In today’s video, we’re going to get some songwriting inspiration. We’ll take a look at five composers who have been inspired by nature and the outdoors, and listen to a specific nature-inspired piece by each of them.
Some of you might remember the first installment of this series: Composers who were inspired by their cats. It was complete with true facts, but was also silly.
Let’s get started!
Songwriting inspiration: nature version
Now that it’s -30 where I live, I can’t help but be confronted with Mother Nature constantly. Most Classical composers we study lived in balmier parts of Europe (yes, Paris and London are balmy by comparison to where I live), and I was curious to learn who drew songwriting inspiration directly from nature.
Turns out, that’s most composers. Composers have been writing about the sea, the wind, the forest, the fields, and even the snow, since probably forever.
So though there are many, many nature-inspired pieces out there, I wanted to look at five in particular, and the story of how each composer drew songwriting inspiration from nature.
Scene 02 Claude Debussy screen
Claude Debussy, a French composer from the 19th/20th century, was heavily inspired by nature, which you can see in song titles such as:
In letters and writings, Debussy was very passionate to merge the beauty and wonder of nature with music. He sought to perfectly blend the two, and the majority of his music strove to encapsulate nature in some shape.
A quote of Debussy’s goes,
“There is nothing is 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.”
Debussy: La cathedrale engloutie (preludes)
For our musical example, I want to share with you one of my favorite preludes by Debussy – La cathedrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral). It was modeled after the myth of Ys, which is kind of like Atlantis – a sunken island/civilization.
The myth goes that this cathedral, which is underwater on the island of Ys, rises up from the sea on calm and clear mornings. When it does, you can hear all kinds of haunting sounds like chanting priests and chiming bells.
Debussy does such a great job conveying that mysterious spiritual feeling. He uses open fifths in the intro, as well as a pentatonic scale, which have a very ancient sound.
Songwriting inspiration: Johannes Brahms
The next nature-loving composer on our list is Johannes Brahms. His biographer, Jan Swafford, mentions that Brahms was an “avid outdoorsman” and how a lot of his compositions “rose from mountains and forests and open sky”.
In Brahms’ C minor symphony, the finale’s melody represents the Alps, which Brahms was inspired by while hiking. Brahms was a fan of “walking holidays”, basically holidays where he went hiking.
His horn trio was also nature-inspired. But the thing about Brahms is he didn’t believe in writing about nature – you won’t see any pieces titled “The Sea” like with Debussy. He believed that music should be about music.
Still, though his music doesn’t represent the elements, he drew from the well of nature for inspiration. Let’s take a listen to Brahms’ second symphony in D major, which starts off very peaceful and calm, later crecendoing into something more exuberant. It’s a beautiful work.
Songwriting inspiration: Richard Wagner
Since Brahms and Wagner hated each other, I felt it only fitting that our next choice be Richard Wagner.
Wagner lived in Zurich, Switzerland, and would frequently hike into the Alps. It’s thought that the cold Swiss climate helped inspire the vigor of his music. If so, that’s good news for us Canadians
A couple noteable operas of Wagner’s deal with nature:
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) (usually called The Ring Cycles), a 15-hour epic opera. It’s about the moral treatment of nature and the environment, as a reaction to industrialism. Wagner was strongly in favor of nature and working with it, as opposed to controlling it, and these views are passionately conveyed in The Ring. In this story, The Ring literally represents nature – and the bad guys want to take it so they can control nature.
The Flying Dutchman was another opera inspired by nature. After nearly dying on a boat during a very stormy voyage, he drew on that experience to write in music the legend of the Flying Dutchman, about similar subject matter.
Let’s take a listen to the first bit of the Overture from The Flying Dutchman – you can really feel the dread and power even in the first 30 seconds. It summons a rumbling, turbulent sea in an epic way.
Songwriting inspiration: Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi is our Baroque selection on this list. Though composers of the distant past would often enjoy nature, very few overtly wrote about it. Vivaldi, however, wrote four violin concerti entitled “The Four Seasons”, with each concerto detailing a season.
He uses specific instrumental effects to create sounds such as:
Music that evokes nature with specific sounds is called Program Music, and this set by Vivaldi was one of the earliest examples of it.
Vivaldi’s “Summer” finale
Most of us can easily recognize the first movement of Spring, but I want to show you one of my favorite movements from the set, from “Summer”. It’s the dramatic finale. The story of this movement is a shepherd realizing the storm is really bad, bringing hail, wind and thunder. It’s very metal. It’s so cool it makes me tear up every time I hear it, especially performed by Liana Isakadze.
Songwriting inspiration: Chopin
Though Chopin was not an outdoorsy type like some of the others on the list (he was more indoorsy and frail), I wanted to give a quick shout-out to one of his pieces about rain.
There are a couple preludes that portray raindrops a constant, steady, repeated note – notably in his Raindrop Prelude, op. 28, no. 15.
The story goes that Chopin was dreaming while playing the piano during a rainstorm. He was alone when George Sand (his lover) and her son returned home. He exclaimed that he dreamed of himself being drowned in a lake, with heavy drops of water dripping rhythmically on his chest.
George was like, “Hey Frederic, you were just hearing the sound of raindrops on the roof, and imitating that in your piano music.” The rest of the story I’ll let George Sand finish, in her own words:
I thought this was an interesting comparison from Vivaldi’s direct-sound-imitation. Let’s take a quick listen to his Raindrop Prelude. You can hear the “raindrop” imitation in the repeated A-flat in the left hand.
Thank you so much for joining me on this songwriting inspiration adventure. It was fun exploring the different ways composers can take something – like nature – and use it for their music fuel in different ways.
Thanks for watching, and I’ll catch you next time!