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If You Go Down to the Woods Today...


Ancient, dark, mysterious, alive - forests have a particular grip on Northern European minds. Unlike the landscapes of the desert, coast, grassland or mountain there are no open spaces or wide angle views. Things hide in forests, get lost or suddenly appear. Forests are a silent character throughout our fairytales and literature – just think of Red Riding Hood, Narnia or Tolkien. The arches and vaulted ceilings of Gothic cathedrals like Cologne or Reims echo the tree canopy. So too, more colourfully, does Richard Rogers’ design for Madrid’s Barajas airport.

Forests haunt music too. The polyphonic music of the Renaissance or J. S. Bach, in which tunes wrap around each other, stretching into ever denser forms is the music of a forest imagination. It couldn’t have been dreamt up on the plains of Asia or the North African desert. The language we use to describe it often betrays a similar source – thickets of notes, branching melodies and so on.

Sibelius was almost possessed by the forest. He composed from a purpose-built villa among the pine trees of Finland, not far from Helsinki, and the woodland spirits of Finnish mythology came to suffuse his work. His Fifth Symphony (1915, rev. 1919) was inspired by the swans and cranes that fly above the forest, while the Sixth (1923) contains hints of the female pine spirit Hongatar and the wind through the woods. In his last orchestral work, Tapiola (1926), ‘the forest’s mighty god’ himself is evoked. In the end the isolation, and perhaps the anxiety of the forest consumed Sibelius, and he lapsed into silence and alcoholism.

In Mallarmé’s symbolist poem L’après-midi d’un faune (The afternoon of a faun) another forest spirit half-wakes in the afternoon, describes his dreams of seducing nymphs and playing music on his pipes, and falls back asleep. In Debussy’s instrumental setting Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, his woodland imaginings led him to exotic instrumentation, like ancient cymbals (crotales); a new harmonic language of static, trunk-like chords; and a sinuous flute solo that creeps like a vine, and that Pierre Boulez has identified as the starting point of 20th-century music itself.

Even the most abstract experimental music hasn’t escaped the forest’s lure. Cage’s ‘silent piece’, 4’33”, was composed for a first performance at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. A wooden auditorium, open at one end to the surrounding forest, it proved a perfect location for Cage’s meditation on the mysterious boundary between silence and music, between our external surroundings and our own interior psychology.