Romanticism revived, or attempted to revive, the sacrality of the countryside, re-establishing the tutelary spirits of river, forest, grotto, and hill. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Nature (1836), whose epigraph he draws from Plotinus, the ecstatic contemplation of natural phenomena entails redemption from routine, to which the ego maintains a spiritually diminishing attachment. Emerson writes: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable… They nod to me, and I to them.” The encounter with natural forces, such as “the waving of the boughs in the storm,” carries with it the paradoxical character of being “new to me and old.” The renewed familiarity, as Emerson divulges, “Takes me by surprise and yet is not unknown,” having an “effect… like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.” Friedrich Nietzsche, who prized Emerson highly, distills the general figure of Nature into the particular figure of the Earth. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book I (1883), Nietzsche gives it to his eponymous spokesman to say, “The superman is the meaning of the earth” and, “My brothers, remain true to the earth.” (Hollingdale’s translation) The superman in Nietzsche’s rhetoric participates however in another figure. “I teach you the superman,” says Zarathustra: “He is the sea.” If mere man were “a polluted river,” then the superman, Nietzsche emphasizes, “must be a sea,” for only such “can receive a polluted river and not be defiled.” For Nietzsche, modern civilization has cut itself off from the sources of vitality; modernity lives – not quite the right word – in vacuous abstractions and needs to re-root itself in the elemental bases of the cosmos.
I. Nietzsche’s Earth-metaphor in Zarathustra serves for a retrospective self-reference. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), which Nietzsche wrote in his phase of admiration for and personal friendship with Richard Wagner, prefigures the later idea of earthiness under the category of the “Dionysiac.” In his genealogy of the tragic art, Nietzsche pairs the Dionysiac with the “Apolline” in a tense dichotomy. According to Nietzsche both the Apolline and the Dionysiac “spring from nature itself” and neither one of them “pays… heed to the individual, but even seeks to destroy individuality and redeem it with a mystical sense of unity.” (Whiteside’s translation) Whereas the Apolline draws its participant upwards and into “a symbolic dream-image,” the Dionysiac subsumes him downwards into “drunkenness and mystical self-negation.” As nature corresponds to an original “Oneness,” she “bemoan[s] her fragmentation into individuals.” The principium indivuationis condemns man to life under the consciousness of death, which forecasts its inevitable triumph in all setbacks and humiliations. In its genuine function, Nietzsche argues, lyric expresses the subject’s protest against the painful inherency of the ego and his yearning to return to the primal Oneness. Language added itself to lyric only latterly, Nietzsche asserts. Lyric originally took the form of “the overwhelming power of sound, the unified flow of melody, and the utterly incomparable world of harmony.” Paradox inveigles the lyric genre. When “modern aestheticians” attribute to the lyric voice the quality of “subjectivity,” this “is a falsehood.” The Earth speaks prior to any subject. The ego is an epiphenomenon.
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) acknowledged an artistic debt to Nietzsche by setting the verse-nocturne from Zarathustra as the fourth movement (Sehr Langsam – Misterioso) of his Symphony No. 3 (1896). In the colossal first movement (“Pan Awakes – Summer Marches In”) Mahler endows musical life on Nietzsche’s category of the Dionysiac, conceived here under the image of the Satyr but without the pessimism of The Birth of Tragedy’s Silenus. In Nietzsche’s view, lyric, while beginning in pure vocalize, strives towards a variety of images. The listener to “Pan Awakes” reacts with awe to the opening fanfare, given to the unison horns, but the fanfare quickly dies away. A species of subterranean growling follows, emerging slowly into the jaunty march-tune that dominates the remainder of the movement. The march-tune itself instances Mahler’s penchant for the rustic or even the vulgar. In its pronounced Schwung, however, and with its skirling high woodwind ornamentations, the procession calls forth an array of distinctly festal images. Kurt Blaukopf, in his Mahler (1985), goes so far as to characterize Symphony No. 3 as “a critique of Nietzsche.” The Dionysiac rejects the pain of worldly experience, but according to Blaukopf, Mahler’s score “is not a turning away from this world”; rather, it “affirms nature and thus also… the nature of man.” The Symphony’s final movement (What Love Tells Me) develops a melody that shows some affiliation motive-wise with the march-tune of the first movement, but this melody eschews martial brashness for transfigurative radiance. Mahler’s Third begins in the Earth but ends in spirituality.
Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (1909) lacks any overt reference to Nietzsche, but it affirms The Birth of Tragedy’s Dionysiac theory of lyric origins. The poems that Das Lied von der Erde incorporates – German adaptations by Hans Bethge of Chinese originals, published by Bethge under the title Die Chinesische Flöte (1907) – locate happiness in a distant elsewhere and give voice to an affliction whose sole recourse is drowning itself in wine. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod,” as the refrain of the first song, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” puts it. The same poems, in the manner of a paradox, celebrate the startling beauty, not only of Nature, but likewise of custom, ritual, art, and artifice. Whereas Bethge’s monologues reflect the speaker’s inability to integrate himself with the environment that lies about him, whether natural or cultural, the auditor, aided by Mahler’s sublime orchestral accompaniment, makes his way towards reconciliation. “Das Trinklied” commences abruptly with a grim fanfare-like sequence dominated by the horns; the sequence returns five times during the movement. This fanfare-complex combines numerous elements, which then function as items in a kind of perpetual musical re-bricolage. Several of these have the character of onomatopoeias – most prominently a single, prolonged note on the flute, produced by the technique of flutter-tonguing. Mahler’s recourse to onomatopoeia links itself an observation made by Stephen E. Helfling in his study of Das Lied (2000), namely that the vocal lines embed themselves in the broader orchestral texture. Blaukopf writes of “integration” as a “key word for an understanding of Mahler’s treatment of the human voice” in Das Lied. The voices “appear incorporated” in the orchestral texture.
Earlier composers made use of onomatopoeia – Ludwig van Beethoven famously in the Pastoral Symphony (1808), for example, and Richard Strauss in Don Quixote (1898). Mahler’s onomatopoeia differs, however, from these instances. Whereas they partake in the identifiable, a cuckoo and a flock of sheep, with their composers placing the effect in the foreground, Mahler’s flute-note evades specific identification and manages subtly to be just noticeable while not fully emerging from its milieu. It might be the “wild ape,” but by no means certainly. It has the character, rather, of a pre-articulate cry, resembling Nietzsche’s proto-lyric cry, from which, in the complex symbolism of Das Lied’s score, the articulate vocal part arises, and to which it returns. At its level of pre-articulation, the flutter-tongued note lives enmeshed in the fabric of Mahler’s elaborate polyphony. Its pre-articulate anguish might be said to come to consciousness in the explicit verbalism of the vocal soloist, whose persona finds self-awareness, which overwhelms him, unbearable and wishes to sink back into the analgesia of sweet oblivion. Add to this the facets of life that appear in the four subsequent sections of the score and the elaborate reconciliation implicit in the final song (as long as the previous five put together) – and Mahler works out musically and poetically a vital analogy. He presents the totality of life in all of its natural and cultural interconnections as an ecology that achieves awareness of itself in a death-haunted tragedy. This ecology resembles the Great Chain of Being that dominated cosmology from the medieval period to the Eighteenth Century, the faith in it diminishing with the advent of modernity.
In “Das Trinklied,” for example, with its inebriated rejection of life and its pervasive, even suicidal darkness, an image of transcendence nevertheless obtrudes. The lyric subject avows that, “Das Firmament blauet ewig und die Erde / Wird lange fest steh’n und auflblüh’n im Lenz” or “the heavens are eternally blue and the Earth / Shall stand sure and blossom in the spring.” Conductor Ivan Fischer describes Das Lied’s finale as deserving of the epithet “cosmic”: “The voice is surrounded,” he writes, “by floating meteors, objects, particles or stars, which move in various directions and speeds”; and he adds, “We have left the atmosphere and look back on the beautiful green and blue planet.” “Der Abschied” subsumes any number of elements from earlier movements, not least the imitation birdcalls in the second song, “Der Einsame im Herbst,” and the fifth song, “Der Trunkene im Fruhling.” The first section of “Der Abschied” consists of a motet (so to speak) in which the alto voice sings in free counterpoint with the woodwind section, whose instruments mimic avian musicality. Verbally, but also paradoxically, “Der Abschied” sublimates the “ewig” of the first song by transforming it from a discrete word into its component sounds – made music again by the drawn-out treatment of its two vowels. The Logos returns, as it were, to the supernal realm whence it originates. At the same time, the distress of the primal cry vanishes into cosmic balance and utter calmness. As Bethge’s text associates the word ewig with the azure of the sky, one can say that Das Lied ends in an epiphany – a philosophical one – of life and transparency.
