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10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Trees

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


Way back in the Devonian period, between 416 and 358 million years ago, the first trees emerged, dominated by Archeopteris.

After a flood in New York (a few hundred years ago), fossilised evidence of ancient trees was discovered. Unfortunately, they were only the stumps, and it wasn't possible to work out how the tree would have looked. But, in 2004, another tree trunk and crown from the same area was able to offer up more information on how it would have appeared. It was similar to a large palm tree and probably reproduced by spreading spores.

It was the beginning of ecosystems as we know them. For the first time, trees stored carbon, changing the soil composition and contributing to the stability of the land. More importantly, the removal of carbon dioxide allowed the emergence of a wide variety of creatures and set the Earth on the colonised pathway we are familiar with today.1

Ottorino Respighi 1879–1936 (photograph of Respighi in 1934)

Ottorino Respighi 1879–1936 (photograph of Respighi in 1934)

1. Respighi: "The Pines of Rome"

Divided into four movements, Respighi's tone poem The Pines of Rome depicts the Italian capital's distinguished umbrella pine trees at four different settings.

Respighi himself wrote detailed descriptions of each movement in order that the elements he provided would be sensed by the performers.

The first visit is to The Pines of Villa Borghese. The orchestra bursts onto the scene, full of boisterous children running about within the grounds playing soldiers as trumpet clarions and military marches give the game away.

Pines Near a Catacomb is predictably mysterious, beginning with a dark, almost earthy quality, gradually rising up as if emerging out of the network of caves. The sedate tone almost mesmerises the listener and although this is set in Rome, the eye is cast towards the Far East by the pentatonic melody and crashes of gongs before it recedes and descends back down into the gloom of the catacombs.

After the caves, a breath of fresh air is welcomed. At The Pines of the Janiculum, the Janiculum being one of Rome's seven hills, the silvery timbre of the strings illuminate the pines under moonlight. Respighi controversially called for a recording of a nightingale to be played at the end, at least in 1924 it had that effect2, but it joins in as a beautiful adjunct to the movement.

From the first beat, the heavy marching footsteps of the Roman army are a constant as The Pines of the Appian Way throbs its way in splendour and triumph. Unyielding and unceasing, the pine sentinels stand guard along the route as the soldiers proudly enter Rome.

Johann Strauss II 1825–1899 (photograph taken in 1888 by August Eisenmenger)

Johann Strauss II 1825–1899 (photograph taken in 1888 by August Eisenmenger)

2. Johann Strauss II: "Waltz: Tales of Vienna Woods"

It couldn't be more Viennese, this romp through the woods.

Rustic woodwind become charming birds. A ländler emphasises the rustic character of the piece, a heavy three-beats-in-a-bar dance associated with peasants. To complete the homespun feel Strauss brings the zither across from the village to join the orchestra, playing solos in front of sophisticated waltzers as they dance round a glitteringly chandeliered ballroom.

We even hear a series of shots as huntsmen take aim at some unfortunate beast as Strauss waltzes his way amongst the trees on the outskirts of Vienna.

Guiseppe Verdi 1813–1901 (photograph of Verdi in about 1866)

Guiseppe Verdi 1813–1901 (photograph of Verdi in about 1866)

3. Verdi: "Opera Giovanna d'Arco (Joan of Arc) 'Beneath an Oak She Appeared to Me'"

Most people, I believe, are aware of the remarkable story of the young peasant girl Joan of Arc, who declared through visions that France should attack the English at Orleans during the Hundred Years' War, with herself at the helm. She dared to dress up in men's clothes (practically heretical at the time, in the 1400s), and after being captured by the Burgundians who had sided with the English, she was tried, found guilty and burned at the stake.

In Verdi's version - the libretto provided by Temistocle Solera - the French Charles VII declaims he has witnessed the Virgin Mary at an oak tree, urging him to surrender his weapons.

The aria Sotto una quercia parvemi is unmistakable Verdi. Written for the tenor voice, it begins with a dramatic declamation before moving forward to melodious reflection supported by the violins, culminating with a small cadenza showing off the tenor's fine vocal skills.

Franz Schubert 1797–1828 (watercolour of Schubert in 1825)

Franz Schubert 1797–1828 (watercolour of Schubert in 1825)

4. Schubert: "Winterreise: Der Lindenbaum"

One of the greatest masters of the art of song, Schubert's Winterreise is at the summit of all song cycles.

In all there are 24 songs, a melancholy travelogue of a spurned lover who is trudging through snow to what is perhaps his death. The winter's journey of the title is metaphorical as well as physical, a young man frozen out of his former lover's heart.

Stopping by at the lime tree, the piano's rapid figuration illustrate the rustling leaves, but it can also be interpreted as a character in its own right, the piano acting the part of the tree. The ooh-ooooooh call at the end of these fast triplets is the tree calling - the young man admits in the song he is drawn to it by the sound of the quivering canopy. The young man tells how he carved his feelings for his former love into the bark of such a tree.

As the music turns moodier, the traveller rues how he stumbled on another Lindenbaum in the pitch-black cold of night, the wind blasting his face. Schubert returns to the major key, the outcast can still hear the trembling leaves several hours later, agonises over it, then it fades away. His hat has blown away, but there is no going back, even to retrieve it.

