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“You walk in and the plants are low, quiet, then the first movement begins, the themes from the beginning weaving back in,” she says, describing the space with her hands as if she’s conducting an orchestra. “The whole yard is designed to reflect a piece of music.”
She winces at my question. “I don’t remember, isn’t that awful?”
I’m glad she can’t remember. Facts can get in the way of imagination. For days I have been envisioning that musical garden. Was it Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” painted with tall, nodding dahlias and full-skirted peonies? Or Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” with dreamy centaurea and sharp yellow sunflowers that mimic the music’s spontaneous, improvised feel. I put it on to listen and what I think of is cycling down a country road, with spikes of flowers in the ditches, then trailing vines, a spray of bouncing bet, a low swath of vetch.
I imagine Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” a wild, robust garden of thrusting alliums and northern giant horsetail, or Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” laid out in formal rows with pompously blooming white phlox and lilies opening on cue. Nothing at all like a garden inspired by Grieg’s “Morning” from the Peer Gynt Suite No.1, which sounds to me like primroses and poppies, the early-morning unfolding of a fencerow of morning glories.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” would be punctuated with Datura Belle Blanche and August lilies while Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” would be a bed planted entirely with the glossy black tulips of the same name.
But where my mind stops and circles, where it has been snagged now for days, is on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. These four concertos were published in 1725, as part of a set of twelve entitled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione. The Test of Harmony and Invention. He could have been describing a garden, for what is it that we do but make test after test, moving plants here and there, striving for just the right harmonics of colour and shape, that surprising combination that grabs your breath.
Each of Vivaldi’s concertos is structured in a distinctive trio of fast-slow-fast movements. He wrote a sonnet to accompany each one: Spring progresses from joyful birds through a flowery meadow to “the festive sound of a pastoral bagpipe.” I imagine early-blooming magnolias and flowering cherry trees, violets, spring anemones, and quince, then the drone of bees in the apple trees, which give way to Summer, “the harsh season scorched by the sun.” In the garden, fiery daylilies, golden coreopsis, tall grasses that sway like grain against the “the awesome threatening storm.” In Autumn, the “happy” harvest, with ornamental cabbages, sunflowers, and blazing firebush, then comes Winter, the bare red dogwood “trembling with cold amidst the freezing snow,” the blackened stems of cosmos and zinnia “spinning around, slipping, falling down.”
Nature converted to sound. Music transformed to flowers, made into something to be touched, to be seen.
I “saw” music once. My Elder Son is a musician. When I lived in the city, he studied at the university there, and every Friday afternoon I would walk to the concert hall to attend the student performances. I heard marvellous violin concertos and French horn suites and piano duets, but what I remember most is the day my son “diffused” one of his original compositions, an astonishing electro-acoustic swirl of music that became a visible shape suspended in the room, a deep indigo presence.
Musicians often talk about “colour” in music. Basically, colour is the same thing as timbre, which is everything about a musical sound that isn’t related to pitch, loudness, or how long it is played. The way my son described it to me is this: if a piano plays a note, and then a violin plays the same note, for the same length of time, at the same loudness, you can still tell which is which, because a piano sounds different from a violin. That difference lies in the timbre—or the colour—of the sounds.
He went on to explain about waves and frequencies, but what stayed with me was the notion that colour in music is not that different from colour in a garden. We don’t see yellow or red in isolation, we see some complex vibration set up by the interaction of the flower hues in a mixed bed. The red of a canna lily is different from the red of a miniature dahlia, in part because they are different hues, but also because of the partiular green of the leaves that frame the flower. Every plant sings with its own unique timbre, the song will change depending on what is singing at its side.
“What song is your garden singing?” I ask my friend.
She laughs. “I think it’s just one long, slow crescendo that builds from spring through summer into fall.”
I imagine the soft brush of cymbals as spring unfolds, the smart rat-a-tat of balloon-flowers popping open, the brassy blare of marguerites.
“A crescendo doesn’t sound so bad,” I say.