Over the centuries, composers have attempted to capture their natural surroundings in music, from the bucolic imagery of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” to the vast prairies evoked by Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land.” Oregon is lucky to boast a fortune of natural grandeur as rich and wide-ranging as this tradition, with splendors from the temperate rainforests of the Coast Range to the barren lava beds of Southern Oregon. In celebration of these beautiful and varied landscapes, we take you on a sonic tour through seven of Oregon’s most beloved spots, with musical selections inspired by these incredible places.
Columbia River Gorge—Richard Strauss, “An Alpine Symphony”
The largest designated National Scenic Area in the United States, the Columbia River Gorge sculpts a dramatic canyon on the border between Oregon and Washington. In his 1915 “An Alpine Symphony,” Richard Strauss depicts a similar journey of contrasts that musically illustrates a hiker’s heroic mountain climb through the Bavarian Alps of Germany.
Strauss’s 50-minute tone poem begins in the murky hours before sunrise, with a rhythmic rising theme depicting a slow uphill ascent. Later, a series of cascading scales in the winds and strings symbolize the hiker’s encounter with a waterfall. Drive along the basalt cliffs that line the Historic Columbia River Highway and you’ll encounter a plethora of waterfalls, including the famed Multnomah, Wahkeena, and Bridal Veil Falls.
In a section titled “On Flowering Meadows,” isolated pops of color in the winds, harp, and viola rise over a canvas of chords, like bright flowers dotting a landscape. The Columbia River Gorge contains its own abundance of plant life, with more than 800 species of flowers—15 of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Crater Lake—Michael Torke, “Bright Blue Music”
Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, makes a striking impact with its rich blue color and surrounding cliffs, which reach up to nearly 2,000 feet. Michael Torke’s “Bright Blue Music” is an apt celebration of Crater Lake’s simplistic yet bold beauty. The piece is in the key of D major, which Torke associates with the color blue. (He experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a blurring between the senses—in this case, seeing certain colors upon hearing certain sounds.)
The piece is joyfully exuberant and seems to continually propel forward, evoking the thrill of cross-country skiing in the old-growth forest that surrounds Crater Lake. The sense of a forward pull through musical tension and release illustrates the anticipation on the uphill drive to Crater Lake.
Things seem to be fading away toward the end of the piece when a final brilliant chord comes crashing in as if we’ve finally emerged from the forest and have come face-to-face with the stunning blue of Crater Lake. Soft woodwinds and strings echo in the afterglow of that last chord, while the lake gently sparkles in the sun.
Mount Hood—Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Sinfonia Antartica”
Mention the natural wonders of Oregon and Mount Hood comes to mind, with its pointed snow-capped peak that can be seen from miles away. Ralph Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 7, also known as “Sinfonia Antarctica,” captures Mount Hood’s awe-inspiring environment and potential danger.
“Sinfonia Antartica” is based on music Vaughan Williams originally wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic (1948), which tells the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s failed expedition to the South Pole. The addition of a wordless soprano, a women’s chorus, and a wind machine to the orchestra sets an eerie, ethereal mood. The third movement, “Landscape,” parallels a scene in the film on Beardmore Glacier, recalling the eleven glaciers that encircle Mount Hood above the tree line. In this movement, a stark theme is heard in the trombones and tuba, accompanied by icy sparkling effects in the percussion. The theme rises to a climax, followed by an exhausted collapse, signifying man’s struggle through the inexorable elements of nature. The next movement, “Intermezzo,” is more peaceful, with a lyrical line in the solo oboe atop a bittersweet juxtaposition of hope and despair. Then it is as though we’ve stepped out of a winter on Mount Hood into calmer, warmer months that feature lavender-filled valleys in spring and wild berries along the Fruit Loop between Mount Hood and Hood River during the summer and fall.
Painted Hills—Claude Debussy, “Les collines d'Anacapri” (The Hills of Anacapri)
Oregon’s Painted Hills, part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, is a treat for the eyes. The sloping hills reveal millions of years of history through the colored stratifications in the soil, with opulent layers of yellows, golds, blacks, and reds. The clay stone changes with different light and moisture levels throughout the day and year, shifting tones and hues so each visit offers a new sight.
Debussy’s impressionistic music is a fitting illustration of the Painted Hills. Delicate tones and coloristic harmonies evoke the subtle shifting of light. Most of the pieces in Debussy’s “Preludés” are interwoven with themes of nature, and “Les collines d'Anacapri” is no exception. The piece uses a theme from an Italian folk song, beginning with a brief introduction that is slow and somber with a touch of playfulness. The music then moves to a bright, lively theme in the upper register of the piano—an apt portrait of the Painted Hills as its appearance shifts from morning to late afternoon, when the colors in the soil appear most vivid.