Albert Roussel (photograph of Roussel in 1913)

Albert Roussel (photograph of Roussel in 1913)

5. Roussel: "Promenade Sentimentale en Forêt"

The second of Rustiques, the opening walk is a leisurely stroll among the leaf litter, soft and cushiony, before looking skyward to observe the gentle movement of leaves. As the walker penetrates deeper into the forest, the music becomes denser, the sky less evident until reaching a clearing and a bird calls. Familiar territory emerges, and the walker moves on.

Hints of Debussy glint here, but Roussel's voice has a rich texture all of its own, atmospheric and warm.

Camille Saint-Saëns 1835–1921 (photograph of Saint-Saëns in 1880)

Camille Saint-Saëns 1835–1921 (photograph of Saint-Saëns in 1880)

6. Saint-Saëns: "Cypres et Lauriers for Organ and Orchestra"

Like many composers, such as the great J S Bach, Saint-Saëns was an organist, and wrote many compositions for the majestic instrument, the most celebrated being his third symphony.

Cypres et Lauriers came about as a result of the First World War, written hard on the heels of the end of hostilities in 1919 to mark the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.3

Mourning the huge sacrifice of life the organ plays solo, full of angst a weeping melody hued with the minor third drop heard throughout eastern music - cypresses are famously found in hotter climes, reaching for the skies.

The dirge gives way to proclamation. To watch Lauriers in the concert hall is nothing short of dramatic, a fanfare from first two, then no less six trumpets bolstering the idea that the catastrophic loss of life was all worth it.

Laurels have a connotation with victory, hence the wreath of laurel bestowed on Roman army generals following successful battles and worn by various Caesars to reinforce the idea of power. Saint-Saëns is heavily embracing the symbolism.4

A triumphal fugue hails, parts striding in one after another weaving a mesh of solidity between allies, sweeping to an exultant conclusion worthy of something the Russian authorities might have demanded - a mighty musical mask of rejoicing, in an effort to convince those who came through it that no matter what horrors have been endured, it's time to get out on the streets, put up the bunting and celebrate.

Robert Schumann 1810–1856 (daguerrotype of Schumann c1850)

Robert Schumann 1810–1856 (daguerrotype of Schumann c1850)

7. Schumann: "Waldszenen (Forest Scenes)"

The nine-piece suite for piano, Waldszenen, is one of Schumann's finest piano works - in fact it could be argued that it is his writing for solo piano which highlights Schumann's inner self and skill in composition.

Germans were fond of nature, conversely killing it off with their love of hunting, two elements combined in Schumann's Waldszenen. Numbers two and eight are dedicated to the activity of hunting, Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunters on the Lookout) and Jaglied (Hunting Song). The first is a frantic chase through the forest, the blasts of the hunting horn in evidence. Jaglied, by contrast, is a cheery frolic-making merry in the woods hunters are so fond of.

The scenes present different styles - the lyrically simple of Einsame Blumen (Lonely Flower) to the denser, almost baroque writing of Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place), complete with the diminished chords (chords made up of successive minor thirds) associated with ghostly settings. Freundliche Landschaft (Friendly Landscape) is skittish, while Herbege (Wayside Inn) is solidly reliable, where a walker might find a welcome bed for the night and a hearty meal.

Contrasting with the largely chordal music of Herbege and Abschied (Farewell) is Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet). Light as a feather that might be tickling the piano keys, it flits about with all the gracefulness of a tiny bird. Whispery and transparent, there is a secretive air about the winged prophet - now you see me, now you don't.

Schumann, himself is in full flight during Waldszenen, revealing his prowess as a keyboard composer.

Dmitri Shostakovich 1906–1975 (photograph of Shostakovich during a visit to Finland in 1958)

Dmitri Shostakovich 1906–1975 (photograph of Shostakovich during a visit to Finland in 1958)

8. Shostakovich: "Cantata: Song of the Forests"

Song of the Forests met with approval by the censorious Soviet authorities who were quick to denounce composers for writing what they deemed was inaccessible music for the masses.

After the end of World War II, the Russian steppes needed to be reforested and Shostakovich's cantata - sometimes referred to as an oratorio - was written to celebrate this undertaking using poems by the Russian poet laureate Yevgeny Dolmatovsky.5

It's written for traditional choir, boys' choir, solo tenor and bass plus a large orchestra. It had, naturally to be on a grand scale commensurate with the esteem in which the Soviet hierarchy held themselves.

From the opening pastoral style of When the War Ended you'd be hard-pressed to pin it down as Shostakovich. He affords himself only occasional flashes of his real self throughout the whole work. The solo bass sings what is in essence a lullaby, lush strings and soothing chorus ministering to a population still stinging from the ravages of war, giving it a large hug - it will be alright in the end.

Bouncing into we will Clothe Our Homeland With Forests, Shostakovich is urging sleeves to be rolled up to get on with the business of planning the afforestation required on the denuded Steppes. The music pushes and drives, urging the taking up, not now of arms, but of spades.

