Saturday, January 26, 2013

Music and the Muses (Μοῦσαι, moũsai)

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about the sources of musical inspiration. I often say that where music comes from is a mystery, but I do know one catalyst of musical inspiration: the Muses!

The Nine Muses of the Ancient World

Wikipedia comments as follows:
The Muses, the personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified). Hesiod's account and description of the Muses was the one generally followed by the writers of antiquity. It was not until Roman times that the following functions were assigned to them, and even then there was some variation in both their names and their attributes: Calliope -epic poetry; Clio -history; Euterpe -flutes and lyric poetry; Thalia -comedy and pastoral poetry; Melpomene -tragedy; Terpsichore -dance; Erato -love poetry; Polyhymnia -sacred poetry; Urania -astronomy.
That might seem an odd sort of list, until you realize that for the Ancient Greeks music was always associated with some kind of poetry or dance. Abstract instrumental music was not invented until the 16th and 17th centuries and even then it was largely an imitation of vocal music until the 18th century. Why is astronomy in there? Well, the Greeks, especially Pythagoras, thought the organization of the cosmos and the organization of the overtones of music have a mystical connection.

Ancient authors often invoked the aid of the Muse at the beginning of a work. Here is the beginning of the Odyssey, for example:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Music would seem to particularly require the aid of the Muses as it was named after them! Music is what the Muses inspire.

The use of the term in modern times was popularized by the English poet Robert Graves who says:
No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident; just as no Apollonian poet can perform his proper function unless he lives under a monarchy or a quasi-monarchy. A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument... The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman...
How has this manifested itself in music? There are some remarkable examples. Perhaps the most striking is that of Leoš Janáček (1854 - 1928) who, until his early sixties, was scarcely known outside of his hometown of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic and at the time part of the Austrian Empire. Older than Mahler or Strauss, he is often called the "oldest 20th century composer" because stylistically he is part of the later generation of Debussy or Stravinsky. In 1917, in his early sixties, he met a young married woman, 38 years his junior, named Kamila Stösslová and over the next dozen years wrote a lifetime's worth of great music including several operas all part of the international repertoire, a large mass, a song cycle, a sinfonietta, chamber music including two string quartets, and a concerto. At the same time he wrote over seven hundred passionate letters to Kamila! Was she his Muse? Well, he certainly thought so. There are other examples in the lives of composers like Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich where a violin concerto and a symphony were respectively the fruits of a Muse-like inspiration.

I think this is a widespread phenomenon among artists. Picasso notoriously had a succession of mistresses whom he painted and who were undoubtedly an inspiration. I have often been inspired to write music or poetry by meeting a remarkable woman. It is often young men in their twenties who are struck in an overwhelming way by a young woman, but as we see from the example of Janáček, not just young men.

Do women poets and composers have male Muses? I suppose we could look at the life of Sylvia Plath for a clue. I'm really not sure, as it was separation from Ted Hughes that seems to have sparked a great burst of creativity for Plath.

In any case, the phenomenon seems both undeniable and yet still mysterious. Here is one of those quartets written by Janáček. This is the Second String Quartet, subtitled "Intimate Letters", a reference to all those letters he wrote to Kamila:

No comments: