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Classical Music Inspired By the Earth

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.


The Earth, home to a myriad of flora and fauna, and humans who have inhabited every continent of the planet. Man, creative and destructive, will inevitably bow to the might of our planet's evolution, destroying and rejuvenating through its own cycles and internal forces.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911

Photograph of Mahler in 1900.

Photograph of Mahler in 1900.

1 Mahler. Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth)

Based on six Chinese poems, Mahler embraces the orient by basing much of his great song cycle Das Lied von der Erde on the pentatonic scale.

Rather than the traditional western eight notes, the distinctive five prevalent in traditional Chinese music appears in expansive themes and short threads throughout. Click here to hear the pentatonic scale.

Bursting forth in spray of trumpets the strings set out Mahler's falling theme, the first three notes tying the work as a whole together into one huge symphonic masterpiece. Despite his overriding fears about imminent mortality, Mahler does his utmost to remain optimistic. Three of the songs are life affirming, the appreciation of nature, of love and a strive for happiness, placed in the main body of the work as if encased in the spectre of death by the outer movements.

The opening song Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow) deals with a dichotomy - the prospect of revelry and the certainty of mortality. Set out before the expectant drinkers are the tempting wine and the goblets to sup from. There is a price to pay for hedonism, the bacchanalian party is put on hold until the songster, alias the rooster, one might surmise, has crowed.

With pleasure comes pain, the song tells of withered flowers, graves silhouetted in the moonlight. 'Dark is life, dark is death', says the poet, three times. For Mahler, that double-sided character, his own darkness side by side with light, nervousness meeting serenity, the pretence of a good time knowing demise is just around the corner, it's all here in this song, run through like a sword into flesh. And when all is done, the singer tells the assembled party, the Earth remains with its blue heaven and spring time always blossoms after one is long gone. Now, I have said my piece, drink to that!

Mahler's tenor rails against the angst, emotions run high, the key bears no less than six flats, the black dog of despair. Brief glimpses of sunlight are soon closed off, suppressed, there is nowhere to turn and escape the inevitable. The brief frivolity cannot last, it is merely an interlude, the firmament is a constant; the Earth will recapture you in the end.

You will hear the lonely oboe call the three note motif in the second song, Der

Einsame in Herbst (The Solitary One in Autumn) plaintively contemplating death, also a recurring dread embedded in Mahler's works - the disturbingly tragic Kindertoten Lieder, for one.

The song is spartanly instrumented, a threadbare carpet of sound, life being stripped away as the sun weakens and no longer sustains the flowers of summer. Passages in Der Einsame in Herbst foreshadow those thin bitter tastes that Schönberg was to serve up in the not so distant future.

Whilst Von der Jugend (Youth) might lull you into believing this is a typical folk song, Mahler again incorporates the pentatonic scale. The delicately dancing flutes and oboe, coyly flirt, tender and eager to please. The airy repeated notes are idiomatic throughout lively Chinese tunes.

Young men are grouped together, obviously cultured - they eat from white and green porcelain and write poetry. Sitting by a pool with a jade bridge, they are reflected in the water. Mahler inverts the melody as a mirror image - the idyllic scene illusory. Von der Jugend shakes off the doom and gloom of the previous poem. But the song is gone is a breath.

Continuing the sparse orchestration into Von der Schönheit (Beauty), it's the girl's turn now. They are celebrated trilling and tripping their easy way at the riverbank, picking flowers. Boys on horses spot them and Mahler drives hell for leather through the scene.

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Mahler returns to the boozy theme in Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). The singer hopes life is a dream and drowns his worries in drink, it helps him fall asleep and forget the reality of living.

Any previous thought of youth are shaken off for the final monumental song, Abschied (Farewell). Doom casts its long shadow and in a last reference to alcohol he is 'handed the drink of Farewells'.

Amongst the long goodbye a solo flute accompanies the singer in a pan pipe duet, the single oboe is the bird in the branches as narrated in the poem. Slowly the music makes its doleful way taking its leave of the Earth. The three note motif is reversed, it moves upwards as if to a higher place, the falling fragment also contracted to two notes, the curtailing of life, the lengthy expiration drawn out as the veil of death is slowly unfolded over the resigned singer as a gradation of transparency and weightlessness.

Once Mahler had been diagnosed with heart disease, he was acutely aware time was not on his side, fighting against it as best he could, pouring his grief onto the stave.

Das Lied von der Erde is etched through with bugle calls, sounds of nature and the folk songs of his childhood, those distinctive traits frequenting his orchestral works. He may have constrained himself through the pentatonic scale but there is no economy on the harmonic front.

Highly superstitious of numbering a symphony as 10 - those great symphonists Beethoven and Schubert had died after completing their ninth - Mahler refused to acknowledge the double figure for this grand last edifice. His efforts to avoid the curse, as he viewed it, failed. Das Lied von der Erde was performed after his death.

George Fenton 1950—

Photograph of Fenton taken backstage at the Apollo Theatre in London c1969.

