Flowers have intrigued artists, writers and musicians for centuries. Their colour, liveliness and fragility mean that they have been the direct inspiration for poetic and musical works from the medieval era to the present day. To coincide with National Gardening Week 2016, we’ve picked out some of our favourite examples.
Since the middle ages, the rose has been a potent symbol, used in both sacred and secular contexts as a metaphor for women. In the medieval era in particular, the rose was closely associated with the Virgin Mary. In the carol “There is no rose”, the Virgin Mary is described as the “rose that bare Jesu”. The language is compelling and beautiful: “for in that rose contained was / Heaven and earth in little space”. Listen to it below:
Find this track and others on “Deo Gracias Anglia: Medieval English Carols”
The beautiful amaryllis flower is celebrated in the music of Giulio Caccini, whose madrigal setting “Amarilli mia bella” is one of his best known works. According to classical legend, Amaryllis was a nymph who fell in unrequited love with the shepherd Alteo. All Alteo searched for was the most beautiful flower in the world. Desperate to please him, Amaryllis pierced her breast with an arrow until a red flower sprang up from her blood on the ground. Ever since, the amaryllis has stood for both determination and exceptional beauty.
In Scarlatti’s 1694 opera, Pirro e Demetrio, the hero sings a playful aria in which he addresses a patch of violet flowers wondering whether he will find his love requited. The accompaniment is light and fanciful, echoing the fragile nature of these tiny flowers. Violets are often thought to represent modesty, but they are also associated with a love that is fragile and delicate; Scarlatti leaves it up to the audience’s imagination as to which characteristic he is invoking in this aria.
Although Puccini is best known for his operatic classics such as Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, he also composed some beautiful chamber music. One example is his string quartet, Crisantemi, a melancholy and moving work that is rarely heard today. The title means “chrysanthemums” and was reportedly written in one night as a response to the death of the Duke of Savoy. The chrysanthemum is the Italian flower of mourning and they are often placed on tomb stones.
Lavender is valued for its calming properties, and it is traditionally associated with purity and silence. This makes is a particularly appropriate flower for a song intended to rock children to sleep, such as “Lavender’s Blue”. Versions of this nursery song date back to the 17th century, and there are numerous recordings in various styles, including a well-loved version by Donald Peers.
Gardens, flora and fauna have been celebrated in music for centuries, from the beautiful melodies of the middle ages to the foot-tapping tunes of the 1940s and ’50s. Listen to a couple of examples from either end of the spectrum; “Sumer is Icumen In”, a tune first composed in the mid-13th century, and “Rosy Apples”, a jolly celebration of the fruit that keeps the doctor away by Evelyn Knight.
Hear more medieval music for the outdoors in “A Garden of Music”
Hear more classic tracks in “Music for a Lady Gardener”