Precedence in the synthesis of musicology with eco-science falls to the late Wilfrid Mellers (1914 – 2008), whose book Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century appeared in 2001. Mellers concerns himself with the interaction between “The Forest Within,” or consciousness, and “The Forest Without,” or nature in itself. Mellers associates renewed interest in the consciousness-nature dichotomy, and the possibility of overcoming it, not so much with Romanticism properly speaking, but with its late phase, as represented musically by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) and the early compositions of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951), such as Verklärte Nacht (1899) and Erwartung (1909). For Mellers, Late Romanticism corresponds with “the end of a cycle in human history that began with the European Renaissance”; or, in other words, with the exhaustion of Humanism, which saw the gradual objectification, not only of the external world, but, by stages, of the internal world, as well. Humanism led paradoxically to the dehumanization of humanity, to humanity’s alienation from nature, and to the demotion of nature to the abstract categories of matter and motion. In Wagner’s opera, Realpolitik brutally displaces the passion of the two protagonists. In the libretto, in Act I especially, the stale vocabulary of legalism leaves no room for the poetic diction of love. Wagner’s musical accompaniment, as Mellers points out, symbolizes the tension stemming from this displacement in the sustained non-resolution of its chromatic harmonies. By “The Forest Within,” Mellers means the inner dimension that has become as foreign to the subject as wild nature. Wagner’s Act III resolution of the suspended chord – after four and a half hours – signifies a homecoming within and without. The price is the Liebestod or “Love-Death.”
II. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – scored for an orchestra of strings alone – takes its inspiration from a text. Mellers considers it a wordless opera because it follows Richard Dehmel’s poem, of the same name, so closely. As in Tristan, Eros pervades the story. While two guilt-stricken lovers walk by night on forest paths, forgiveness transfigures distrust. Schoenberg’s complex polyphony figures forth the tightly woven fabric of trunk, branch, and leaf; the modulation from D-minor to D-major represents the forest clearing where the moon sheds its magical light. The lovers are lost to themselves; then lost in nature, and then redeemed by the luminous internalization of nature. “The more airborne the polyphony becomes,” as Mellers puts it, “the more chromatic is its texture, aspiring toward an unequivocal chromaticism that can release us from the earth-pull of harmonic tension.” Erwartung, in contrast with Verklärte Nacht,requires a vocalist and sets a text. Once again the forest by night furnishes the backdrop. That the female wanderer has lost her lover; that she seeks him; and that other characters appear only in her monologue – makes the drama solipsistic. This extreme confinement within the ego signifies the dead end of Humanism and conjoins Erwartung with Mahler’s Lied, composed in the same year, 1909. The rejection of God and the rejection of Nature, the latter understood as a field of meaning, go hand in hand. The heroine of Erwartung and the suicidal drunkard of Das Lied suffer from a too conscious type of consciousness, wherefrom only “submission to the unconscious again brings release.” According to Mellers, “relinquishment of consciousness” amounts to “a moment of vision” and “an act of faith.” The final moment in Erwartung parallels the final iterations of the word ewig in “Der Abschied.”
Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) – English born but of German extraction, for two years in his twenties a resident of Florida, a frequent visitor to Scandinavia, especially Norway, and a resident of Paris and Grez-sur-Loing in France for half his life – composed steadily from the late 1880s until his death, aided in his last, blind years by his amanuensis, the young Eric Fenby. Most of Delius’ music takes inspiration from the landscape whether of the English countryside, the Norwegian mountains, or his riverside garden in Grez. Folksongs inveigle his scores. The early Florida Suite (1888) incorporates Negro melodies and harmonies that together anticipate jazz. Paris: Nocturne – Song of a Great City (1899) although a cityscape rather than a landscape incorporates café tunes and street music associated with the louche side of Metropolitan life after midnight. In both cases the human relation to its setting is the theme; the subject confronts an environment and he must integrate himself in its complexity. Like Mahler, Delius read Nietzsche but unlike Mahler Delius read him uncritically; in particular he absorbed Nietzsche’s dogmatic anti-religiosity. At the same time, however, Delius internalized Nietzsche’s metaphor of altitudinous distance, one of the Birth-of-Tragedy author’s immanent substitutes for theological transcendence. Delius would set portions of Thus Spake Zarathustra in his cantata A Mass of Life (1905) for soloists, chorus, and augmented orchestra. The Mass counts as one of Delius’ major works; German conductors programmed it with some frequency on its appearance and for some years after. Thomas Beecham, Delius’ major proponent, would conduct it on several occasions and would issue an impressive recording in 1953.
