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RBC Affiliate Composer Emilie LeBel

The Great Outdoors: The Connection between Beethoven and Canadian Composer Emilie LeBel

How does nature inspire music? We talk to RBC Affiliate Composer Emilie LeBel, whose vivid piece Haareis auf Morschem Holz (hair ice on rotten wood) is featured alongside Beethoven’s Septet on TSO On Demand.
February 3, 2021

Think you’ve seen all that winter has to throw at you? Composer Emilie LeBel was sure she had. “As a Canadian who grew up with long winters, I thought that I had experienced almost everything to do with ice and snow,” she says. But teaching in Montana for three years (from 2015 to 2018) presented her with many new winter experiences.

Montana winters were a whole new experience for Canadian composer Emilie LeBel.

One of those was discovering the rare, surreal-looking phenomenon of “hair ice,” which forms on dead wood and takes the shape of fine, silky hair—and is the inspiration for Emilie’s piece:

“Hair ice” is a rare phenomenon that has been reported mostly at latitudes between 45° and 55°N.

So how can this be translated into music—and how does this piece fit alongside Beethoven’s Septet? 

“Beethoven often pays homage to aspects of his environment, like the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, when he’s out in the countryside. Inspired by Beethoven’s evocation of nature, I embellished a simple melody with colourful details—like the cellos trilling on high harmonics—to convey this austere winter beauty.”

A love of nature is not the only inspiration that Emilie has taken from Beethoven. “His late quartets have been a source of both inspiration and comfort—both as a composer and as a human being. Symphony No. 7 was always my favourite when I was a teenager playing in an orchestra,” she says.

Beethoven: Septet in E-flat Major, op. 20


Haareis auf Morschem Holz was originally commissioned in 2018 by Toronto-based ensemble the Blythwood Winds. Emilie reworked the piece for TSO On Demand with the same orchestration and instrumentation as Beethoven’s Septet. 

“I really wanted to reorchestrate it in a way that would honour some ways in which Beethoven orchestrated. His music is always very clear and distilled—as a listener, you know exactly what you’re supposed to be hearing.

“In my reorchestrated piece, listen out for a melody line that’s very present in the foreground, with the rest of the orchestration supporting and enhancing the melodic idea.”

And as for the German title? “When I originally wrote the work, it wasn’t a nod to Beethoven. But the language connection seemed like a nice synergy in the end!”