Lutes & Lily Ponds ~ Classical Music Inspired by Wetlands

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a piece on National Public Radio (NPR) from the “Wuthering Heights” opera composed by Bernard Herrmann. Today is Anne Brontë’s birthday, so it is fitting for Strange Wetlands to have a post on classical music inspired by wetlands. I am the grand-daughter of a composer of classical music—mainly for orchestra, jazz and big band swing in the 1940s:  my grandfather led the “Bob Chaplin Orchestra” on lead clarinet, and years later, composed chamber music. He advocated strongly for wetlands protection, serving on his town’s planning board from the 1960s-1990s. Incidentally, my grandfather’s family farmland is now, much transformed, the same location as the ASWM headquarters—where I write this blog and advocate for wetlands protection.

One piece of classical music I heard recently on NPR &Maine Public Radio with Suzanne Nance was “The Fairy Queen,” a Baroque semi-opera composed by Henry Purcell, known for his nature-inspired music. I’ve noticed a number of classical pieces have titles that take inspiration from nature, and in particular, wetlands, rivers, lakes and forests.  Even those who aren’t fans of classical music may be familiar with the Grand Canyon Suite, composed by Ferde Grofe, with songs that sound like they were composed for a great western, such as “Sunset,” and “On the Trail”—a humorous melody about a ride on mules along the waters of the Colorado River. Other famous works composed for film scores and orchestras were inspired by life on the Mississippi River, such as the contemporary film score composed by William Perry in 1980 and Ferde Grofe’s Mississippi: A Journey in Tones (Mississippi Suite), with dark flowing chords that suggested a scene along the Mississippi River, with a nod to Mark Twain. American composers were drawn to large natural landscapes in the 1920s and ’30s, when national parks were newly established. This music echoed into the subconscious minds of listeners for generations.

In other pieces, such as My Native Heath, suite for orchestra, composed by Arthur Wood (1875-1953) in 1924/25, the work was inspired by the composer’s childhood spent on the heath and moors of Yorkshire. This music depicts the moors and heaths—something out of a Brontë novel. His other works were inspired by life on the moors, such as Yorkshire Moors Suite but his most famous piece, “Barwick Green,” came from My Native Heath. “Barkwick Green” was chosen for a long-running BBC soap opera, “The Archers.”

Below is a list of classical pieces available online. If you search for these wetland-themed classical pieces on this website (here), you’ll notice that some of the longer works, such as symphonies, ballets and chamber music, list individual songs. Many of the songs sound as though they were inspired by wetlands, waters and natural places. For example, in River of Ponds, composed by Larry Bell, you can listen to songs called “Black Creek” and “Silver Lake.” A word of caution: “bog” is also Russian for “god,” so at first glance, it seems there are a lot of classical pieces inspired by bogs, but in fact, I only found a few pieces relevant for this list, such as The Peat-Bog Soldiers, composed anonymously (post-WWII), arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson in 1997.

For those of you interested in making wetland videos, some of this music might be available or appropriate for use in video. Recordings can be found at the links below (titles are linked).

“Amidst the shades
and cool refreshing streams,
where lovers ease their panting hearts in dreams…”
-Henry Purcell, Z355, c.1680

In the Fen Country, a symphonic impression composed by Ralph V. Williams, 1935. This music has a dark romanticism flavor to it.

Marsh Lute Book, chamber music with the song, Chi passa per ‘sta strada, composed anonymously, performed by Paul O’Dette on lute (2003). Sounds like flower fairy music.

Langenhoe Marshes, contemporary classical music composed by Peter Pope for voice & piano, performed by Susan Legg (2011). Songs inspired by the marshes of England in lose connection with a project about England’s marshes.

Swan Fen, a Heathland Symphony, composed by Arthur Meulemans (1844-1966), later performed by Belgian orchestras (an album released in 1999).

The Peat-Bog Soldiers” (Moorsoldaten – Song from a German concentration camp) composed anonymously (post WWII), later arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson on his album Songs of Free Men, 1997.

