10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Flowers
Whether it's the blousy bloom of the rose, the heavy scent of night scented stocks, or those protected by the spiky spines of cacti, everyone has a type of flower they love. Whether the occasion is happy or sad, flowers play an important role in our lives. They are given at births, weddings, funerals, and on so many more occasions.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
1 Debussy. Preludes Book II: Bruyéres (Heather)
Minute purple or white flowers are delicately etched above a ground hugging bass. Tiny and bell-like they hang in cascades down the short stem of the plant, the piano's right hand tinkling petite handbells of sound.
As is frequently the case with Debussy, the music is written on three staves to indicate the importance of clarity for the individual part writing. A carillon opens and closes Bruyères, a miniature impression of an overlooked flower.
Purple heather symbolises beauty, while white heather signifies protection. In Mexico, heather is used to treat cancer.
Giacomo Puccini 1858-1924
2 Puccini. Crisamtemi
Associated with death, Crisamtemi, or chrysanthemums, is Puccini pushing your weepy buttons. Written in 1890 following the death of his friend Amedeo, Duke of Savoy, it's a rare work for string quartet from a composer known primarily for operas.1
Composed in C sharp minor, a key with four sharps, the same key as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the timbre is raw - the more sharps the key has the edgier the feel. Puccini, master of pulling the heart strings, is wearing his own on his sleeve. The middle section with it's dotted rhythm judders the ear, phrases of sobs before the opening chromatic melody of unsteady breathing returns and fades, as life inevitably does.
Puccini reused Cristamemi for his opera Manon Lescaut for her own dying scene which he wrote around the same time.
3 Jean Françaix. Horloge de Flore (The Flower Clock)
You might surmise there'd be twelve pieces making up this concerto for solo oboe and orchestra, but in fact there are just seven, representing a particular time of the day. Each one has a flower in the title.
3 am - Day Jessmine. Slow and tranquil, it's the epitome of English pastoral, in F major, a round, relaxed key, rather than the French countryside. In fact this woody shrub is native to the West Indies though also abundant in Florida.2
5 am - Cupid's Dart, pretty blue daisies, flitting here and there, a catch-me-if-you-can cheeky 5 beats in a bar theme. Just when you think you've reached four beats, another beat is added on, and just as you expect six, it's snatched away from you. The natural human rhythm is nudged along or not far enough, a little bit of push-me-pull-you playfulness from the winged boy. And so the solo oboe skips along, the melody leaping up and down in octave jumps in a bid to evade capture.
10 am - Night Scented Cereus. An inconspicuous Arizonan cactus that flowers at night and resembles a dead bush during the day.3 Again this section is rhythmically out of kilter, twos against threes, as if Françaix is capturing the upside down notion of this nocturnal bloom.
12 Noon - Night Flowering Jessamine. A jaunty little number to put your nose up to delicate star shaped flowers and inhale. I've had an LP of Horloge de Flore since I was a teenager, and have happily sung this tune to myself for years, lightly bouncing like a rubber ball, up, down to the side, trying to keep the wayward ball on the spot, almost never quite managing it until catching it and holding on. A flirtatious tune to go with the flower's alternative name 'lady of the night'.4
5 pm - Moonflower We enter a garden with Spanish aromas, guitars strumming, balmy heat, easy chairs in which to sit and close your eyes, as the moonflower does, only opening up at night, furling back up to sleep during the day.
7 pm - Geranium. Françaix treats this number as a purely wind ensemble, a trio with the oboe taking the lead, flute and clarinet in support roles, the cranesbills' pointy noses bobbing and bowing to each other in cheerful exchanges.
9 pm - Night Flowering Catchfly. If you are a moth whirling around, be aware of the strongly perfumed night flowering catchfly - its sticky hairs are designed to capture you so you pollinate the flowers. Your reward - an abundance of nectar to feed on. Perky dialogue between oboe and orchestra mimic the symbiosis between moth and plant, a convivial rounding off to a sweet smelling witty concerto.
'From plants that wake when others sleep, from timid jasmine buds that keep their odour to themselves all day, but when the sunlight dies away let the delicious secret out to every breeze that roams about.' Poet Peter Moore describing night scented jasmine.
Leo Delibes 1836-1891
4 Delibes. Lakmé: Flower Duet
You might not be able to put a name to the tune, but the Flower Duet is very familiar due to its use for advertisements. It is sung by Lakmé, a Brahmin princess and her servant girl Malika as they pick flowers by the side of a river.
Beautifully rounded, the two voices, soprano and mezzo soprano, complement each other perfectly, singing of the roses and white jasmine they are collecting to use for scenting a bath. It contains all the wistfulness that comes with the thoughts of love that are to come. The melody has the hallmark of an innocent view of romance, demure as befits a princess, but a Hindu falling for an Englishman is bound to end in tears in nineteenth century India.
Malcolm McLaren and Yanni reworked the Flower Duet into 'Aria on Air' which was later used by British Airways for the music to a commercial. David Usher in his Black Black Heart single also co-opted the Flower Duet in the chorus.
