The St Andrews Chamber Orchestra is putting on a series of three concerts featuring Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony alongside Sibelius’ Third Symphony and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides. This thought-provoking concert programme invites the audience to consider how the composition and performance of orchestral music can be both poetically descriptive of nature and analogous to life cycles and the vulnerability of ecosystems.

Michael Downes conducting the St Andrews Chamber Orchestra

Japanese deep sea drilling vessel CHIKYU

What makes an orchestra organic? An orchestra can be understood as a complex adaptive system, just like a natural environment. Environmental systems are places in which many different agents interact with each other. Any change created by a single agent impacts the behaviour of the other agents as they all constantly adapt to each other. This process of adaptation creates feedback loops which make it extremely challenging to predict future outcomes. In an ecoystem like the marine environment it is difficult to assess the influence that any single agent’s actions will have on all other agents in the system.

An orchestra is full of players, individual agents led by one dominant agent – the conductor. A conductor directs the actions of all the other agents along the given path of the score. Setting a tempo, adjusting balance and unifying the phrasing of melodies are some of the many ways a conductor exerts a strong influence on all the other agents in the system. In the marine environment, the most analagous figure is humanity. Human activity in the oceans has increased dramatically over the past century, creating an environment where our actions disproportionately affect the other species with whom we share the seas. Scientists at the Sea Mammal Research Institute study the extent to which the human production of marine noise affects the lives of marine mammals who rely primarily on sound to find their prey and navigate their world. International shipping, offshore energy, and military sonar all change the soundscape of the marine environment in ways that can have long-lasting negative effects on sea mammals. Peter Tyack‘s article “Human-generated sound and marine mammals” lays out the ways scientists try to study this by safely tagging marine mammals, which has revealed how anthropogenic noise can lead to severe and even fatal consequences for vulnerable underwater species.

Dolphins bowriding; photo by Mark Spear © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

EU Youth Orchestra © Euyo editor

But in a complex adaptive system, the other agents are called agents for a reason – they have agency, no matter how dominant any particular individual or group might be. Marine mammals are affected by anthropogenic noise, but they adapt to its presence and respond in innovative ways. For example, right whales have been observed to produce calls at higher frequencies as low-frequency shipping noise increased from 1950 to the present. Right whales adapt their calls to a higher pitch to compensate for having lower-frequency sounds drowned out by human background noise. As Peter Tyack, one of the collaborators on this study, put it, “When right whales are exposed to low-frequency shipping noise, they switch from basses to tenors.”

The different players in the orchestra can also exert much more agency than their subordinate position to the conductor might initially suggest. The musicians and conductor of a symphony orchestra rely on listening and adapting to those around them at all times to play together. The network of listening creates feedback loops in which the ensemble can be dramatically affected by an individual player. For example, the conductor Ivan Fischer has said that sometimes his choice of tempo in a performance is influenced by a single musician. It may appear that the performance of an orchestra is, for those on stage who have rehearsed the piece, a completely predictable event. Sometimes it is, but the most memorable and exciting performances often have unexpected emergent trajectories, just like complex adaptive systems.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Jean Sibelius

Felix Mendelssohn

The relationship between orchestras and ecosystems is not one only of analogy. Throughout history, countless composers have reacted to the natural world around them and sought to evoke its cycles and patterns in their own music. The three pieces featured in the Symphonic Nature series all stem from their composers’ deep consideration of their environment. Beethoven’s Sixth or ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, which features in all three of the concerts, was the first symphony to have an explicit narrative: each of the five movements has a subtitle that evokes a feeling of being in the countryside. Beethoven often took long walks around Vienna, taking in the agricultural patterns outside the city. He wrote of this piece that ‘anyone who has even just an idea of country life can imagine what the author [intends], without many headings’. Such was his conviction that his music was so deeply inspired by the natural world around him. The very structure of the symphony itself echoes the endless cycle of the seasons. Much of Beethoven’s most well-known music has a trajectory from minor to major, from darkness to light, from despair to triumph. But in the ‘Pastoral’, the music unusually ends where it started: the last movement is not the outcome of struggle, and it is not a transformation. The return to F major is full circle: we end where we started, not somewhere unknown, just as winter will always return to spring.

Although a century elapsed between Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Sibelius’ Third, Sibelius was often favourably compared to Beethoven as a direct spiritual successor, and there is a thematic connection between both pieces. Music critics such as Aarre Merikanto and Eino Roiha described Sibelius’ music as organic, growing from a single seed into ‘a monumental work out of shortish themes’. This can certainly be felt in the Third Symphony which develops a few core themes in organic and ambiguous ways throughout the piece in a way meant to mimic the complexity of nature. When we compare such ideas of Sibelius’ music to the vast amount of innovative repetition in Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, one can see why comparisons between the two are often made. Sibelius himself thought of his work as in tune with the natural world; he often described his compositional technique in terms of ‘plein air‘ painting, a French term used to describe outdoor as opposed to studio painting. If nature was an inspiration for Beethoven, for Sibelius it was also a method. He had what scholar Wendy Hall describes as ‘a primeval relationship to nature’, seeing nature as an ‘elemental force against which man must struggle constantly’. It pervaded his music to the point where British composer Arthur Bliss once said that ‘flying over Finland with its network of lakes, its forests, its mists and snows, was like experiencing a Sibelius tone poem’.

Octopus on a bed of live maerl in the South Arran Marine Protected Area © Howard Wood/COAST

Education “touch tank” offering a hands-on experience with local sea life © COAST

While two of the Symphonic Nature concerts pair Beethoven and Sibelius, the concert in Lochranza on the Isle of Arran instead features Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides together with the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Mendelssohn was one of the few European composers of the early 19th century to visit Scotland. The walking tour he made in 1829 with his friend Karl Klingemann proved highly productive in terms of the music it engendered. The Hebrides was inspired by a boat trip that Mendelssohn and Klingemann made to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa. The cave’s undulating pattern vividly evokes the movement of the sea, and the crystallisation of majestic columns of basalt has captured another complex system, the geological system, in a moment of time. Like Beethoven with the Austrian countryside and Sibelius with his view of nature’s patterns as omnipresent, Mendelssohn sought to recreate in his music what he felt nature already expressed.

It is fitting that the concert in Lochranza will feature a piece inspired by the Hebridean landscape in particular because the concert will be raising funds for the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), a community organisation that works for the protection and restoration of the marine environment around Arran and the Clyde. One of the UK’s leading community marine conservation organisations, COAST’s long list of accomplishments since 1995 includes the establishment of Scotland’s first No Take Zone in Lamlash Bay; the legal enforcement of the South Arran Marine Protected Area (MPA) to establish a ban on bottom trawling and scallop dredging in fragile habitats; and an ongoing commitment to education through research links with Scottish universities and the delivery of education awareness programmes for local schools. Underpinning much of the work on MPAs around Scotland is fundamental research carried out by the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews over the past fifteen years on Special Areas of Conservation, such as at Loch Laxford and in relation to sustainable fishing. Charities like COAST work tirelessly to ensure that Scotland’s marine ecosystems remain diverse and functional, which is why 100% of the proceeds from our Lochranza concert will be donated to the trust.

We hope you have enjoyed learning more about the way an orchestra is like an ecosystem and how this relates to marine research at the University of St Andrews. Check out our events schedule for concert times and venues. Follow Music Planet on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on our events!