The Zarathustra passages that Delius sets celebrate Nietzsche’s belief in redemption through elemental communion and his invocation of a pervasive life-force from which modern society, with its purely managerial and utilitarian view, has alienated humanity, and thereby diminished it. Delius presents his audience with festive and solemn dedications to Earth, Sea, Night, and the Midday Sun. The opening movement, “O Du mein Wille,” rivals Richard Strauss in its energetic propulsion: It hymns the Nietzschean Will-to-Power and by implication the élan vital that such a will channels. The Third Movement, or “Dance Song,” gives the following lines to the soprano soloist, who converses with the tenor in an amorous exchange: “Einen goldenen Kahn sah ich blinken auf nächitgen / Gewässern, einen sinkenden, wieder winkenden goldenen Schaukelkahn.” The image partakes in erotic projection. The article of culture, the golden boat, merges with the pre-existing physical element, just as the enamored subject wishes to merge, sexually, with the beloved. But this is not Wagner’s Liebestod. The elaborate choral la-la-la-ing on dance-rhythms that follows, whether by the composer’s intention or not, lowers the intensity of the moment, making of it something adolescent – a pleasant encounter, to be sure, but a purely passing one. For Nietzsche and presumably also for Delius communion with nature heightens rather than elides consciousness. The sequence of passages that Delius sets suggests initiation into higher phases of consciousness; the sprightly la-la-la-ing, as charming as it is, comes early in the sequence.
The most intense moment of the Mass, the Prelude at the beginning of Part II, Delius leaves solely to his orchestra, avoiding words. Called “Andante – On the Mountains,” this movement, less than five minutes in duration, perfectly symbolizes the altitudinous distance that ensconces itself at the heart of Delius’ musical aesthetics and provides the first principle of his environmental sensibility. The elements of “On the Mountains” number only few and, in themselves, are minimal. Delius calls for the participation in a central role of three horns. Delius provides the first horn with a slow signal based on natural intervals. The second and third horns echo the melody in turn, quietly, as if answering from a distance. Delius suggests in his score that the second and third horns might place themselves offstage, to emphasize the effect. Paul Guinery, writing in Delius and his Music (2014), summarizes the image conjured by Delius as follows: “Horn calls echo across the peaks, high above misty valleys evoked by slow-moving chromatic harmony in muted violins and violas, while the lower strings remain with their feet on the ground, anchoring everything on plain C and F naturals.” Christopher Palmer, writing in Delius – Portrait of a Cosmopolitan (1976), finds the passage to be “stereophonically conceived.” Both impressions highlight the spatiality of the Prelude, which bi-locates the auditor. Who apprehends the Prelude stands simultaneously on the height, surveying the environment to the horizon, and at the horizon, gazing upwards at the peak. He encompasses the scene.
The Prelude from A Mass of Life, Part II, looks forward to a composition that commentary on Delius tends to rank highly in his oeuvre, A Song of the High Hills, conceived and written from 1911 to 1912 and published in that latter year. The Song, which takes inspiration from its composer’s Norwegian experiences, is the second-longest single-movement work that Delius wrote. Appalachia (1902) exceeds it in playing duration by four or five minutes, but Appalachia proceeds discontinuously, as a set of “Variation on an Old Slave Song.” While a musicologist like Guinery can analyze the Song as corresponding to a three-part structure, with each part divisible into sub-sections, the work nevertheless makes an entirely seamless impression on the listener. The score tells a story in a sophisticated musical way, much less pictorial, much more psychically acute, than Strauss’ Alpensinfonie (1915), for example. Delius defers to the Great Chain of Being, as represented by the mountain. Being is hierarchical. Everyday life takes place on the horizontal dimension, but keen people intuit a commerce that works in the perpendicular dimension; this commerce travels upwards to the firmament and downwards into the chthonic depths. To ascend is simultaneously to descend. Delius indicates his sixth sense of this contrary motion by juxtaposing what Guinery calls a “sighing” motif in the violins and horns against “upward flurries” in the violas and woodwinds. The middle section bears a description, “The wide far distance – the great solitude.” It is as if Delius had expanded the Prelude from his Mass to symphonic dimensions while augmenting the instrumental palette.
The six horns weave a hypnotizing pattern of call and response. Celesta and harp lend their pointillist highlights. The solo voices and chorus enter, adding to the complex polyphony. Sir Thomas Beecham, in his biography of the composer (1959), describes the effect as “a magical sequence of sounds and echoes, both vocal and instrumental, all culminating in a great outburst of tone that seems to flood the entire landscape.” Palmer, in his study, writes of a “peroration,” of “a thousand voices” that “sound from afar,” and of “re-echoing horns” that “dissolve in an awe-inspiring nothingness.” Palmer’s book reproduces Edvard Munch’s Sunrise on the facing page opposite these descriptions. Palmer’s metaphors – “the whole landscape,” a multitude of voices singing from the four quarters, and the positive nothingness in which the celestial symposium “dissolves” – point to the ecstatic experience of the mystic or shaman, whose social obligation consists in linking the practical community to the transcendental realm through the deployment of his spiritual talent. Mircea Eliade, in Shamanism – Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951), remarks the cosmological implications of the medicine man’s praxis: “The pre-eminently shamanic technique is the passage from one cosmic region to another – from earth to sky or from earth to underworld” (Chapter 8). Eliade adds that, “This communication among the cosmic zones is made possible by the very structure of the universe.” One component of this structure, “the central axis” or axis mundi, allows for ascent or descent. The shaman’s special knowledge consists in how to navigate this polar ladder.
