Saturday, June 23, 2012

Circle of Fifths: Musings on the Figure 5 for my wife on our Fifth Anniversary…

23.VI.12 / Liberty Inn, Maine

One of the first images that comes to mind when I consider the figure 5, is the William Carlos Williams poem, “The Great Figure.”

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

It inspired the above iconic 1928 painting by Charles Demuth, entitled “The Figure 5 in Gold.” Williams similarly epigrammatic poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” is inscribed on the back of an expressionist portrait my friend and former student, Robert Farmer painted of me, which is among my wife’s favorite pieces of original art in our collection.

The great figure 5 is also the mysterious and mystical “Fifth Element,” hinting at the beyond and an alternate dimension. The 5th planet from the Sun is Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology), the lord of the titans. In Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets, Jupiter is “the bringer of jollity.” This is fitting for the 23rd of June: the two numbers of which total 5, of course. The trinity of 3 and the perfect pair of 2 are symbolic themselves. Today is also Midsummer’s Eve or St. John’s Eve, a day of celebration in conjunction with the Summer Solstice, the fertile and luminous season of growth and light. Midsummer is the setting of Shakespeare’s great comedy of the interpenetration of the mortal and spirit worlds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is the setting of Michael Tippett’s marvelous first opera, The Midsummer Marriage. Hans Sachs passes the Meistersinger torch to the young initiate Walther von Stolzing on St. John’s Eve in Wagner’s melodic masterpiece, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Today also happens to be the anniversary of our beloved cousins, Tracy and Jeff Sonafelt. We are celebrating this midsummer in one of the most idyllic spots we know, on Lake St George in Liberty, Maine, as guests of our dear friends Kari Foster and Rick Hurwitz.

Since we have touched on the magical harmonies inspired by Midsummer and the union of 2+3 = 5, this circle of 5ths (itself a guide to the harmonious progression of chords separated by the “perfect” interval of the 5th) will conclude its brief digression with a mention of great 5th symphonies. Beethoven’s “knock of fate” symphony is among the most beloved and performed essays in the genre, and inspired every composer in his wake. Beethoven’s 9th would redefine the symphonic genre and force future composers to consider what their own "9th's" would be, given the inevitable comparisons to Beethoven’s towering achievement. The same comparisons hold for the 5th symphony. Thanks to Beethoven’s incredibly affirmative statement, "5th's" are frequently luminous and exuberant works, full of lyrical cantabile melody and unified, well-argued statements of form marrying content.

The most famous and beloved 5th after Beethoven must be Mahler’s, whose 5-movement work is an example of the axiom that tradition is not inherited but made. The famous Adagietto for strings and harp, the penultimate movement of Mahler 5, is one of the most beautiful adagios ever written, and was surely a love-message, a "song without words" to his beloved, Alma.

The self-contained 5th symphony of economic compression is by the Nordic Apollo to Mahler’s Dionysus, the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Sibelius 5 is a three-movement work shorter than some of the single movements of Mahler and his one-time teacher, Bruckner - whose 5th is among his greatest achievements – grand and elegant, Teutonic and elemental. Sibelius was beloved in the English speaking world during his lifetime, and has returned to his well-deserved place after a period of neglect during the creative silence of his final thirty years. His 5th embodies the Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 5th symphony is dedicated to Sibelius. It is among the most lyrical and romantic of his 9 symphonies and though we don’t know what Sibelius thought of the dedication, he should feel gratified at such an elegant tribute. The neglected British composer Arnold Bax was another admirer of Sibelius, and his 5th symphony is indebted to the Finnish master. Sibelius’ successor as the figurative musical dean of Finland is Einojuhani Rautavaara. Rautavaara’s 5th is a single-movement essay from the mid 1980’s. Like many of the octogenarian composer’s autumnal works, it is full of lyricism and colorful orchestrations evoking the Nordic landscape and ethereal birdcalls.

The northern landscapes - and their corresponding inscapes of emotional depth - in Russia inspired great 5th symphonies from Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Tchaik 5 is a Beethovenian statement of faith, and its slow movement has one of the most beautiful horn solos in the repertoire. Prokofiev and Shostakovich both wrote works reflecting their war-torn and politically volatile climates, respectively. Both are considered among their respective composer’s genuine masterpieces, and possessed of individually haunting beauties.

