A Tale of Two Trees

Platanus occidentalis, City Cemetery, Ithaca, New York. Photo: David Yearsley.

One of the most famous trees in music is the one hymned by the title character in the opening scene of Handel’s 1738 opera Xerxes. The Persian King—in the original production sung by a male soprano, the Italian star known by his stage name Caffarelli—extols the shade-giving solace of a beloved plane tree at his summer residence on the southern shore of the Hellespont.

Xerxes expression of devotion is cloaked in pastoral calm, orchestral strings rustling gently.

“Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.”

We don’t know yet that the king is loony and will become increasingly unhinged as the opera’s convoluted plot progresses.

After these opening three lines of song are delivered the monarch’s mania suddenly shows itself. Fate’s smile is wiped away with an orchestral jolt as Xerxes is overtaken by visions of the natural catastrophes that might befall his arboreal soulmate.

“May thunder, lightning, and storms
never disturb your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.”

The king’s hopes are delusional. No tree can escape forever the blows of the weather. It is merely a matter of withstanding them.

Xerxes seems able to quell these fears as his song eases back into tranquility, and the orchestra starts into its shimmering, yet ardent introduction to the aria “Ombra mai fu.”

When it enters, the vocal line is one of forthright simplicity, inspired and guarded by the cooling comfort of the beloved. In contrast to the troubled king, the music is steadfast, honest. At the aria’s close, the voice soars upward to linger for one weightless, sunlit moment above the tree’s crown before descending again into its shadows.

Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

Eavesdropping on this excessively touching scene, the opera’s other characters will, after the short aria is over, immediately make fun of a king in love with a giant vegetable (vegetabile).

Performed by a star of Caffarelli’s expressive power (as for example the celebrated countertenor Iestyn Davies in this performance from 2019), Ombra mai fu is as refreshing and radiant now as it was nearly three hundred years ago.

Xerxes was a flop in its day, though with the twentieth-century Handel Opera Revival it became one of the most performed of the composer’s stage works.

Ombra mai fu was also repurposed as Handel’s Largo in G (never mind that the original was in F), an instrumental number that has, for a century now, been a favorite at weddings. Few if any of these couples suspect that the original was a madman’s love song to a tree.

Yet it is fitting that an extreme character like Xerxes should conjure the threat of extreme weather—on the opera stage or (textlessly) during the march towards the altar: “Till death and/or climate change do us part …”

I couldn’t help but think of Handel’s plane tree when watching the music video to “Tried to Tell You,” from the Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindemann, who was recently profiled in the New York Times. Lindemann performs under the moniker The Weather Station, and the song comes from a her fifth studio album, Ignorance, due for release a week from today. The album confronts the emotional and psychic damage wrought on humans by the looming environmental collapse. Lindemann told The Times that her generation was “born into this world that’s like, ‘Oh, by the way. The future’s going to be apocalyptic. But do your thing!’ It’s very strange.” The project of the Igorance is to give voice to this psychological dilemma.

One can hear “Tried to Tell You” as a modern studio update of Handel’s pastoral mode. But Lindemann’s lingering on static harmonies and reluctance to move to the next one project angst not calm. The thump of drums chases away musical comfort. Wisps of electronic keyboards and synthesized strings suggest doubt not desire. The melody, too, often cleaves to a single note, mid-range, before Lindemann dips effortless into her chest voice—a kind of buttoned-up yodeling reduced in range from Alpine heights to lowlands threatened by rising seas. Less extravagant and artful than Handel and his Xerxes, this lyric voice is beset by a different sort of anguish, one that hides itself behind dispassion.

The opening lines of “Tried to Tell You” portend danger that is paradoxically distant and diffuse but also suffocatingly near and personal: “It was getting late / You were afraid of yourself.”

Unlike Xerxes, the central figure in the video of “Tried to Tell You” can’t even see the trees that surround him. He refuses to acknowledge their life-sustaining shade or beauty. We meet the man as he opens the door to what appears to be a motel room, but then gives way onto a woodland meadow. It is autumn in the East of North America: maples turn, the asters and goldenrod hold the last remnants of summer’s glow. The man takes up position at a desk and is unmoved by, indeed hardly notices, the miraculous flowers that he periodically pulls from his mouth, tossing them into a waste basket. Rather than take in his surroundings he types at his laptop. His alienation is driven home symbolically by the small, anondyne landscape painting that hangs from a tree in the real landscape that serves as his backdrop. He has lost touch with the natural world and therefore with himself.

Lindemann, a former child actor with many television and film credits, had this to say about the meaning of the video of “Tried To Tell You,” which, drawing on her experience in the movie business, she directed:

“It portrays a person who is beset by miracles and visions of beauty, which emanate from inside of and all around him, but rather than reacting with awe or joy, he reacts with annoyance, indifference, and mistrust. We are taught not to see the natural world that we still live in, preferring instead to dwell on the artificial, which is so often a poor substitute for the vibrant real. Flowers really do rise up from mud, and many of us are full of treasures and beauty, but we often discount these things or throw them away.”

In “Tried to Tell You” there is a chill in the air even if the breath does not steam from the impassive singer, Lindemann, who appearances suddenly in an arm chair behind the man. Her voice rises in pitch and intensity to the chorus:

Like the wind on the water,
I will not help you not to feel.

Lindemann will not help herself to feel either. Musical movement does not move her.

The driving drums and electronic interventions are removed from the natural. Urban energy troubles this music set on the verge of the forest. The purposeful suppression of emotion in the most natural of musical entities—the human voice—parallels the deliberate hanging of that hokey painting in the real landscape it lamely tries to depict. The crisp risings and husky fallings of the melody are as cold as the autumn air: inimatcy is replaced by aridity. To embrace the natural in one’s own body would be to admit the scale of the despair and of the devastations to come:

Some days there might be nothing you encounter
To stand behind the fragile idea that
Anything matters
I’ll feel as useless as a tree in a city park
Standing as a symbol of what we have blown apart.

Tyrannical, impetuous Xerxes was calm and composed as he sang, alone, he thought, in the shade of his trusted plane tree. There he could lay bare his love, addled but sincere. Lindemann’s metamorphosis transforms her into that tree. Xerxes prayer cannot save her.

Xerxes and the Weather Station: there is madness in both.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com