Myth often figures the axis as a tree or a mountain. The mountain, in Eliade’s presentation, has typically three main levels, each divisible into three smaller stages – three and nine being sacred numbers in the context of shamanism. Delius’ mountain, bodied forth in music, has coincidentally, according to Guinery, three main sections, each divisible by three. The shaman himself, moreover, the one whose skill enables him to scale Olympus or plumb Tartarus, is also invariably a musician, a singer, a flutist, and a drummer. The drum in particular, writes Eliade, “is distinguished from all other instruments… by the fact that it makes possible an ecstatic experience” (Chapter 5). Eliade would derive secular music from sacred music: “Many shamans… drum and sing for their own pleasure,” but the sacred implications never entirely disinhabit the performance; the musical arts, as many another, stubbornly retain the aura of ritual action. Delius, while not a rhythmist per se, nevertheless possesses a keen sense of the rhythm of ritual. While incorporating his climaxes in a continuum, Delius also graduates them. Song of the High Hills offers a perfect example of the technique, building to its pitch of intensity by stages and then backing off quietly. Shamanism, implicit in Delius, becomes explicit in a work contemporary with the Song, Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (1913), where in the Cortège du sage an actual shaman appears to give his blessing to the rite. While Le sacre could not differ more, musically, from the Song, the two scores complement one another. If Le sacre accompanies staged action (the ballet), the Song accompanies imagined action, which the listener supplies.
Ecology established itself as a science only late in the second half of the Twentieth Century, but the sensibility that generated it stemmed from the Romantic attitude toward a capitalized Nature, which emerged in the early Nineteenth Century. The discussion has already referenced Emerson – who was formative for Nietzsche, who was in turn formative for Mahler and Delius. Emerson’s protégé Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) might well be entitled to the label of The First Ecologist, but his way of life reveals him as a spiritual practitioner who, shaman-like, communes with Nature and brings back pronouncements of higher things. Not that anyone listens. In The Main Woods (Opus Posthumous), Book IV, Thoreau records his ascent of Mt. Ktaadn during an expedition to remote parts of the Pine Tree State. Halfway up the slope his companions lose heart, but he continues alone. The summit, wrapped in mists, reminds Thoreau of “the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets, of Atlas, Vulcan, the Cyclops, and Prometheus.” The scene struck him as “vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits.” As for him who stands abrupt, “His reason is dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtile, like the air.” Nature addresses him: “Why came ye here?” Thoreau quotes Milton: “Chaos and ancient Night, I come no spy.” When Thoreau surveys the boulder-strewn summit, it appears to him leftover material from the world’s creation. He has passed from one cosmic region to another.
Thoreau learned the flute in boyhood and practiced it all his life. His musical proclivity leads him to coin vivid similes and metaphors. From his Journal: “I sailed on the North River last night with my flute… my music… meandered with the river… and fell from note to note as a brook from rock to rock” (18 August 1841). Likewise: “Man’s progress through nature should have an accompaniment of music,” because music “relieves the scenery, which is seen through it as a subtler element, like a very clear morning air in autumn” (8 January 1842). And once more: “When I hear music… I am related to the earliest times and to the latest” (13 January 1857). Thoreau lacked the word “ecology,” but his prose with its striking figures defines ecology optimally as the consciousness of complex biological and, yes, spiritual relations in a place that has its roots in an immense past and its branches in an inestimable future. That place takes its place in a cosmic setting; it is, to borrow a phrase from Emerson, a circle within a circle within a circle. Thoreau’s tropes forecast the tragedy that has overtaken “ecological science” in the Twenty-First Century. As ecology becomes abstract, “scientific,” and, worse, a political cause, it loses its appeal; the poetry, the vision, and the mystique have drained away leaving it dead and dull – a mere lifeless theory of life in its totality unaware of its own impoverishment. An ecology, so-called, that refuses to recognize its origin in Tradition, in mythic thinking and archaic practice, in the actual Great Chain of Being, betrays itself; it addresses the mind solely as a reifying dogma. Once ecology has become reductively a “science,” it can no longer resonate to the music of the spheres.
This is the first of two parts. Part two is available here.