Photograph of Fenton taken backstage at the Apollo Theatre in London c1969.

2 George Fenton. Music for The Blue Planet (BBC)

With film scores such as Ghandi, Cry Freedom and The Fisher King under his belt, George Fenton's composing credentials are impeccable. The Blue Planet features truly descriptive music, dramatic and moving, augmenting one's experience with a complementary fusion of the visual and auditory.

Fenton's eclectic approach to scoring for each creature ranges from orchestral to electronic, and a mixture of the two, brush strokes of jazz, bejewelled droplets of sound, accents of tings and clicks.

There are unmistakable hints of John Williams and John Adams in Sardines, and folk dance evoked by pan pipes in Spinning Dolphins. The famous bass line of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells reverberates down into the depths for Surfing Snails. Cymbals clashes whoosh waves skyward, deep crashes and low pitched rolls of sound remind us of a mysterious undersea world, waiting to be discovered.

Fenton dramatises the spectacular film footage using short bursts of melody and long arcing tunes coloured by rich orchestration. Riding along on a tidal wave of variance Fenton is in freefall, diverse, as is the watery environment of The Blue Planet.

It should in turn inspire you to watch the boxed set of The Blue Planet itself, something I wouldn't be without. It's the modern equivalent of Fantasia, the music perfectly synthesising with the footage. Tapping into our synesthetic leanings to marry sound and pictures, the cinematography enhances the visual experience and helps one to identify with the creature being filmed.

The acclaimed Blue Planet series is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, his unmistakable tones lending an authority and sense of wonder to our fabulous world, commenting on the outstanding films intrepid camera men and women have patiently captured. Click here to obtain your copy.

Darius Milhaud 1892-1974

Photograph of Milhaud in 1923.

Photograph of Milhaud in 1923.

3 Milhaud. La Création du monde (The Creation of the World)

If Milhaud were alive today I wonder how he would describe himself? Jazzy might be a close guess, and I don't think he'd be disappointed if it did define him.

The lively successor to Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, the ballet La création du monde outstrips anything that Stravinsky was later to offer. As it happens, snippets of the solo violin figuration from The Soldier's Tale can be detected in the Milhaud.

Milhaud is the forerunner of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue - in fact it has La création du monde's paw prints all over them. Both composers used the same folk tunes in their works. Creeping in as it does, La création du monde's entrance doesn't compare to that unmistakable clarinet slide, but then what does?

Milhauld's inclusion of jazz is all pervading, the canvas upon which he wrote La création du monde soaked in the rhythms, melodies and instrumentation which defined the New York jazz club sound (Milhaud hot-footed it there after hearing Billy Arnold's jazz band in London in 1920).

But it wasn't only the infectious syncopation which captured Milhaud's imagination. He threw himself into the world of African-Americans. He was not merely interested in their folk culture - this work is based on their mythology - but allied with them, sympathising and siding with the inhumanity with which they had been treated (and were still suffering) expressed through their extraordinary music.1

You can hear life growing on the newly formed Earth in the haunting music Milhaud writes at the start of his jazz infused ballet. During the Overture, the saxophone takes centre stage, slow moving as heavenly bodies fuse to form the solar system. This music recurs throughout the ballet, a referral back to the Earth's origins.

Once the slow introduction has run its first course, Milhaud demonstrates his classical training as a composer with a spiky, almost naughty, fugue, to represent Le chaos avant le creation (The Chaos Before the Creation). Quirkily starting with the double bass, one by one more instruments are invited onto the dance floor, trombone, saxaphone, trumpet and flute, clarinet, all playing the same cheeky chaotic theme before the slow mood of the opening again takes up its position.

Now the Earth is directing flowers to open their newly acquired blooms, animals tramp on freshly discovered feet. The music moves as if the immature Earth is testing everything out, not quite sure about the wonder of the place, of life bestowed, a hymn to uncertainty and a newly minted playground.

As La naissance de la flore et de la faune (The Birth of Flora and Fauna) finishes, and man and woman are created, jazz imbued confidence kicks in - actually Earth is fun, a cakewalk in fact. Two violins play around, intertwined. Amusingly Milhaud quotes Schubert's Marche Militaire no 1 in D, a composer about as far removed from the jazz scene as it's possible to be, shrieking it from the heavens. (Click here to hear the Schubert).

Briefly the opening music returns until Le Désire (The Desire) is embraced. The clarinet is suited to the off beat theme, easy and laid back. When the oboe re-emerges it's more straight laced - underneath, the moving strings yet again recall the start of the piece. This time however, there are violent percussive elements crashing in until a riot ensues, all the 19 instruments Milhaud writes for having an organised free for all. The section resolves the Mardi Gras party feel of everyone playing their own tunes within earshot of everyone else with a true blue cadence.

However it's It's time to wind down, the Earth is exhausted, and the music fades away to nothing.

