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Open Air Arias I: Rothiemurchus and Sibelius

In the first of a series, our Music Director designate Garry Walker explores the association of music with landscapes, finding connections between favourite musical works and the routes and locations that he encounters as a keen walker and climber.

“Perhaps one of my favourite places in the world is the forest of Rothiemurchus, just north of the Cairngorms, the last substantial remnant of the Great Pine Forest of Caledonia which would once have cloaked most of Highland Scotland. 

I like to camp amongst the trees, and, as it is a natural forest, there are plenty of breaks in the tree cover, so these tent pitches are often bright, cheery places. It’s beautiful to sit outside one’s tent on those innumerable hot evenings that Scotland is blessed with throughout the year (!) and watch the stars come out. And that is where, for me, Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony begins. Sibelius had renewed his interest in Renaissance polyphony (particularly Palestrina) and one can imagine that the opening modal section could be sung by a choir in a cathedral; in my mind’s ear, the vaulted ceiling is the canopy of the stars. 

The music (at 2:02) then becomes more animated. Another passion of mine whilst in the forest is to follow streams. Forests are difficult to navigate, but if you follow a stream, you are never really lost, and the greatest variety of wildlife congregates around water. Sibelius described his Sixth Symphony as ‘pure cold water’, and you can hear in his music the concatenation of the hollow chatter of the stream, the countless songs of birds (Rothiemurchus is the only place I’ve seen crested tits and crossbills), the background hiss of the Scots pines being blown by the wind, and, altogether, the joy of being out in the midst of Nature.  

Rothiemurchus © Garry Walker

What makes Sibelius such a natural companion for being outdoors is the seamless, organic way his music unfolds. At 3:00, one feels the temperature drop, the sun is temporarily veiled, and a colder, keener wind starts to blow. The music develops a more crystalline, though no less active, texture, as if all the morning dew has been suddenly frozen. The warmth of the day is restored at 4:45.  

The coda at 6:32, with its use of horn and trombone chorale, still interrupted by the life of the forest, signifies its ancient, timeless spirit. The final phrase, at 7:35, almost seems to conclude, perhaps melancholically, that the forest was there before us, and will remain beyond us. 

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