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Inspired by Beethoven's Thoughts About Nature, Composer Iman Habibi's "Every Tree Speaks"

Deborah Grimmett
Iman Habibi in a forest near his home in Toronto.

Iman Habibi was one of several composers commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of its 2020 celebration of Beethoven's 250th birthday. The young Iranian-Canadian composer wrote Jeder Baum spricht (Every Tree Speaks), which explores climate change, a subject about which Habibi believes Beethoven—as a lover of nature—would have had a lot to say.  The piece was premiered by The Philadelphians last March, in an empty hall, in their last performance by the full orchestra as the pandemic was taking off.

That's the song of a yellow hammer bird: a series of short notes followed by a long one. It's perhaps the inspiration for one of the most famous opening motifs in classical music, says Habibi. 

"It was very much assumed that the motif [of Beethoven's 5th Symphony,] the so-called 'fate motif,' was actually inspired by the yellow hammer song that Beethoven would have heard in the parks in Vienna."

It was Beethoven's love of nature that Habibi was drawn to when he set out to write his piece, which was to be in dialogue with both the 5th Symphony, and Beethoven's 6th, titled Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life.

"Having both of these symphonies inspired by nature, I thought, well, how would Beethoven, as an activist himself, if he were alive today and he was living the climate catastrophe that we're living today, how would he have felt? And what would he have wanted to say? I'm hoping that my piece can allow us to look at these two symphonies through that lens."

Composer Iman Habibi speaks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about his piece, Jeder Baum spricht.

Listen to Habibi's Jeder Baum spricht at 4:50 in this video of The Philadelphia Orchestra performing the piece as well as Beethoven's 5th and 6th symphonies in an empty hall on Thursday, March 12th, 2020.

Beethoven as Philosopher

The idea of a composer as philosopher intrigues Habibi, whose piece takes its title from a note Beethoven made in his sketchbook on one of his many walks in the parks and woodlands. "He says something along the lines of Almighty, almighty, in the forest. Every tree is speaking through you."

Habibi calls his piece, Jeder Baum spricht, German for "Every Tree Speaks."

The music is dramatic and evocative, much like majestic trees that surround you walking through a forest. "There's this idea of growth that happens through the piece,"says Habibi, "sounds growing out of the base. The piece tries to achieve something, over and over again; moments where we try to get to a point, but it's interrupted, and I think it expresses my frustration with the idea of us trying to slow down the consequences of climate change, and always coming to a dead end."

A Convergence of Cultures

Habibi drew on both Beethoven and his own musical experiences, from the Persian music he grew up hearing to the western classical music he studied. Born in 1985 in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war, Habibi was 4 when the war ended. "The economic aftermath was catastrophic," he says. "Music education wasn't really on anyone's mind." 

Yet making up tunes on a 40-key electronic keyboard became young Habibi's favorite activity, and his parents found him a piano teacher, who taught him the music of Chopin and other western composers. When, in his religiously conservative middle school, a teacher noticed him miming piano fingering on his desk, he was given an ultimatum: stop piano lessons or leave school.

But both were important to him. His solution? "I had to keep my piano secret from the time I was 12 until I left Iran when I was 17." 

At 17, he and his family moved to Canada, where he studied piano at the University of British Columbia, before getting his doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan.

The music is dramatic and evocative, much like majestic trees that surround you walking through a forest. -Iman Habibi

Today, his music draws on all his influences. You can hear it in Jeder Baum spricht:  "There's a motivic element that happens in the orchestra early on and in the clarinets in a kind of diminished form. And then it also happens in the solo part of the clarinet. For me, it's a look at the past and my heritage, as an Iranian. So there's a bit of flavor from the music that I grew up with in that passage."

 A Vision of Hope

Habibi is a bright star rising. He has also been commissioned by The Orchestra of St. Lukes, Prince George Symphony Orchestra and the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music, and has collaborated with The Vancouver and Winnipeg symphony orchestras, among other ensembles. He performs with his wife, pianist Deborah Grimmett, in Piano Pinnacle, which won first prize in the 2014 United States International Duo Piano Competition.

"Music," says Habibi, " is a tool for me to discover who I am. At the same time, it's something with which I'd like to do the work that I do as a cultural ambassador, coming from two different cultures. It's important for me as someone who has been given a platform—music—to use that platform to bridge that cultural gap and to unite us again."

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.