Dave Brubeck on Milhaud

Milhaud's Creation du Monde was the first and remains the best jazz piece from a classical European composer. (Dave Brubeck)

Harrison Birtwistle 1934 -


4 Harrison Birtwistle. Earth Dances

Earth Dances' geological stratas, in the form of six orchestral divisions, are stretched and folded, unfolded and rested, like dough, kneading the mixture. Baked and digested, new batches are formed, ready to cook on the inexorable conveyor belt of creation, the shifting of tectonic plates squeezing and subducting, moulding, solidifying.

It's all here in a complicated arc, the accreted spinning masses gripped by universal gravitational forces, a spherical genesis gyrating on its axis, an unrelenting repetitive machine stirring itself into being.

Birtwistle works his individual strands to converge into the whole, a recognisable globe layered with multiple sediments littered with facies, transitions of one type of deposit to another, aeolian and hydrological wills bearing down to shape and sculpt in ever changing but inevitably cyclic processes, all starting from a single dark point reverberating in an unforgiving cosmos.

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Arnold Schonberg 1874-1951

Photograph of Schonberg c1948.

Photograph of Schonberg c1948.

6 Schönberg Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth)

Taking his inspiration from the Swiss anti-war poet, Conrad Meyer, Friede auf Erden is based on the books of Isiah and Micah.

In the poem, angels urge man to spread peace on earth and relinquish weapons of war. Schönberg's music for a capella choir, whilst still tonal - he had not at this juncture quite reached his atonal stage - is not particularly settled; it is anxious and agitated.

Only on the words Friede auf Erden is there any sense of that peace the poet is striving for, the sopranos taut at the tops of their voices until the song concludes as one might a hymn, Schonberg pulling the music down from its strained height to a more comfortable and optimistic place.

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

Painting of Haydn in 1792 by Thomas Hardy.

Painting of Haydn in 1792 by Thomas Hardy.

7 Haydn. The Creation

According to the Bible it took six days to create the Earth, with God resting on the seventh. No wonder Haydn's oratorio The Creation is a mammoth work - heading towards two hours with twenty numbers, starting with The Representation of Chaos heavy with drums and dissonance through to Sing the Lord Ye Voices, a conclusion of energetic chorus, the three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) and a full bodied orchestra, emboldened by strong contrapuntal lines .

Haydn may well have been influenced by hearing Handel's Messiah in 1791 at a festival held in Westminster Abbey.3 Employing 1000 musicians the performance must have made a considerable impact, and there is a strong streak of Handel running through The Creation, in its use of fugues (voices coming in with the same theme one after another) and memorable uplifting tunes, at times inflected by birdsong by the soprano and low ponderous writing for the creation of the whales to suggest God's clothing of the Earth with wonderful fauna, all on a truly glorious grand scale.

John Luther Adams 1953 -


8 John Luther Adams. Earth and the Great Weather

Heavily influenced by his home in Alaska, Pulitzer prize-winning John Luther Adams has composed many works referencing the natural world.

Earth and the Great Weather is no exception, employing no less than five narrators and four languages, two of which are Native American, plus English and Latin - embracing the universal method of plant and animal classification as defined by the eighteenth century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus.

Earth and the Great Weather haunts from the beginning, out of the silence come resonant drums and evocative narration of a native person form the Artic, commenting on a bare but wondrous space. Adams' percussion writing is heavily influenced by the traditional rhythms of the Inupiat and Gwich'in dance music. The linear sound, wispily layering up, replicates the simplicity stretching out before one's eyes, an appreciation of nature in the raw. It is painfully beautiful.

Adams is content to pare down his textures to a spartan world of strings, percussion and electronic instruments; scraping strings smarting on exposed skin, a cycle of cutting cheese wire in The Circle of Winds, or the thunderous, hard tight percussion of Drums of Fire, Drums of Stone (Adams was a percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and Artic Chamber Orchestra).5

Many of the tracks feature recorded sound: native birds, the trickle of water. Very different fro the exhuberant lush orchestration of The Blue Planet or Symphony For Our World, Adams' Earth and the Great Weather is a thoughtful and respectful journey through the implacable Arctic stage which buffets the senses.

Click here to listen to all the tracks.


1 Scribd

2 National Geograhic press release

3 BBC Music Magazine

4 John Luther Adams, composer's notes

5 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on August 26, 2018:

Hello Linda. It's so satisfying you can imagine The Blue Planet scenes. I think George Fenton would be very proud to know he's brought the visual to the auditory!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 25, 2018:

Your descriptions are very interesting, Frances. I loved what I heard from The Blue Planet. I haven't seen the series, but I could visualize some of the scenes from the music and your description.

Frances Metcalfe on August 24, 2018:

Hi Flourish. I love the Milhaud, too, always have ever since I first heard it. don't know why the poll is closed. Will delete it and pop it back on again. Thanks for alerting me!

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 24, 2018:

I liked the Milhauld’s jazz flavor and learning about the pentatonic scale associated with Mahler. I couldn’t vote in the poll because it is closed but would have chosen to stay firmly on Earth.

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