En lille fro i mosen sad” (A Little Frog Sat in the Bog), a Danish traditional children’s song

Dismal Swamp, a poem for orchestra with piano composed by William Grant Still in 1935, performed by the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra.

On the Heath (for Two Lutes), a piece for chamber music, composed by Ronn McFarlane (b. 1953- ) with individual songs called, “Thistle,” “Honeysuckle,” and “Haeddre,” a Scottish word for heather, the plant. McFarlane is a renaissance lute player from West Virginia. He played in pop bands for a while but was more known for making the lute more popular.  His many works for the lute were inspired by nature and wetlands. See (and listen) to some here.

Beneath the Linden on the Heath, an early German love song composed by Walther von der Vogelweide in 1170. This song was written for a married lady (unavailable to the admirer, who sings for her). Interestingly enough, unrequited love in songs and poetry was considered noble, whereas requited love was regarded as “lowly love.” The music is a mix of flute, harp, lute and shawm, a type of woodwind instrument from the 12th century and Renaissance period. This particular song depicts a scene on the heath, where the two lovers meet in secret for a kiss under a linden tree.

Amidst the Shades & Cool Refreshing Streams, a Baroque semi-opera with vocals and music that mimics bird song, composed by Henry Purcell around 1680. He autographed a copy of this piece in 1683 and it’s held in the British Museum. The piece was much admired in its day.

Walden Pond, a song for cellos and harp composed by Dominick Argento (b.1927- ) in 1996, while he was a professor of theory and composition (for several decades) at the University of Minnesota. Walden Pond, featuring the vocals of Minnesota’s Dale Warland Singers, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003.

The Pond (Remembrance), a brief (2 minute) symphony composed by Charles E. Ives in 1906, was inspired by his father’s tune coming over the mists of a Connecticut pond. Ives studied music at Yale. He and a friend co-founded the first Mutual Life Insurance Company in Manhattan. Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947, though many of his songs were written in the 1880s.

River of Ponds, for cello and piano, composed by award-winning Larry Bell (b.1952- ) in 1986 included pieces called “Black Creek,” “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” and “Silver Lake.” Bell’s music has been performed all over the world. Visit www.LarryBellmusic.com. “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” may refer to Earp’s association with Amy Pond, a Scottish woman, rather than a water body. Wyatt Earp’s wife, Urilla, died a year after they married, and the famous Tombstone gunman went off the deep end, devastated by that loss. Later he reinvented himself as a law man and became a U.S. Marshal. Dr. Who fans would know more about the association between Wyatt Earp and Amy Pond, recurring characters in the TV series. By contrast, the reference to Wyatt Earp’s Pond might be associated with the water fights in Tombstone over use and management of aquaducts in the 1880s, when Earp was a city marshal. If you know the significance of “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” referenced here, please leave a comment.

Pond Life, composed by Ann Southam (b.1927-2010) with this album posthumously released in 2012. She also composed a piece called Rivers. Most of her early works were composed in a lyrical Romantic 19th century style. Since she was one of Canada’s first women composers, there’s evidence to suggest feminist elements in her music. In the 1960s, she was recognized for composing electronic music. For a long list of her works, see this page. Pond Life, which she composed in 2008, was written for a solo piano piece to be accompanied by a ballet dancer. To see a Youtube video of a performance from Pond Life, click here.

A Lily Pond, composed by Billy Mayerl, who composed largely between the 1920s-1950s, wrote poem-like suites. It was considered British, but he was drawn to American music. His Aquarium Suite, which included the songs, “Willow Moss,” “Moorish Idol,” “Fantail,” et.al. in 1937, was very much admired.

Forest of the Amazon, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a prolific Brazilian composer, wrote this in 1958. In his later years, he was composing music in Paris and New York.

Strange Meadowlark,” a song by Dave Brubeck (b.1920- ), one of America’s most prolific jazz composers, has been associated with the West Coast Jazz revival of post-WWII. His 1960s jazz ballet, Points on Jazz, premiered with Louis Armstrong at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Listen to Strange Meadowlark on Youtube. This song is from Brubeck’s Time Out record (1959), one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

See related blog posts on Wuthering HeightsSwan Lake & Tchaikovsky and Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake.

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