Rachel Carson

The book that launched an era of environmental awareness and action around the world has also inspired an orchestral composition by the same name – and both are uniquely tied to Pittsburgh.

The book was Silent Spring – a runaway bestseller by marine biologist, Springdale native and  1929 Chatham College alumna Rachel Carson. Sounding an alarm about polluting the environment and the resulting ecological degradation, Silent Spring has been regarded as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication.

A new composition – Silent Spring (2011) for Orchestra – has been commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Rachel Carson Institute to celebrate the milestone of this literary opus’s publication. The composer of the musical tribute is Pulitzer Prize Winner Steven Stucky. Born in Kansas, and raised there, as well as in Texas, Stucky is the PSO’s 2011-2012 season “Composer of the Year.”

It seems fitting that Silent Spring for Orchestra will have its world premiere on Feb. 17 in Pittsburgh. The region Carson once called home has also achieved a dramatic environmental renaissance, which saw the region’s air and water reclaimed from the ravages of heavy industry from the post-World War II period through today.

Stucky reflected – in his program notes for Silent Spring – that he was delighted, yet also perplexed, when asked to create the musical tribute. “[How do you] make a connection between science and music, or more to the point between her sciene and my music?  I reread Silent Spring … and reveled again in the distinctive mixture of hard science and eloquent lyricism that defines her voice. But how to make music about that?  I didn’t try to.”

Instead, Stucky fashioned a tone poem (an orchestral work based on literature ) that’s one movement with four sections. Each of the four sections is inspired by the titles of four of Carson’s writings:  The Sea Around Us, The Lost Wood and Rivers of Death (both are chapter titles in Carson’s work), and – of course, Silent Spring itself.

Stucky hopes the work allows listeners to reflect on the delicate balance between people and the planet. As Stucky said, “[Her writing] gave us the heart to change some of our habits.”   Pittsburgh is proof positive that habit changes can be transformative.

Watch the PSO video below to hear Composer-of-the-Year Stucky speak with WQED-FM’s Jim Cunningham.

Meet Stucky in person at Chatham University from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. on Feb. 15 where he’ll give a talk about the connections to Carson and the role of her writing in the themes of his music. Learn more about this opportunity and other Chatham University events to celebrate Alumna Rachel Carson and the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication.

Visit the PSO website for ticket information for the Feb. 17 PSO concert, featuring the world premiere of Silent Spring.