The ease of global communication nowadays brings home the frequency of natural disasters and their tragic consequences. The only positive offshoot of such terrible occurrences seems to lie in the artistic reflections that composers have made in trying to capture these events, born of the less comforting side of Mother Nature. Picking through the catalogue throws up a number of works on this theme that may not be widely known, but are worth exploring over a few paragraphs here.
The flood to end all floods was indeed on a biblical scale and in a biblical setting, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s representation of the event features in Genesis Suite (1945) (8.559442), an intriguing example of compositional team spirit. Although not the only example of several artists contributing to the outcome of a single work, Genesis Suite (1945) is probably the most lavish in terms of its scale and its aspiration to a Hollywood-type mass appeal. Castelnuovo-Tedesco (The Flood) was joined by other European-emigré contributors living in the US at the time. Together with Arnold Schoenberg (Prelude), Nathaniel Shilkret (Creation), Alexandre Tansman (Adam and Eve), Darius Milhaud (Cain and Abel), Ernst Toch (The Covenant—The Rainbow) and Igor Stravinsky (Babel), they attempted to fuse their high art with the typically characteristic feel of a Hollywood film score. Written for narrator, chorus and orchestra it was performed only once in 1945 before much of the music was lost in a fire; fortunately it was later restored. The personal antipathy between Schoenberg and Stravinsky at the time of the work’s composition seemed to be momentarily assuaged in the work, even though they and their music might appear to be symbolically separated by being placed as the first and last movements of the 7-movement piece. To give you a flavour of the work, here’s part of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s The Flood.
Still in the world of film music, but far from the tinsel of Hollywood, The Plow that Broke the Plains (8.559291) was a 1936 US Government documentary that reflected President Roosevelt’s efforts to tackle the relief, recovery and reform necessitated by the Great Depression. It was voted best documentary film at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Part of the score is titled Drought, with the voice-over narration accompanying scenes of scorched, abandoned farmland: “Once again the rains held off and the the sun scorched the earth.” Even without the screen images, Thomson’s music readily conjures the scene of desolation.
Given the size of China’s landmass, it’s no surprise that the country receives a good number of lashings from the weather each year. Nature is ever-present in much of the country’s folk music, most of it focusing on the beauty of landscapes and wildlife. But here’s a performance of an anonymous piece called Fighting Against Typhoon (8.828002). It’s played on the zheng, an ancient Chinese plucked instrument that belongs to the zither family, and paints a vivid picture of the fury of the elements revving up insatiably.
One of the most destructive natural forces arrives largely unheralded, as in John Adams’ intriguing theatre piece I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (8.669003-04). Seven young, everyday characters from Los Angeles, all from different social and ethnic backgrounds, interface around a central theme of love. Two of them—David, a preacher from a black Baptist congregation, and Leila, a socially engaged counsellor in a family planning clinic—find themselves alone in David’s church at the opening of Act 2, singing of the magnetism that holds them together. This insouciant music is rudely interrupted by the terrible rumblings of an earthquake.
Job—A Masque for Dancing (8.553955) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is again biblically inspired and represents the endurance of faith over affliction; it works equally well as a ballet score or a concert suite. Among the sources of inspiration for the work were William Blake’s twenty-one watercolours for the Book of Job (1820–26). The fourth scene in the work is titled Job’s Dream. Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle. The composer’s own description of the scene is as follows:
“Job is quietly sleeping. He moves uneasily in his sleep and Satan enters. Satan stands over Job and calls up terrifying visions of plague, pestilence, famine, battle, murder and sudden death who posture before Job. The dancers headed by Satan make a ring around Job and raise their hands three times. The vision gradually disappears.”
To end on a more cheery note, however, here’s a reference to two of Santa Claus’ reindeer enshrined in a lively polka (8.552115-16) where nature’s worst is translated into a little more than a growl and a crash from the percussion department. Know what we’re talking about…?