Terrifying trees and frightening forests: Signifying the supernatural in Nature in German Romantic music

School of Music - University of Leeds - Associate Professor of Music

Part of the Music Research Colloquia series of events


Musical portrayals of mankind in relation to Nature are ubiquitous in the operas, tone-poems and songs of the nineteenth century, particularly in the German-speaking regions. Poetic expressions of longing to be with Nature are encapsulated in a word unique to the German language, Waldeinsamkeit. The idea amounts almost to a state of philosophical being, a sublime experience that transports the protagonist (and by extension, the reader or audience) to another plane. This relationship is not always a happy one, however. All too often the longing for Nature is associated with a passionate desire to be with an absent beloved, or worse still, a melancholic or bitter reaction to rejection. The beauty of Nature appears, in these circumstances, to conflict with the emotional state of the person experiencing it. In some cases, Nature itself becomes the enemy. 
The juxtaposition of the beneficial and threatening aspects of Nature serves to enhance these contrasting emotions to dramatic effect. The rustic merrymaking in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is counterbalanced by a cataclysmic storm depiction, for instance. Here we are dealing with a sublime experience of a different sort, namely the Sublime of Terror. The musical signifiers draw on the traditions associated with supernatural manifestations in the eighteenth century, the styles now known as ombra and tempesta. By introducing disruptive elements into the music, composers were able to instil feelings of awe (ombra) and terror (tempesta) into their listeners. 
This more sinister aspect of Nature merits further exploration. In this paper I shall examine these darker allusions with particular reference to trees and forests in German Romantic music, demonstrating that the musical signification serves to portray them as sinister supernatural entities. While trees and forests are most often depicted in positive tones, evoking feelings of calm and wonderment, they can occasionally reveal a darker side that can be deeply unsettling, especially at night. During the nineteenth century, factors such as more complex tonal and harmonic language, metrical and rhythmic flexibility, and the expansion of the orchestra, provided composers with a richer palette of sounds with which to unsettle their audiences. The repertoire considered will include a range of operatic scenes by composers such as Weber, Wagner and Humperdinck (Der Freischütz,  Siegfried and Hänsel und Gretel), and a selection of orchestral music, where there are many programmatic references to forests (including Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 Romantic and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1).  


Clive McClelland is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Leeds, where he is responsible for the teaching of harmony, counterpoint and analysis. His books Ombra: Supernatural Music in the Eighteenth Century and the companion volume Tempesta: Stormy Music in the Eighteenth Century are established as standard texts in the field of topic theory. Other publications include “Ombra and Tempesta” in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, a chapter on Spohr’s Faust in The Oxford Companion to Faust, and articles on Elgar’s Enigma Variations for the Musical Times and on Franz Waxman’s score for The Bride of Frankenstein in the Journal of Film Music. Clive is Chairman of the Schubert Institute UK, and pursues his interest in early music as chorus master of Leeds Baroque, while also leading singing workshops in the UK and Europe. Last September he gave the keynote address for the Segones Jornades ab sentits at ESMUC, Barcelona, and he is due to give another keynote address at the Karol Lipiński Academy of Music, Wrocław in December. 

Join on Zoom