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Listening Lists: Inspired By Earth

Earth and nature have been inspiring composers for centuries. Have a listen to five examples of classical music works inspired by Planet Earth!


Claude Debussy - La mer: III. Dialogue du vent et de la mer

When Debussy was eight-years-old, he saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. Later, he also became fond of the Atlantic Ocean. His father, a sailor, told him many stories about his life on the ocean, and hoped his son would follow the same career path (spoiler alert: that didn't happen). However, Debussy's strong connection to great bodies of water inspired "La mer". The original cover image on the score uses "The Wave" by Japanese engraver Hokusai; this was at Debussy's request. The third and final movement of the work - "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the wind and the sea) - portrays a stormy conflict between the wind and sea.


Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi: Koyaanisqatsi

This piece was originally composed for the 1982 cult film "Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance". The film has been considered to be about the complex relationship between man-made technologies and nature, though the creators encouraged viewers to decide for themselves what it all means!

The trimmed-down soundtrack by Philip Glass was released in 1983, following the initial release of the film. In 1998, a longer version of the album was recorded as a stand-alone work, rather than as a film soundtrack. The complete original soundtrack recording was released in 2009. The music is in a minimalist style, with many repeated motifs and simple structures and harmonies.

The opening track uses the same name as the work in its entirety. The definition of the word "koyaanisqatsi" (from the language of the Hopi people of northeastern Arizona, United States) is along the lines of "life of moral corruption and turmoil" or "life out of balance". In Glass' music, the word is chanted by a bass singer (Albert de Ruiter) over a solemn organ accompaniment.


Franz Liszt - Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne

"Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" ("What We Hear On The Mountain") is the

first of thirteen symphonic poems by Liszt. A symphonic poem is a narrative piece of

music for orchestra, without any spoken or sung words. The work is inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo, in which an unnamed protagonist climbs to the top of a mountain and hears an intense, troubled, musical voice which swirls around them.

The protagonist soon realises that there are actually two voices:

- one powerful and joyful, representing nature.

- one full of sadness and fear, representing humanity.

The voices mingle together, separate, cross over, and melt into one another, until the protagonist cannot hear them anymore.


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Composer Activity Guide: Franz Liszt

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Gustav Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde: VI. Der Abschied

"Das Lied von der Erde" (The Song of the Earth) is a composition (described by Mahler as a symphony) for two voices (tenor and alto (or baritone)) and orchestra. It consists of six songs, with the two voices alternating movements. The texts are based on Hans Bethge's "Die chinesische Flöte" poems, themselves adaptations of classical Chinese poetry in German and French translations.

The sixth song is a setting of "Der Abschied" (The Farewell). Bethge's text combines poems by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, and Mahler added in several of his own lines for the musical setting. An English translation can be found below the embedded video.


The sun separates behind the mountains.

The evening descends into all the valleys

With its shadows, which are full of cooling.

O look! Like a silver boat floats

The moon up on the blue sky-lake.

I feel a fine wind blowing

Behind the dark spruces!

The brook sings full of melodious sound through the darkness.

The flowers pale in the twilight.

The earth breathes full of rest and sleep.

All longing now wants to dream,

The tired people go home,

To learn again in their sleep forgotten happiness

And youth to rediscover!

The birds perch quietly in their branches.

The world falls asleep!

It blows cooly in the shade of my spruces.

I stand here and wait for my friend;

I wait for his last farewell.

I long, O friend, by your side

To enjoy the beauty of this evening.

Where are you? You leave me long alone!

I walk up and down with my lute

On paths that swell with soft grass.

O beauty! O eternal love - life - drunk'n world!

He dismounted from his horse and offered him the drink.

Of farewell.

He asked him where he was going

And also why it must be.

He spoke, his voice was fluttered. You, my friend,

Happiness has not been kind to me in this world!

Where am I going? I go, I wander in the mountains.

I seek rest for my lonely heart.

I walk to my homeland, my place.

I will never wander into the distance.

Still is my heart awaiting its hour!

The dear earth everywhere

Blossoms in spring and grows green anew!

Everywhere and eternal blue light the distance!

Forever... forever...


Ralph Vaughan Williams - Sinfonia antartica: I. Prelude

Vaughan Williams composed music for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic. He was so inspired that he reworked much of the music into what became his seventh symphony. This symphony is scored for a full orchestra, with a solo soprano and three-part women's chorus who sing in the first and last (fifth) movements.

At the start of each movement there is a (written) literary quotation; these quotations are sometimes recited in performances and recordings of the works. The first movement of the work is introduced with the following quotation:

"To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite, /To forgive wrongs darker than death or night, /To defy power which seems omnipotent, /... /Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent: /This ... is to be /Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free, /This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound"


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