For Earth Day, I’ve provided my alternative playlist inspired by Ralph Rugoff’s beautiful exhibition Among The Trees in the Hayward Gallery. I visited the exhibition twice in the days before lockdown and, somehow, it is comforting to me that the trees are still there in the empty gallery, even if nobody is currently able to visit them.
Here, where I live in South London, I’m lucky to be surrounded by trees. In the lockdown quiet, I’m hearing birdsong like never before and watching the foliage teem with life: squirrels, blackbirds and exotic, bright green parakeets.
My playlist brings together a few of my favourite pieces that evoke the enduring power of trees in the human imagination. We start with ‘Ombra mai fu’, the opening of Handel’s aria from his opera Serse (Xerxes), in which the hero takes a welcome rest from the Persian heat under the cool shade of a plane tree. He sings, ‘There has never been such beautiful, such sweet shade’.
The next two songs are about the enduring idea of the weeping willow as a symbol of heartbreak. Billie Holiday asks the willow to weep for her because her love has gone. Schubert’s poet in Die Schoene Mullerin wants to dress himself in the fronds of the weeping willow because his love, who has rejected him, is ‘so fond of green’. In the last verse, he asks to be buried beneath the green grass.
The cherry tree is a symbol of lost youth in AE Houseman’s ‘Loveliest of Trees’, set by George Butterworth in A Shropshire Lad; the idea of loss the more poignant because Butterworth was killed as a young man at the Somme in 1916.
A graceful line of acacia trees in his mountain retreat inspired Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s Tree Line. Its lush orchestration, from just a few instruments, gives a hint of the fact that Takemitsu was also Japan’s most prolific film composer in his lifetime.
The next few items on the playlist celebrate the power of the idea of the forest in the northern European imagination. German electronic composer Nils Frahm’s My Friend the Forest subtly evokes the peace of the woods. Leos Janacek’s evocation of the Bohemian forest and all its chattering animal life opens his opera The Cunning Little Vixen, about a sharp-eared fox.
In Wagner’s murmuring forest, the hero Siegfried hears the wood-dove singing in a tree. Her voice will eventually tell him everything he needs to know about himself and what lies in store. A forest bird also foretells the future in Schumann’s ‘The Prophet Bird’ from his piano piece Forest Scenes, its loquacious directness sounding startlingly modern.
The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who died last month, was obsessed with trees and planted his own arboretum around his house. Penderecki’s music was often used by film directors to depict horror (Kubrick’s The Shining being the most famous example), but in this movement from his Eighth Symphony, he sets a poem by Hermann Hesse about falling asleep under a chestnut tree on a spring night.
Trees can talk, of course. In Ravel’s beautiful opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a naughty child goes out at night-time into the forest, where all the animals and wildlife that he has abused start to sing and accuse him of past crimes. An old tree sings ‘Ma blessure!’ (My wound!) and the surrounding trees join in, complaining about the times the boy has stabbed them with his penknife.
The ancient trees of England, ‘oak and ash and thorn’, are evoked in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Tree Song’, set to music in the early 1990s and sung here by The Unthanks – who make it sound like a folk song as old as the trees.
Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘The Poplar Tree on Karlsplatz’ is a symbol of the resilience of nature, the one surviving tree on a square in war-ravaged Berlin providing a vestige of hope.
But trees can also be symbols of much darker things; the gallows, the hanging tree. ‘Strange Fruit’, sung here by Nina Simone, provides us with a shocking image of racism in the American South in the mid 20th century.
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