Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Music and Landscape, the Composers and Motivation.

Music and Landscape

The heritage of music and landscape.

Music and landscape both have the capacity to move us to tears. Walk alone in Spring across open fields when the sky larks are springing off the newly drilled soil.  There comes a moment when Vaughn Williams ‘Lark Rise Ascending’ imposes itself. And at that point it is almost impossible to separate the vision from the melody.

Many British composers have created bodies of work that have been inspired by their connections to landscape nature and place. Maybe this inspiration was never more profoundly felt than in the opening decades of the C20th.  This was a period of such change across Europe, politically, economically and in a social sense. Emancipation, changing work patterns and home life, all had a profound effect on national identity even before World War I. Then the war came and a generation of men and women, the hope for the future, were lost both literally and metaphorically on the battle fields.

A flowering of British poetry, literature and music responded to this new world. It was step away from the dominance of the Victorian era and Germanic influence and a step towards the histroical and cultural roots of Britain. Like the earlier Romanticism of John Constable when he painted nostalgic scenes of British landscape when the country was deeply troubled and afraid so this was a new period of romanticism.

The composers who tied music and landscape together.

This cohort of composers had a unique perception of their ‘home’ landscape, their experiences were such, it meant something very different to them. Music and landscape became integrated in the search for a new musical voice. This voice was a new pastoral and Vaughn Williams beautiful ‘Lark Rise Ascending, surely typifies this new sweet moment when music and landscape meet. He loved walking through the English countryside connecting with rural life and the folk music found in these communities. The light layers of strings and woodwind evoke such a swell of emotion because we know those rolling fields and woods and racing hedgerows. So in 1921 Vaughn painted the quintessential musical landscape for an audience who yearned for a return to a peaceful rural England, maybe an imagined one.

Not all composers interpreted the landscape in the same way. Holst played with the pastoral with his piece Somerset Rhapsody written almost two decades before . However he chose a different way to interpret the Dorset heathland of Wareham Heath. His interpretation of  a landscape he knew well was inspired by the writing of Thomas Hardy and his ‘Egdon Heath’, the fictional place where all of Hardy’s work was placed.

‘A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!’

Written as a homage to Thomas Hardy, Holst insisted that this quote from Hardy appeared in every musical programme and considered it to be it his most perfectly realised composition but it certainly was not a calm piece of pastoral music. This was a piece of dramatic music gripping

Landscape that inspired literature that inspired music.


Turning to landscape freed composers of the need to follow the Germanic influence of music.

Arnold Bax was a composer who looked to Ireland for inspiration. He said that Ireland was;

‘the magic mountain whence I was to dig all that may be of value in my own art’

Along with landscape he also used the knowledge of the rural life and customs of the Irish people to produce his distinctive sound. However a favourite piece by Bax is ‘Tintagel’. Arnold Bax and his lover Harriet Cohen spent six weeks immersed in the history and landscape of this part of Cornwall. Bax had always loved the sea and he wrote this piece whilst all hell was being let loose in Europe. It was performed in 1919 after the war had ended. He wanted people to see the landscape of Tintagel on a sunny but not windless Summers day. The sea, the Arthurian legend and the rugged beauty of the landscape are united. A piece where music and landscape have definitely connected.

John Ireland and evocation of a gently lapping sea.

John Ireland was another composer who looked to the landscape to write intense emotional music. He enjoyed the countryside of Sussex and Kent and the Channel Islands. His piece ‘Island Spell’, is a hypnotic simple melody. This simple melody gives the feeling of the gentle swell of a calm, twinkling sea. He wrote this as the first piece in his work ‘Decorations’ just as World War 2 was about to gather the islands into its arms. A real evocation therefore of calm before the storm.

The work of the lost generation.

These composers were just some of the lost generation. This generation  so called because of the losses caused by World War I and the events before and after. Poets, artists and composers whose lives had been profoundly affected by the war brought new order to the creative process. Evoking England’s green and pleasant land and beautiful coastal waters still have a powerful resonance today.