Benjamin Britten 1913-1976
5 Britten. Ceremony of Carols: There is no Rose
Britten loved the voice, whether solo - his partner was the singer Peter Pears - or as a choir. Unusually Ceremony of Carols is written for boys' choir, divided into three parts, and harp. It was composed when Britten and Pears were returning to Britain from America in 1942.5
Although Ceremony of Carols is generally not considered to be a Christmas collection, there are many references to Mary and the baby Jesus. The second carol of the set, There is no Rose, elevates Mary above any rose, the symbol of virtue. Demure and reserved, strolling sedately along as if in a procession, Britten inserts unison chant, as if it is a congregation answering the priest. The walking gait, as if coming from afar, builds in intensity as it passes by and fades out of view. There is no Rose, Mary herself, her mild and restful temperament arousing deep passion in her admirers, pares down exultation into peace and tranquility.
Bred by David Austin, the rose 'Benjamin Britten' has a fruity fragrance, is repeat flowering and good for containers.
Rose 'Benjamin Britten'
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
6 Schumann. Blumenstück (Flower Piece)
Ever the romantic, Blumenstück is a work for piano Schumann wrote, not of specific flowers, but to portray the idea of blooms associated with love.
The descending four note theme is one he'd previously used for Carnaval, an earlier work of his for piano, a melody he penned as his reference to Clara Wieck whom he was to marry. Blumenstück was a wedding gift to her, in fact. The main theme is divided into two parts with small variations on each in between returns of the originals.
These two ideas might be interpreted as the lovers conversing with each other, particularly as the theme is handed to the lower part. Gracefully lyrically, Schumann has chosen D flat major, a key with five flats, a soft a cushion of moss, tender and caring. It isn't heightened eroticism, but a promise of contented domestic bliss.
Many people believe playing classical music to plants helps them thrive. At Colorado Women's College, Dorothy Retallack conducted experiments on marigolds and discovered that over a period of a month they responded well to soothing Palestrina and died when dissonant Schönberg was played!
Gabriel Faure 1845-1924
7 Fauré. Les Roses d'Ispahan 1845-1924
Fauré wrote some breathtakingly beautiful songs, and this is no exception. The song tells of a rejected lover recounting the attributes of his former beloved, Leilah. Her breath is sweeter than the roses of Ispahan and the jasmines of Mossoul, her laughter more wonderful than birdsong. If only she would return to him, the orange blossom would regain its scent.
The melody is as exquisite as the flowers' perfumes. Fauré hasn't chosen a minor key for the musings, but it is tinged with fond resignation that this lovely but fickle thing has slipped through his fingers. Although the poem by Leconte de Lisle6 is about a young woman, it is written for the female voice and remains light and airy, like the butterfly that is Leilah.
Georges Bizet 1838-1875
8 Bizet. Carmen: Flower Song
The dirty underworld of human life is laid bare in Bizet's famed opera. Carmen is the archetypal femme fatale, totally aware of her dangerous magnetic attraction, whose affections are fickle and short lived.
While her present lover Don José is useful to her - he helps her escape from jail - Carmen's tenuous interest is sparked. Carmen is not above the odd bit of seduction and at the start of the opera throws Don José a rose to draw attention to herself.
Later, when things start to unravel for Don José due to Carmen's unruly behaviour, he sings an aria about the time Carmen had flung the rose to him, in a bid to assure her of his love.
The Flower Song begins with the ominous theme from the opera's opening moments, heavy with foreboding. From those few bars, you're aware that that there will be no rosy ending. Though the rose has withered - echoing Carmen's feelings already on the wane - Don José still smells the flower.
Don José's own feelings are in confusion, loving and rejecting her at the same time, cursing the moment he met her, but her allure wins over and against his better judgement, he stays.
It's a complex aria, shifting in mood from sweet reminiscence to self reproach for falling for a wayward woman, the music taking a turn to the minor outlining Don José's impassioned inner turmoil before returning to the former melodious softness, the strings wafting downwards in an elongated major version of the fate theme from the beginning.
To read more about Bizet's despondency over Carmen's reception click here.
Johann Strauss 1825-1899
9 Johann Strauss II. Waltz Roses of the South
After The Blue Danube, The Roses of the South is possibly one of Strauss' most recognisable waltzes. Elegance and poise in dance form, this is music for the genteel to twirl to.
The music originated in Strauss' little known operetta, Das Spitzentuch der Königen (The Queen's Lace Handkerchief) and takes its title from the aria 'Wo die wilde Rose erblüht' (Where the Wild Rose Blooms) in the second act.7 The waltz is a series of contrasting episodes, with a reprise of the 'Where the Wild Rose Blooms' theme, and finishes with a sweeping bow.
A rose bush growing against a wall in the grounds of Hildesheim Cathedral, Germany, is thought to be 1000 years old.
Pyotr Iilych Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
10 Tchaikovsky. Nutcracker Suite: Waltz of the Flowers
Tchaikovsky was a master of creating miniature dances for the ballet, carefully crafted and appealing to theatre goers who wished to be entertained without too much strain on the intellect.
The Nutcracker is no exception, packed with memorable tunes to sway to as the music swings gaily along on a tide of sparkling instrumentation. Written in 1892 Tchaikovsky brings a wondrous magical fairy tale to glittering life.
Waltz of the Flowers starts quietly, the rolling strings of the solo harp are buds slowly opening before the dance starts in earnest, always graceful with small swells of passion - not too much to upset the public sensibilities of a middle class audience.
Ballets were exceptionally popular in the nineteenth century. Such was the craving for the genre they were even inserted into operas. Gounod's Faust and Verdi's Aïda are examples where ballets were performed as part of the opera.
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