Now that the leaves have fallen, the Ether Game Brain Trust is exploring the coniferous side of music. It’s a show about pine needles and the color green. Take a stroll through the firs and cypresses with us for a show we’re calling “Evergreen.”
Get ready to ride the pine with our playlist below:
- Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), Pines of Rome – Respighi was the first Italian composer of the early 20th century to make a name for himself by composing purely orchestral music instead of the traditional route of writing operas. He’s best known for the three Rome-inspired tone poems: The Fountains of Rome from 1917, The Pines of Rome from 1924, and Roman Festivals from 1929. Fountains was a smashing success, but the premiere of Pines didn’t go quite as well. Audiences found some of the atonal elements of the composition off-putting. As tastes changed however, The Pines of Rome became Respighi’s most popular work. The piece is unified by the image of a pine tree, and each movement highlights famous pine groves throughout Respighi’s home city of Rome. In the first and second movements, the listener is guided from the pine trees in the gardens at the Villa Borghese to those shading the entrance of a catacomb in the Campagna, an area of countryside surrounding Rome that was peppered with scenic pine trees.
- "The Holly and the Ivy" (Traditional British Carol) – Pine trees are not the only kind of evergreen plants. As sung in the second line of this popular Christmas carol, both holly and ivy are evergreens that are “full grown” in the winter when most other plants have lost their leaves. The carol, which extols the beauty of the holly as a symbol of Christianity at Christmas, has no definitive author. It was first published in England sometime in the early 19th century as a broadside. Broadsides were single sheets of paper typically with some kind of ballad, poem, or even news story printed on one side. Broadside ballads became increasingly popular after the invention of the printing press and were especially cheap to produce. Many traditional folksongs, especially in England, were printed as broadside ballads, turning these inexpensive prints into one of the best written documents of a largely oral tradition.
- John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), The Northern Pines – The old-growth pine forests, known as “virgin stands,” of Northern Michigan are among the most beautiful landscapes in America. The lumber industry began to threaten these forests in the early 20th century, so the state of Michigan created its first state park, the Interlochen State Park, in 1917 in Interlochen, Michigan, to protect the trees. It was in this idyllic landscape that music professor Joseph E. Maddy founded the National Music Camp for high school band and orchestra students in the 1920s. This camp eventually developed into the Interlochen Center for the Arts, one of the most prestigious summer music programs in the country. The great American band composer John Philip Sousa visited the camp in 1930, and wrote this march for Maddy and the students, naming it after Interlochen’s evergreen landscape. Sousa was so impressed with the camp at Interlochen that he even donated the royalties of his Northern Pines march to fund scholarships there.
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), Fantasia on "Greensleeves" – It’s unknown if Vaughan Williams had Christmas in mind when he included an arrangement of “Greensleeves” in his opera Sir John In Love. This goes to show the complicated history of this melody, which has been arranged and re-texted so many times that its variants have taken on lives of their own. In the Victorian era, “Greensleeves” was given new words, becoming the Christmas carol “What child is this?” The Victorians were also fans of green leaves as much as Greensleeves—they were responsible for popularizing the Christmas tree. Bringing a decorated evergreen into the home during the winter was a widespread tradition in Germany since the Medieval era, but it was not until King George III requested an evergreen for his German-born wife Queen Charlotte that a Christmas tree appeared in Vaughan William’s home country of England. By the time he composed his Fantasia on Greensleeves in 1934, an evergreen decorated with candles, dried fruits, and paper flowers would have become a familiar holiday symbol.
- Franz Liszt (1811–1886), Années de pèlerinage: Third Year, No. 3. To the Cypresses of the Villa d'Este – The three volumes of Liszt’s piano suite Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) function not only as a culmination of the composer’s piano style, but as also an epic work of Romantic art along the lines of something by Byron, Schiller, or Goethe. The third “year” represents a more mature and less virtuosic collection than the other two volumes. In this particular movement, Liszt musically depicts the beautiful evergreen cypress trees growing at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy, a small village outside of Rome. This 16th-century villa is a major tourist destination, known for its dozens of intricate fountains surrounded by lush gardens. In the 17th century, part of the garden was replaced by 16 cypresses, a few of which remain today, having grown to tremendous heights. These towering evergreens have inspired countless pieces of art and poetry, beyond this music by Liszt.
- Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Der Tannenbaum (The Pine Tree) – “Tannenbaum” is the German word for a fir tree, the evergreen coniferous tree commonly used as a Christmas tree. That’s why the traditional Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” usually translates to “O Christmas Tree,” despite the original German lyrics having nothing to do with Christmas, only referring to the beauty of the tree itself. The Wagner song Der Tannenbaum is not the same as “O Tannenbaum.” It’s based on a much darker poem by Georg Scheurlin which describes a sad lonely pine tree speaking to a boy, saying that soon his wood will be used for the boy’s coffin. Gotta love that German Romantic poetry! Wagner didn’t write much Lieder—maybe only a couple dozen songs. Instead, his main focus was on opera. The song Der Tannenbaum was written quite early in Wagner’s career in 1838, while the composer was only in his twenties working on his historical opera Rienzi.
- Arnold Bax (1883–1953), The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew – The pine tree forests of Northern Europe, particularly in Scotland, Norway, and Sweden, are ancient. There is a yew tree in Scotland that is likely over 2000 years old and a spruce tree in Sweden that is over 9000 years old! Arnold Bax must have had this longevity in mind when he wrote his 1931 tone poem The Tale the Pine-Trees Knew. He was partly inspired by ancient myths of the Norse and the Highland Celts, stories that were written while these ancient trees still stood (presumably listening and learning). Mythology and trees seem to be a theme with Bax’s work, especially in his tone poems. The myths of Ireland and Scotland play a role in his tone poems Tintagel, In The Faery Hills, and The Garden of Fand. And trees are central to his 1917 tone poem November Woods and his 1922 tone poem The Happy Forest.
- Arthur Meulemans (1884–1966), Dennensymfonie (Fir Symphony) – It was the pine trees, specifically the fir trees, of the Flanders region of Belgium that inspired composer Arthur Meulemans’s 1933 work Fir Symphony. Meulemans studied and taught at the Lemmens Institute, a music conservatory in Belgium, and also served as the conductor of what’s now known as the Brussels Philharmonic, as well as the president of the Royal Flemish Academy. His idea of the fir forests in Belgium was almost supernatural—the program to the symphony describes gnomes and nymphs dancing among the fir trees by Belgium’s Demer River. To be fair, pine forests are not the most notable aspect of the Belgian landscape, a region known primarily for its fields, not forests. Only 10% of Flanders is covered in forest. Compare that to a European country like Finland where over 70% of the land is covered by the evergreen pine and spruce trees.
- Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, “In The Pines” – Like many early country and bluegrass classics, the origin of the song In the Pines is murky. Evidence of several songs with the memorable phrase “In the pines, In the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine” date from as far back as 1870, when they were likely brought to America by Irish immigrants; the first recordings were made on phonograph cylinders in 1925. Eventually, two versions of the song became standard in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, where they were picked up and recorded by famous roots musicians like Leadbelly and Bill Monroe. This is Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys performing their version of the song. It contains all the elements of the early Bluegrass sound that earned Monroe his title as the Father of Bluegrass: a rolling banjo line, cowboy-style yodeling, prominent use of fiddle and mandolin, and Monroe’s haunting, tenor voice that soars above the band and was dubbed the “High And Lonesome” sound.