A news release caught my eye a few months ago. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an organisation based in the UK, announced that they had managed to compile the first-ever comprehensive list of all known trees. The total? A staggering 60,065 different species. It then struck me that, unlike an event or an emotion, a tree must be very difficult to embody in music. A flick through the Naxos catalogue confirmed that. Sort of. Taking into account the additional symbolism and poetic possibilities of trees, it was possible to turn up some interesting examples.
The subject of water was a recurring theme in the works of the Japanese composer, Toro Takemitsu (1930-1996). His fascination with the subject in all its manifestations dates back to the beginning of his career and his 1963 electronic work, Water Music. He went on to write three works based on the rain tree, which has a large symmetrical crown and leaves that fold in rainy weather and in the evening, hence the name ‘rain tree’ and ‘five o’clock tree’. The title of Takemitsu’s work was suggested by a passage in a novel by Kenzaburo Oe: “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.”
In his 1981 composition Rain Tree (8.555859) the pealing of crotales gives way to the metallic spiraling of a vibraphone, which is set against the wooden weft of a pair of marimbas. We pick up the music from where the three timbres begin to fuse.
At the first mention of his name, you will probably associate composer John Williams with some of the most popular scores that have ever been written for the cinema, including Superman, E.T., and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. But he also has numerous works in the classical mould to his credit. And his time on the podium included a stint as principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, from 1980 to 1983.
Williams’ bassoon concerto, The Five Sacred Trees (9.70904), was premiered by the New York Philharmonic and its principal bassoon player Judith LeClair in 1995. Each movement depicts a sacred tree of ancient Ireland. The fourth movement, titled Craeb Uisnig, depicts an ash tree, which is said to have stood at the very centre point of Ireland and which has been typically associated with strife. Williams provides this note for the music:
“Craeb Uisnig is an ash and has been described by Robert Graves as a source of strife. Thus, a ghostly battle, where all that is heard as the phantoms struggle is the snapping of twigs on the forest floor.”
The myrtle tree is described as: ‘Any plant of the genus Myrtus, especially M. Communis, a shrub of southern Europe having evergreen leaves, fragrant white flowers, and aromatic berries’. Small wonder it was held in ancient times as sacred to Venus and used as an emblem of love. Edward MacDowell included it in his suite of songs, From an Old Garden (8.559032), composed in 1887 and comprising settings of six poems by Margaret Wade Deland. Here’s his setting of The Myrtle:
Its clinging, mournful leaves, I said,
Seem made to thatch a grave;
Around the roots of cypress trees,
Too deep in gloom for sun or breeze,
It lives to mourn the dead!
But when I kissed her name, I saw,
Above the dear, dead maid,
A starry flower of tender blue,
A bit of heaven shining through
The leaves upon her grave!
The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi died among the trees, in 1936, at the house he had named after one of his most famous works, I Pini (The Pines). His reputation continues to rest chiefly on the sets of symphonic poems he wrote that provided pictorial and evocative representations of Rome. Pini di Roma (The Pines of Rome) was written in 1924 and evokes scenes associated with the pine trees to be found in the city and its surrounding countryside. The Pines of the Janiculum (8.550539) is a night-piece. The full moon shines on the pines that grow on the hill of the Temple of Janus. A nightingale is heard, for which Respighi demanded a recording of a real nightingale whenever possible, as in this recording.
We’ll end with a couple of vocal items, the first featuring the sycamore tree which, in Egypt, is associated with the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. The country’s oldest sycamore tree is reputedly in Mataria and is known as the Virgin Mary Tree. According to legend, the Holy Family sheltered under this tree during the flight to Egypt. As Christmas will soon be on us, here’s Peter Warlock’s setting of the carol As I sat under a sycamore tree (8.572102) to whet your appetite.
And finally, a nod to the time when some trees are possibly at their most beautiful, when green leaves transform into autumnal shades. Charles Ives captures the atmosphere of the transient nature of that beauty in his song Maple Leaves (8.559272).
October turned my maple’s leaves to gold;
The most are gone now; here and there one lingers:
Soon these will slip from out the twigs’ weak hold,
Like coins between a dying miser’s fingers.