Blog – Classical Music and the Climate Emergency

Like a lot of people, I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough and have enjoyed immensely his recent BBC series A Perfect Planet. The continuous improvement in television technology means that every new series he puts out is an opportunity to view more wondrous and fascinating footage than ever before. However, it’s also near impossible to watch any natural history documentary these days without being made aware of the stark reality of the human impact on our environment. The fifth and final episode of A Perfect Planet was devoted to this issue. It tried to balance out the bad news with some positive stories, but the truth appears to be that while we as a species have the intelligence and technology to reverse the damage we’ve caused, the one thing we’re running out of is time.

Why this is appropriate material for an Arts blog? It comes down really to combining passions. I’m a huge advocate for the Arts. I’ve said before that I believe the Arts are one of the most important facets of our lives, the thing that makes everything else worthwhile. However, it’s sometimes hard to maintain that enthusiasm in the face of the everything we see on the news. It can, frankly, feel trivial to talk about music when the world is on fire (See also: Nero). There are times when it feels there are simply more important things to talk about.

The key, though, is to find a link. We are a species of storytellers. From the beginning of history, stories are how we make sense of our world, how we pass on our wisdom, how we inspire conversation and debate. This isn’t just about literal stories, though that can be the most straightforward way of imparting a message. All Art forms, from the novel to the symphony, are in a way just stories. It just so happens that some do so in a more abstract than others.

From Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, there’s a long history of composers taking inspiration from the natural world. Beethoven, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Berlioz… the Liszt is endless (sorry). You can find some good examples here. The spectre of climate change, too, has been an inspiration for music. It’s fifty years (!) since Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi talked about the perils of paving over paradise. More recently, works such as Kieran Brunt’s 2020 The Rising Sea Symphony (mentioned in this article, along with other music inspired by climate change) are using music to engage audiences with these huge issues.

We don’t all respond to documentaries,we can all be overwhelmed by the rolling news cycle, and we can all feel personally helpless in the face of global issues. Finding our own way to talk with people about the things that matter, implanting ideas, promoting discussion – this is where the creative arts can prove invaluable. And doing so with music can be a fantastic ‘soft’ entry point. Music often engages the emotions before the mind, and can be listened to without prejudice. A concerto will often go down easier than a lecture.

Picking up your instrument (or your pen, or a paintbrush) can be the first step to approaching the issues that matter to you, with the added bonus of drawing other people in rather than putting them off.