Thursday, December 22, 2011

Musical Nature Ramble

I have been doing some reading lately. One of the most eye-opening books I have enjoyed is The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. I decided to get the book on a whim when I heard Greenblatt describe it during coverage of the National Book Awards somewhere on television. I thought it would be a good idea to actually know something about Renaissance thought since I spend a lot of time thinking about and playing Medieval and Renaissance music. I always wondered how the people who contributed to the Carmina Burana (or at least some of them), for example, knew about Greek and Roman mythology. But this post is not about my ignorance. That would take up too much space, and would not be very interesting to read.

The Swerve, if you haven't clicked on the above link, is about the circumstances concerning the discovery of a book-length poem called De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus. Now I have a copy of Rolfe Humphries' translation of the poem (thanks, Michael), and I find it beautiful and fascinating. I have finished the first book, which makes the case for Epicurus' idea that nothing comes from nothing, that all things are made from atoms that float around in space. The racy parts of the poem (I have peeked ahead) seem to make it clear that the concept of Venus (though not the goddess herself) is what encourages all of nature to continue to be. Some essential components of Lucretius' argument that many people would object to this "holiday season" are his loud and constant claim that there is no life after death, and his claim that there is no entity that watches humanity and causes things to happen.

Lucretius was, of course, reacting against what many modern people would consider mythology: the polytheism of the Ancient Greeks, and probably the polytheism of the Ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, and other mythologies that might not have survived. But his arguments work just as well to counter the various beliefs and mythologies that people have in the modern world.

Reading the poem helps me to understand that poetry and music are all part of nature. It is comforting to know that what we do as musicians is not "extra" as many members of modern society seem to believe. It also makes a case for the imagination. Anyone who has enjoyed fiction, either as a writer or as a reader, knows that when we create characters or empathize with characters created by other people, we do it with emotions that feel real to us. Some of us care about characters in books and operas with the same kinds of feelings we have for people we know in our non-reading lives. It is one of the reasons we read fiction, and one of the reasons some of us write it (I make up stories, but I have never actually written fiction, per se). Most of us are guilty of believing things that are fictitious about people who are real, and some of us are guilty of making up stuff about people that may not be true. We also sometimes try to believe things that other people believe, and sometimes we try to have faith in something intangible, and attribute "results" to that faith.

I have faith: I belive in atoms, I believe in gravity, I believe in the usefulness of the scientific method, I believe in practice, I believe in instinct, and I believe that each person has his or her own human nature that really can't be altered. I believe in tonality, but I do not believe it's the only way to organize music. I believe in the necessity of musical instinct in the creative act of writing music, and I believe in musical instinct when it comes to interpreting music and playing music with other people. I used to believe in the seasons, but things have changed in our world, and I can no longer trust the seasons. I do believe that as long as the carbon that is inside the planet stays there, nature will find a new balance.

I believe in the continued relevance of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms (and a whole slew of other wonderful composers who believed in Christian theology), regardless of where they believed their inspiration came from. It's the music that matters.


Quodlibet said...


Thanks for another fine, thoughtful essay. I just wrapped up a copy of "Swerve" to give to my husband for Christmas - I always give him books that I plan to read. :-) Your essay makes me look forward to it even more. I guess I need to get a copy of Lucretius' poem...

I've been thinking and writing about music and philosophy and history, too... endlessly fascinating, and critical to our understanding of, and therefore performance of, music of other times.

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

I have "The Swerve" on hold at our local library. I read Lucretius during long walks at the beach two summers ago. I felt the poem really helped me to accept the nature of all things in life; to embrace strife as a catalyst for growth, and to acknowledge that love remains the strongest force.

Anonymous said...

"....(and a whole slew of other wonderful composers who believed in Christian theology), regardless of where they believed their inspiration came from."

The portfolio of work which stemmed from Soviet Socialist Realism's several decades is paltry in scope and size compared to the "whole slew" referenced above. While one might argue about the length of Western European composition versus the few decades of SSR, one would be hard pressed to compared all those decades to one Bach or Mozart. There is something about the soil out of which the Western musical canon has come which is fertile indeed. A portion of that is the support of church, theater and aristocracy for composers.

By contrast, today's support for composers is generally and sadly lacking. It is a large question of the ground out from which springs creativity. The Judeo-Christian world has been most musically productive in terms of great works of art.