Sunday, March 6, 2016


The Canadian poet David Solway takes a stab at defining or describing or at least talking about "The Mystery of Melody" and gives as examples a couple of his own songs. This is an interesting passage:
Melody may have its origin in human nature or in the realm of spirit, but, as we’ve noted, it is inflected differently in different cultures. Tonal systems vary dramatically; yet, though all these systems will qualify as music, not all can be described as melodic. It may well be that the Western imagination is specifically attuned to the reception of melody from its undocumentable source—at any rate, melody in its more elaborate, sophisticated and memorable aspects. The Bible is replete with references to song; the Greeks pioneered a plurality of melodic modes—Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, Lydian, Aeolian, whose intervals were based on mathematical ratios discovered by Pythagoras, which came to be known as “the fingerprints of the Gods”; and Church monophony eventually developed into lavishly harmonic and rhythmic polyphony. I am tempted to say that melody as it has been heard, cultivated, refined and transmitted is one of the signatures of Western civilization, an aural distillate of its essence.
I am by no means suggesting that other musical traditions are not valid and authoritative and beautiful in themselves, but I am proposing that melody per se, in its richest and most memorable form, was detected—and perfected—by the Western sensibility. I will surely be accused of ethnocentrism in advancing such an hypothesis but it seems persuasive to me and at least worth considering.
There is a fascinating etymology to the word "melody":
One thinks, too, of the ineffable “sweetness” of melody, what the Greeks called μέλος (mélos) or μέλισμα (mélisma)—song, air tune—derived etymologically from μέλι (méli)—honey. Which brings to mind Aristotle’s maxim in Book VIII of the Politics, quoting the revered poet and musician Musaeus: “Song is to mortals of all things the sweetest.”

One of the greatest composers of melody is undoubtedly Franz Schubert. Here is his "Great" C major Symphony that begins with one of those ineffable melodies, given first to the horns. The Vienna Philharmonic are conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

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