The Scent and the Sound of Roses

April 28, 2021 Updated: April 30, 2021

It is that time of year when I love to putter about in my garden, which somehow feels simpatico with the creativity of composing music. As a matter of fact, a number of great composers have loved nature’s flora and have responded in music. It would be lovely to explore some flower-inspired compositions, but we should first look at the soil in which they grow, the composers’ working methods.

When you think about it, it is rather remarkable that flowers can somehow translate into music. To paint a picture of flowers is one thing, but it is quite another to transform them into the entirely different medium of sound. Flowers must enter the eyes and nose of the composer and by some alchemy come out as lovely music, with all the delicacy and grace of pink petals. Some composers seem to possess the transformative ability Frances Hodgson Burnett wished for in “The Secret Garden”: “I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us.”

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Some composers have looked to the magic of nature for inspiration. (B Brown/Shutterstock)

Out in Nature

How does this metamorphosis happen? If there is a formula; it is this: Composers of the music of nature are often the composers who immerse themselves physically in it. To cite just a few examples, Beethoven was well known for his daily walks in the Vienna Woods. There he sketched much of his sixth symphony in 1808 and personally titled it, “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.”

In a letter of 1810, Beethoven wrote, “How delighted I will be to ramble for a while through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.”

Here Beethoven has coined a useful word for how the transformation happens: “echo.” If a composer shouts “nature” from the top of a cliff and listens very closely, perhaps music is the echo that answers.

The composer who so exquisitely captured the Norwegian landscape, Edvard Grieg, could not write a note in the city. He said he could only compose in the beautiful haven of his country getaway, Troldhaugen (“Troll Hill”) in Bergen, Norway, where he had a tiny composing hut that you can visit today.

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Composer Edvard Grieg’s composing hut outside his country home, Troldhaugen, at Bergen, Norway. (Vibeckemarkhus.visit/Shutterstock)

Mahler had two similar composing huts in Austria, both also museums now, one in the country near Carinthia, and one by the lake in Maiernigg. With barely room for a piano and a desk and a chair inside, plus a window with a view, he could focus on nature and on composing without distraction.

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Gustav Mahler’s composition hut at Maiernigg on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia. (OboeCrack/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Gustav Mahler’s composing hut in Steinbach at Lake Attersee in Austria.
Gustav Mahler’s composing hut in Steinbach at Lake Attersee in Austria. (Thomas Ledl / CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have been unable, though, to find any records of great composers who actually tended gardens and grew their own flowers. Maybe they were too busy composing the sound track to the flowers already there.

A Spring Bouquet of Musical Roses

Let’s soothe our spirits and take time to stop and hear the roses. I have picked for you this bouquet of the most fragrant musical blossoms:

‘A Spotless Rose’ by Herbert Howells

One of those defiantly traditional English composers of the 20th century was Herbert Howells (1892–1983), best known for his gorgeous church music, including this a cappella choral motet.

The original text to “A Spotless Rose” was the German “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” usually translated “Lo how a rose e’er blooming.” It received a different English translation by the English hymn-writer Catherine Winkworth. Howell wrote this musical setting of Winkworth’s translation in 1919. It is a Marian text, beginning “A spotless rose is blowing/ Sprung from a tender root/ Of ancient seers foreshowing/ Of Jesse promised fruit.” Howells said, “I wrote it and dedicated it to my mother—it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.”

‘Les Roses d’Ispahan,’ Op. 39, No. 4 by Gabrielle Fauré

This beautiful art song from 1884 by the French composer Gabrielle Fauré (1845–1924) uses a text from the French poet Leconte de Lisle, comparing the soft breath of his beloved Leilah to the fragrance of roses:

The roses of Isfahan in their mossy sheaths,
The jasmines of Mosul, the orange blossom
Have a fragrance less fresh and a scent less sweet,
O pale Leilah, than your soft breath!

‘To a Wild Rose’ by Edward McDowell

This sweet lullaby-style piece, originally for solo piano, was the first piece of the composer’s “Ten Woodland Sketches,” Op. 51, written in 1896. McDowell had a special love for roses and when he died was buried under a boulder surrounded by rose bushes. Later, a vocal version of the piece was created with lyrics by Helen Jane Long, which is sometimes heard in vocal recitals. As a pop instrumental, it was even recorded by Nat King Cole.

‘Roses from the South’ Op. 388 by Johann Strauss Jr.

Among over 500 waltzes and dances by the “Waltz King” who gave us “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” this lyrical waltz ranks in the top tier and is still regularly performed in Vienna. The “South” in the title alludes to Strauss’s operetta from which the Waltz’s tunes were taken, “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief,” with a story derived from Cervantes and set in Portugal.

‘Little Rose of the Field’ D. 257 by Franz Schubert

This charming song by Schubert (composed for a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published in 1789) tells the story of a young man’s unrequited love of a girl who is personified as a little rose in the field. He wants to pick the rose, but pricks his finger on its thorn.

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com