Toronto Music Garden: Interpreting Bach with Nature

Yo-Yo Ma, world-renowned cellist, partnered with landscape designer, Julie Moir Messervy, to create a three-acre public garden based on the First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach. According to the city of Toronto, the garden includes six “rooms” – each an interpretation of the traditional dance forms featured in the cello suite’s six movements. The garden was sponsored by the City of Toronto and private donors.

The garden’s design illustrates components of the suite’s six movements:

An undulating river scape with curves & bends
The first moment of the suite imparts the feeling of a flowing river through which the visitor can stroll. Granite boulders from the southern edge of the Canadian Shield are placed to represent a stream bed with low-growing plants softening its banks. The whole is overtopped by an alley of native Hackberry trees, whose straight trunks and regular spacing suggest measures of music.

A forest grove of wandering trails
The Allemande is an ancient German dance. Interpreted here as a Birch forest, the movement invites the visitor to swirl inward to various contemplative sitting areas, that move higher and higher up the hillside, culminating in a rocky vantage point that looks over the harbour through a circle of Dawn Redwood trees.

A swirling path through a wildflower meadow
Originally an Italian and French dance form, the Courante is an exuberant movement that is interpreted here as a huge, upward-spiralling swirl through a lush field of grasses and brightly-coloured perennials that attract birds and butterflies. At the top, a Maypole spins in the wind.

A conifer grove in the shape of an arc
This movement is based on an ancient Spanish dance form. Its contemplative quality is interpreted here as an inward-arcing circle that is enclosed by tall needle-leaf evergreen trees. Envisioned as a poet’s corner, the garden’s centerpiece is a huge stone that acts as a stage for readings, and holds a small pool with water that reflects the sky.

A formal flower parterre
This French dance was contemporary to Bach’s time. Its formality and grace are reflected in the symmetry and geometry of this movement’s design. Hand-crafted with ornamental steel, a circular pavilion is designed to shelter small musical ensembles or dance groups.

Giant grass steps that dance you down to the outside world
The Gigue, or “jig” is an English dance, whose jaunty, rollicking music is interpreted here as a series of giant grass steps that offer views onto the harbour. The steps form a curved amphitheatre that focus on a stone stage set under a weeping willow tree; a place for informal performances. Shrubs and perennials act as large, enclosing arms, framing views out onto the harbour.”

Learn more at the Garden’s Web site, see how Bach’s music inspired the plants used, and also check out the new book, “The Toronto Music Garden: Inspired by Bach.”

Image credit: Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio – Landscape Design

One thought on “Toronto Music Garden: Interpreting Bach with Nature

  1. Julie Messervy 12/29/2009 / 1:51 pm

    Dear Dirt Editors,

    Thank you so much for featuring the Toronto Music Garden in your blog this month. 2009 marks its tenth anniversary, which we’ve celebrated by publishing a new book, “The Toronto Music Garden: Inspired by Bach,” an in-depth guide to the creation and completion of this 3-acre public park that sits along Toronto’s Harbourfront. If you would like a copy, please visit and and we’ll get one right out to you.

    I hope that many of you will visit the garden, especially in summer, when the Summer Music in the Garden series brings live music to the Menuett and the Gigue on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The grasses and perennials are at their height (literally) in late summer through fall, so go then if you can.

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