bring me her reflection!”
- The fifth song is a joyous tribute to Spring: the swallow is building a nest for its little ones, ‘where love will dwell’ - but then it ends with sorrow since the poet is alone. “In the Spring, the swallows nesting show how Spring brings together those who are in love – but I have only tears to shed in Springtime.”
- The last song returns to the beautiful melody of the beginning of the cycle: but now the poet’s beloved is singing the same song; finally the joyful refrain from the first song is repeated over and over: if you love something deeply enough, it will come to you. “I call on my beloved to sing this song at sunset – then we will be together.”
6. Reflecting nature:
Brahms: Auf dem See (on the lake) (words by Carl Simrock):
“In a boat on the lake I can see the reflection of the beauty of nature: a double image of the surrounding hills, trees, and houses. If you are troubled, this beauty will calm you and heal you, as will songs, which reflect all that is beautiful on earth.”
This song says much of what I want to convey in this recital: reflecting on the beauty of nature and on songs about nature will bring peace and well-being.
7. The beauty of nature, again:
George Butterworth: Loveliest of Trees (words by A.E. Housman).
Reynaldo Hahn: L’Heure Exquise (the exquisite time/moment)
Next I would like to sing two of the most beautiful songs I know: George Butterworth’s song about a cherry tree tells of a young man who finds the cherry tree so lovely when it is in blossom, that he feels there are not enough springs in a lifetime ‘to look on things in bloom’ – so he will go and see it covered in snow.
Reynaldo Hahn’s setting of a poem by Verlaine conveys a wonderful atmosphere of stillness and beauty: nothing happens, there is simply the moonlight, a pool reflecting it, birds murmuring, and two lovers sharing the beauty of the moment.
8. Nature associated with dreams and with death:
Lili Boulanger: Reflets (reflections).
And now a contrast, with two songs written early in the 20th century, and sounding ‘modern’: the words to Lili Boulanger’s song are full of strange images – here the atmosphere is of unreality, darkness, and an unsettling dream world – a world of reflections in the water which seem to represent another reality.
Lili Boulanger: Reflets (reflections) (words by Maurice Maeterlinck): I am immersed in a frightening dream: it is as if I am under water; the reflected moonlight pierces my heart; beneath the still reeds, there is only the weeping reflection of flowers… as their petals fall they sink into the water of my dream and into the light of the moon.
9. Love and nature in a song-cycle by Robert Schumann:
Seven songs taken from Schumann’s Opus 39 Liederkreis (song-cycle) (words by Josef von Eichendorff).
Robert Schumann and his wife Clara were both very fond of Beethoven’s cycle of songs ‘to the distant beloved’, and Schumann’s cycle is clearly influenced by Beethoven’s. He wrote these songs before he married Clara, and they carry quite a few (sometimes hidden) messages to Clara from Robert of his love for her.
There is a lot to be discovered in these songs, and in the poems they are based on, so I hope you won’t mind if I say a little more about them.
These songs describe many different emotions connected with love and with nature, and this is another important point I want to make tonight: by getting to know songs and pomes like these, we can get to understand more about the complexity of our emotions.
For example in the first song: In der Fremde, the poet Eichendorff is describing how he felt after the death of his parents: alone, but at the same time he doesn’t want to be with anyone: “I can see my homeland in the distance, where there are red clouds; but my parents are long dead, and no-one knows me there. If only I could find peace, like that of the forest, where there is no one at all who knows me.”
In the second song in my selection (Mondnacht) there is a rich symbolism at work: the union of moon (or heaven) and earth represented (for Eichendorff) the union of the soul and the body – and when we have that feeling that we long to return home, perhaps this sense of wholeness is what we really want: “The sky seems to kiss the earth, and the earth with all its shining blossoms dreams about the sky; breezes ripple through the cornfields; the night is still, and my soul spreads its wings as if flying home.”
Schumann wrote a number of pieces in which there are evocations of hauntings and ghosts, and in the third song (also called In der Fremde - in the foreign land) the sounds of the forest evoke such strong feelings of nostalgia, that the ghost of a long-lost love seems to appear. “The sound of the brook in the forest disorients me, the nightingale’s song seems to tell of times gone by, and it is as if I can see my beloved waiting for me among the roses in the castle in the valley – but she is long dead.”
The next song (Die Stille - the secret) conveys the secret, intimate but thrilling pleasure of being in love. The stillness of the snow is only disturbed by the accompaniment, imitating perhaps the lover’s beating heart, and perhaps the sounds of birds hopping in the snow! “No one can explain why I feel so happy! I only want one person to know the reason – no one else needs to know! My thoughts are more peaceful than the snow outside, as silent as the stars in the sky. At the same time, I wish I were a bird, so I could fly over the sea and be in heaven!”
In Wehmuth (Sadness) the nightingale is in prison (Schumann wrote ‘prison’ where in the original poem it was a cage), and the prison is like a grave. The nightingale (for Eichendorff) symbolizes the soul trapped in the body. This is a song is sung by the same girl as the previous one, only unaccompanied – so Schumann has given it an accompaniment that makes it sound like a chorale or a hymn. “I can sometimes sing as if I am happy, but tears always flow, bringing relief. When the nightingale sings in its dungeon, it makes people feel happy, but they don’t hear the deep sadness in the song.”
Zwielicht: twilight is so strange and threatening that you feel you cannot trust anyone, even your friends, at that time of day, – a feeling of paranoia, in fact. The piano line wanders mysteriously like the branches of the trees. “Mysterious and frightening things happen at twilight: huntsmen roam around and will catch any animals you keep; your friend may seem to be kind towards you, but behind his smile he plots against you. When we are weary the night brings rest and a new beginning – but many things are also lost at night, so watch out, be wary!”
In Fruhlignsnacht there is a transformation: it is spring, and the poet realises his beloved does love him: the moonlight, the brook, even the nightingale, that before brought sorrow now bring only happiness. This song ends Schumann’s cycle on an optimistic note. “I hear a bird singing in the breezes in the garden – it is announcing spring. I want to rejoice but I also want to weep: I cannot believe my happiness. Yet the moon and the stars, the rustling of the trees, and the nightingale’s song: all tell me she is mine, she is mine!
Roger Quilter: The Wild Flower’s Song (words by William Blake).
Finally a song that portrays nature in a different perspective, where human beings are no longer central, but nature itself is. In fact, we no longer have ‘reflections’ but nature’s own voice.
The words are by William Blake, and this is typical of one of his poems: on the surface it seems simple – just the poet imagining a flower singing. But it surely hides a deeper meaning, as Blake’s poems usually do: I take this song as a plea for us to respect and treasure all aspects of nature, for even wild flowers may know, and feel hurt, if we despise or scorn them…
‘When it was night I was happy with my thoughts; when daylight came, I looked for new happiness, but I met with scorn…’