Oregon Coast—Tōru Takemitsu, “Toward the Sea”
There is much to discover along the Oregon Coast—the fishing city of Astoria, the artsy town of Cannon Beach, the tourist attractions of Seaside and Newport, and the more remote stretches in the southern half of the state. Common to all these places is the occasional overcast and sometimes rainy day. In winter, when the Pacific Ocean is too cold and rough for swimming, storm watching is a popular activity. In July and August, especially, hot weather from inland can pull in sheaths of fog that don’t dissipate until the afternoon. There is something to be said for the soothing repose offered by a view of the clouds over the sea.
Explore the shadow side of the Oregon Coast in Tōru Takemitsu’s “Toward the Sea,” a three-movement piece that evokes the mysteries and legends of the ocean. Listening to Takemitsu’s music is like taking a meditative walk along the shore, reconnecting with nature while watching the sandy landscape slowly unveil itself before you.
Commissioned in 1981 by Greenpeace for the “Save the Whales” campaign, “Toward the Sea” was originally written for flute and guitar and later reworked into this version for alto flute, harp, and strings. In the first movement, “The Night,” the alto flute morphs between normal and hollow tones, creating a ghostly effect enhanced by strings and rolling sounds of the harp. Tempestuous arcing gestures are separated by silent pauses, like calms within evening rainstorms.
In the second movement, “Moby Dick,” a lilting rhythm in triple meter conjures up the rocking motion of a whale-watching boat. The flute calls and echoes throughout, bringing to mind a majestic whale. On the Oregon Coast, twice a year, nearly 18,000 gray whales migrate parallel to the coast between Alaska and Baja California, and about 200 gray whales remain as summer residents off the Oregon Coast between June and November.
In the minimalistic final movement, “Cape Cod,” the strings sound out sustained drones under the harp, while the flute gradually develops variations. These layers create an effect of being held in suspense, like staring out at a gray ocean and cloudy sky, unable to discern where the ocean ends and the sky begins.
Smith Rock—Felix Mendelssohn, “Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)”
Central Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park—more than 650 acres in size and 3,000 feet in elevation—is lined with an impressive array of rugged rock faces. The rocks are composed of welded tuff, a type of compressed volcanic ash that formed 30 million years ago when eruptions filled what is now the Crooked River caldera. The ash hardened into dramatic formations like Smith Rock, a massive wall that reaches up to 550 feet in height. The park now attracts rock climbers from around the world, and there are several thousand bolted climb routes for sport climbing, traditional climbing, and bouldering.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” matches the audacious dramatic landscape of Smith Rock Park. When Mendelssohn was 20 years old, he ventured on a tour of Scotland. There he encountered the Hebrides, islands that Mendelssohn described as a “comfortless, inhospitable solitude.” Despite his seasickness, the scenery inspired him to write the first bars of his overture, an ominous, arpeggiated fragment that begins in the lower depths of the orchestra and gradually rises to take over the violins. It is as if we are standing at the base of Smith Rock, peering upward at the steep climb to the top.
Mendelssohn later visited Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, where he marveled at the cave’s towering basalt-rock formations. The grandeur of the cliffs come through in the second theme of the piece, a soaring melody. Meanwhile, waves of musical phrases mimic the crashing of the sea against the rocks. The Crooked River may not be as violent as Scotland’s stormy seas, but over time it has carved its way through the rock to help shape the park’s towering spires.
The Wallowas—Aaron Copland, “An Outdoor Overture”
Our journey now takes us to the Wallowa Mountains of Northeastern Oregon. Colloquially known as the Alps of Oregon, the Wallowas feature 18 peaks more than 9,000 feet tall, nestled within the 360,000 acres of Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. Immense views stretch out from the peaks. You can even spot Hells Canyon in the distance, engraved by the Snake River and even deeper than the Grand Canyon.
The Wallowas’ expansive views are a perfect match for the open-prairie aesthetic of American composer Aaron Copland. Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture” especially reflects the Wallowas in its optimistic, energetic mood. Commissioned for a high school orchestra in 1941, the strength of “An Outdoor Overture” lies in its joyful simplicity. The piece begins with a bouncing, syncopated theme and moves into a carefree solo in the trumpet, followed by a more raucous march tune and a lyrical melody in the strings. These little episodes suggest what it might be like to look out from one of the Wallowas’ peaks, taking in the diversity of surrounding elements: glacial lakes, ranches and the wide-open spaces of Eastern Oregon. As “An Outdoor Overture” reaches its climax, all the earlier themes are combined in a burst of activity, and we become like the pioneers who crossed the Wallowas by wagon on the Oregon Trail, taking in all the elements of the landscape as they ventured into a new frontier.
The Journey . . .
Now in the summer months, it marks the perfect time to venture out and explore these beloved Oregon landmarks. Technologies like radio have enabled music to be transportable, something we can take with us wherever we go, especially now via allclassical.org and through various mobile apps. Music remains deeply contextual; we are often linked to the place where we first heard a piece of music. All Classical Portland can provide the music; Oregon will provide the natural beauty. Discovery awaits!
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