A 5th that is overlooked as a symphony because of its status as both a tone poem and a piano concerto (with obligato wordless chorus) is Scriabin’s mystical masterwork, “Prometheus, The Poem of Fire.” Scriabin’s “Symphony No. 5” recalls Beethoven, who also wrote a Prometheus-inspired ballet score. Liszt's 5th symphonic poem happens to be Prometheus. If only more recent mythic adaptations could be so alive! Unlike the vapid Ridley Scott film ostensibly inspired by the myth of the Greek titan Prometheus, Scriabin’s symphonic poem evokes a sense of wonder, mystery and possibility. One of the original tricksters, Prometheus rebelled against the titans, bringing "the gift of fire" to humankind, and enabling not only art and industry, but also forging the possibility of human independence. An archetypal symbol for the artist, he was tortured for his bold vision. Scriabin's symphonic poem centers around the gift and the magical sense of possibility engendered by creativity. His Prometheus is a richly colored canvas that is romantic, impressionist and expressionist at once. The Promethean fire of creativity is kindled at Midsummer, and the circle is complete in the perfect union symbolized by the wedding ring.

Postscript: Nielsen 5. I neglected to list Carl Nielsen's sui generis 5th symphony. The Dutch composer's 6 symphonies are each individual expressions of music's ability to not merely depict life but to actually pulse with life itself. The 5th is in two movements, the first of which is divided into two nearly equal 10 minute movements, and the second consists of an Allegro, a Presto, an Andante and a culminating Allegro. Of his most famous symphony, the 4th, he explained his programmatic title, The Inextinguishable in a great paragraph that bears quoting. It applies to our theme of life-affirming music, Midsummer festivities and the joys of shared human life.

"The title Inextinguishable suggests something that only music itself can express fully: the elementary will of life. Only music can give an abstract expression of life, in contrast to the other arts which must construct models and symbolize. Music solves the problem only by remaining itself; for music is life whereas the other arts only depict life. Life is unquenchable and inextinguishable; yesterday, today and tomorrow, life was, is and will be in struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction; and everything returns. Music is life, and as such, inextinguishable."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Musing on the Transit of Venus

(for Paul Zweifel and the Transit of Venus on 5 June 2012)

A black, round spot,— and that is all;
And such a speck our earth would be
If he who looks upon the stars
Through the red atmosphere of Mars
Could see our little creeping ball
Across the disk of crimson crawl
As I our sister planet see.
(from “The Flaneur,” in Boston Common, by Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Cold clear and blue the morning heaven

Expands its arch on high…
The moon has set but Venus shines
A silent silvery star
(from Selected Poems, Emily Brontë)

On June 5, virtually the entire globe should be able to witness an astronomical phenomenon, the Transit of Venus. This event, more rare than Halley’s comet, makes visible to observers the path of our “sister planet” Venus as she crosses the sun. The Transit occurs in 8-year pairs (the last was in 2004) once a century. This will be our last opportunity to witness the heavenly alignment until 2117.

The astrophysicist to note this pairing was the British visionary Jeremiah Horrocks (1619-1641). He followed Kepler’s correct prediction of the 1631 Transit with an accurate estimation of the 1639 phenomenon before his death at age 22. In discovering these facts about Horrocks, I was unprepared for the mad prophetic tone of his prose. I found the following on the “Transit of Venus” website.

But America! Venus! What riches dost thou squander on unworthy regions which attempt to repay such favours with gold, the paltry product of their mines. Let these barbarians keep their precious metals to themselves, the incentives to evil we are content to do without. These rude people would ask from us too much should they deprive us of those celestial riches, the use of which they are not able to comprehend.

I am indebted to my friend, Paul Zweifel for bringing the Transit of Venus to my attention. If enthusiastic as his forbear for this subject, Dr Zweifel’s prose is more cogent and carefully argued. And he has great pictures of the 2004 Transit on his website, from a trip to the Observatory outside Nice made for the celestial spectacle.

I was pleasantly surprised to encounter this starry summary from Thomas Paine.

The names that the ancients gave to those six worlds, and which are still called by the same names, are Mercury, Venus, this world that we call ours, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn… The planet Venus is that which is called the evening star, and sometimes the morning star, as she happens to set after or rise before the Sun…

As Paine reminds us, the planets are named for ancient deities, and Venus (aka: Aphrodite) is the goddess of love. The stories vary as to her origin. According to the traditional sources (which informed Homer’s epics), Aphrodite was the child of Zeus and Dione. Hesiod assigns a more provocatively charged source for her incarnation. As most famously depicted in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” the goddess emerges “out of the foam of the sea.” This was no ordinary ocean spray, as it was formed from the “castrated manhood” of the god Uranus, which fell into the sea after his son Saturn (Kronos) “unmanned” him with a sickle. Saturn’s own son, Zeus (Jupiter) would depose him in the ten-year war that was the original “Clash of the Titans.”

