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Larry WallachFeb. 5, 2017

Music and Nature:
a historical overview in a nutshell

by Larry Wallach, faculty

The ancient Greeks like Pythagoras thought that the vibrational qualities of musical intervals reflected the structure of the cosmos, particularly in its quality of perfect harmony.  Mythology drew the connection between the natural, human, and magical realms, celebrated in sung or lyric poetry.  Medieval sensibilities did not separate the natural and the spiritual, and viewed music as one way to express cosmic truth. (Music was part of the quadrivium, the four higher elements of knowledge, which also included with astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic.)  As medieval culture discovered the realm of the senses (probably owing to the development of a consumerist aristocracy) nature furnished pleasure and imagery to occupy new-found leisure time and newly refined sensibilities.  The lyrics of “Par maintes foy” by Jean Vaillant (ca. 1400) reflect a clever double message of bird-song and human language:

par maintes foyes

Par maintes fois ai owi recorder
Du rousignoul la douche melodie
Mais ne se veult le cucu acorder
Ains veult chanter contre li par envie
Cucu cucu cucu toute sa vie
Car il veult bien a son chant discorder
Et portant dit li rousignoul et crie tue tu
Oci, oci, oci, oci, oci, oci, oci,
Tue tue che foul cucu fideli fi, oci, oci, oci,
Fideli fi, fideli fi, fideli, fideli, fi, fi, fi,
Du cucu qui d amours veult parlet

Many a time I have enjoyed
The sweet tune of the nightingale,
But the cuckoo never wants to sing in tune with it
But for envy wants to sing against her,
“cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo” all his life,
for he really wants to bring discord to her song.
And yet the nightingale cries out and says,
“I command you to kill and slay him,
kill, kill, kill, slay, slay, slay,
fie on him, fie on him, fie, slay, slay; fie, fie,
fie on the cuckoo who tries to speak of love.”

The Renaissance rediscovered ancient culture, questioned religious authority, indulged in worldly power, and celebrated the artistic and intellectual talents of the individual person, who might now be expected to pick up a part-book or a lute and reenact the fusion of outer and inner nature, of word and tone, through the performance of madrigals and instrumental music.  The early modern era saw increasing numbers of profession performers and composers who utilized the growing diversity of instruments and developing means of rhetorical expression to move their audiences with ever more powerful representations of the inner life (human nature).  As philosophers asserted the significance of the individual, opera took the opportunity to portray the in-born capacities of remarkable figures, from Julius Caesar to Don Giovanni, during a time when it came to be asserted that individuals should enjoy “natural rights.”  A return to nature in the form of a simpler country environment and way of life appealed to the urbanized romantic artist (Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner) as escape and search for authenticity, and images of nature were once again mythologized, this time in the absence of an organized religious structure.  In its place were German Idealism, American Transcendentalism, French Impressionism, and Russian Neo-primitivism which elevated natural phenomena, inner impulses, and lofty yearnings to cultural ideals that seemed to express themselves best through the medium of music, according to Frederic Nietzsche, Charles Ives, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.  We have come a long way, but in many ways, we are right back where we started.


Recent posts:

EMW 2019:
Dances of Love and War, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2018:
Transformative Dance, by Ken Pierce

Transformation, by Larry Wallach

Music: A Transformative Art, by Pamela Dellal

EMW 2017:
Music and nature, by Larry Wallach

Images of Nature in Dance, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2016:
Dancing to music, by Ken Pierce

Playing for historical dance, by Jane Hershey

EMW 2015:
Language, by Pamela Dellal

Genre, by Larry Wallach

Legacy, by Larry Wallach

EMW 2014:
The Spanish Golden Age in the Netherlands,
by Anne Legêne

Sephardic Music, by Jay Rosenberg

Ensalada by Salomé Sandoval