The music turns back on itself for the next section, Memories of the Past. The people aren't able to simply sweep aside the mental trauma of the war. This is more of the Shostokovich we know and love. Reminders of his fifth symphony darken the atmosphere. Hardship and suffering is at the heart of this movement.

So what better than to introduce the boys' choir at this juncture for the next poem - The Pioneers Plant the Forests. Get the next generation involved. Very folk-song like, the boy scouts lightly accompanied by trumpets marching alongside and we are straight into the world of Shostakovich's Festival Overture.

The People of Stalingrad are in a joyous fervent mood. Almost too happy, there is the underlying element of a slapstick number from a musical, something not to be taken too seriously - so forgive me if it's all surface water, let's not swim out too deep and see what's really down in the depths.

Instead, they look up. A Walk into the Future follows - the walk an amble into the newly forested homeland, the bass prophesying a green and pleasant land, good for the soul, the choir joining in to present the vision as, to all intents and purposes, a hymn and on into the Gloria, albeit a secular one.

The Glory takes its time, bringing all together for the common good, a mixture of brassy affirmation and childlike naïvity. The tenor and bass take the stage as leaders of the pack and finishes with a seld satisfied expanse of well-being.

Similar to the Saint-Saëns Cypres et Lauriers it ends with a fugue, a built-in crescendo, fortified musical strata towering to a self-satisfied conclusion.

Franz Liszt 1811–1886 (photograph of Liszt c1869)

Franz Liszt 1811–1886 (photograph of Liszt c1869)

9. Liszt: "Forest Murmurs"

Liszt found it difficult not to depart from the softly spoke murmuring of the opening style. In the middle section, the wind has definitely picked up and is swaying the frees around before it all calms down, and the leaves once more return to their murmuring selves.

As with Schumann's Waldszenen, Forest Murmurs is the epitome of the Romantic ideal, the natural world brought alive and interpreted through another medium, song-like and to wonder at.

Edward McDowell 1860–1908 (portrait of Edward McDowell c1906)

Edward McDowell 1860–1908 (portrait of Edward McDowell c1906)

10. Edward McDowell: "New England Idyls: To an Old White Pine"

Most famous for his To a Wild Rose, the American composer Edward McDowell was fond of nature and wrote several works honouring it.

A virtuoso pianist - he played for Lizst - many his compositions are for the instrument, the New England Suite being one of them.

To an Old White Pine is the seventh of the ten in the set, dark and a little sad, as if the tree is coming to the end of its days. Essentially it's a salon piece, short and accessible to the competent amateur pianist, just the job for evening entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.

If you are a lover of trees, then you almost certainly like flowers.

Further Reading

  • 7 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Insects
    Insects are massively important to the Earth's ecology. Read about insects inspiring classical composers: Rimsky-Korsakov, Vaughan Williams, Mussorgsky, Chopin, Shostakovich, Josquin des Prez, and Bartok.
  • 10 Pieces of Classical Music Inspired by Flowers
    Whether you prefer big blooms, heavy scents, or tiny, almost insignificant florets, there is a flower for you. Read about Tchaikovsky, Johann Strauss II, Schumann, Bizet, Delibes, Puccini, Jean Françaix, and other composers who have been inspired to



2 Hawaiin Symphony Orchestra programme notes

3 Gramaphone

4 Imakelma

5 Gerard McBurney, Boosey

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on August 31, 2018:

Hi Igor, Sorry, in the 10 I had to chose certain ones. I actually love Sibelius but haven't included The Spruce in this collection., but it's lovely that you have drawn attention to it.

Igor on August 30, 2018:

No Sibelius?

How about Sibelius - Opus 75?

Frances Metcalfe on July 29, 2018:

Hi Flourish. I'm hard pressed to make a preference between Schumann's Waldszenen and The Pines of Rome, both have their merits, and I also count discount Der Lindenbaum by Schubert either!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 27, 2018:

The Pines of Rome and the piece by Liszt were my favorites. This was lovely.

Frances Metcalfe on July 22, 2018:

It's so satisfying to read that you could hear the Pines of Rome from the description. My aim is to enhance the experience for - well anyone who'll take notice! I'm a firm believer that if you learn HOW to listen it enhances every other area of your life. I too love to follow scores, you can see the structure more easily, and I never fail to be surprised by them, especially the orchestral ones - instrumentation that hadn't been highlighted in a certain performance and you think, I'd have brought out that part more (or toned it down!). Thanks so much for reading the hub.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2018:

This is yet another interesting collection of music. As I was reading your description of The Pines of Rome I could hear the music in my mind, even without playing the video. The piece was very popular in my family when I was growing up and I still enjoy it today. I loved following the score while I listened to the Liszt piece. Your articles are always enjoyable, Frances.

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on July 21, 2018:

Thank you Chitrangada. I love trees and have an abundance of them in our garden and paddock, providing all year round interest - and shade in the hot summer! Thanks for reading the hub.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 20, 2018:

Excellent article about music, musicians and trees.

What would we do without the trees? Such hubs are good to create awareness among the people.

Your article is interesting, informative and entertaining, with nice videos.

Thanks for sharing!