(Botticelli: The Birth of Venus)

Aphrodite has inspired as many poems as Venus has been pictured in paintings and sculptures. One of the most famous of the “Homeric Hymns” is dedicated to her. Invoking the Muse – which we must assume to be Erato, the muse of love poetry – the hymn describes the power Aphrodite wields over the gods and humankind.

“Tell me, Muse, the deeds of golden Aphrodite… who stirs up sweet desire in the gods, and overcomes the tribes of mortal men, and the birds that fly in the air, and all the creatures that live on dry land and in the sea.” (from The Penguin Book of Classical Myths, by Jenny March).

Umberto Eco’s engaging compendium, History of Beauty lists a gallery of Venus representations. Eco’s anthology ranges from ancient sculptures like the Venus of Milo and the Asian goddess Lakshmi, through Renaissance portraits by Botticelli and Titian, to contemporary incarnations of the love goddess in the form of popular “sex symbols” like Marilyn Monroe. He underscores the dual associations of sacred and profane love by juxtaposing “nude Venus” with “clothed Venus.” The “Mona Lisa” may be the most famous of the latter incarnations, but Our Lady of Love exists in countless manifestations, from celebrated queens to venerated virgins.

(Velazquez: Venus with Mirror)

She has always been the Ideal, which has led to her idolization and her objectification. Though popular titles like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” trivialize these distinctions, it is fitting that Earth revolves between Venus and Mars. Recall that the goddess of love was the most famous consort of Mars (Ares), the god of war. The “sea-born deity of love” was the mother of Harmony and Eros. Her famous daughter would wed Cadmus and found the great city of Thebes. While some sources cite Eros as a sibling or companion of the love goddess, Cupid’s arrows always bear the imprint of Aphrodite. Venus was the wife of the “lame smith” Vulcan (Hephaistos). Her trysts with Mars divided the gods in yet another potent symbol of mythology’s ever-present relevance for human affairs.

As we have seen from the Homeric Hymn, her powers of inspiration were frequently invoked. She was also implored to prevent heartbreak. Jenny March translates Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” thus: “Richly enthroned, Immortal Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles…. break not my spirit with heartache or grief.”

One of our great living classicists is the Canadian poet Anne Carson. Her book, Eros the Bittersweet, is an examination of the origins of that most enigmatic, ambivalent and human of concepts. Carson calls it an “erotic paradox,” this sweet and bitter proximity of hate and love. She cites Aphrodite’s address to Helen of Troy in the Iliad. “Don’t provoke me – I’ll get angry and let you drop! I’ll come to hate you as terribly as I love you.” In her wonderfully trenchant way, Carson writes, “Helen obeys at once. Love and hate in combination make an irresistible enemy.”

(The Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Helen of Troy")

The associations where Venus is concerned are dizzying. They are an example of Borgesian infinity, spinning out a seemingly endless web of examples in various guises as tales, poems, paintings, songs and stories.

Leaping back to another “erotic paradox,” the charged dyad of sacred and profane love, we connect to the mediaeval world of the troubadours. The Ideal object of love, as we have seen elsewhere in these musings, moved fluidly between venerations of the “Donna Angelicata,” the “Angelic Lady.” Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura are examples of human incarnations of these angelic visions. They are at once embodiments of sacred and secular love, and like Venus herself, a literal and figurative “heavenly body.” The crusading knight, Jaufré Rudel is identified with the lyrical trope of the “love from afar,” by idealizing a Princess from Tripoli he’d never met. His story is the subject of an evocative opera, “L’amour de loin,” from the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her monodrama, Emilie was created by our friend, Elizabeth Futral (who reprises her “most fulfilling and electrifying role” at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival). Wagner’s German troubadour (Minnesinger) Tannhäuser is torn between sensual love for Venus herself, following an Odyssey-like seven-year tryst in Venusberg, and the saint-like Elizabeth, symbol of the sacred bond of human marriage.

Here is one of my favorite paintings about the subject that gives Dante Gabriel Rossetti his first name, called "Dante's Dream." A younger contemporary of Wagner, he was another "Renaissance man" whose love of the ancient world inspired modern works of symbolic potency. I hear Wagner's Venus-inspired music whenever I look at such sensually perfumed paintings.

In one of the ancient tales, Aphrodite is “the wise one of the sea” and was mother to Eleusis (which means “Advent”). Eleusis was also known as Ogygiades, reinforcing the Homeric parallel between the nymph Calypso (whose Island “paradise” was Ogyges, where Ulysses was stranded for seven years) and the goddess of love. The Eleusinian mysteries would reappear in the Christian celebration of Advent. As goddess of childbirth, Venus Genetrix is a pagan parallel to the Virgin Mary. Our inner life is richer for restoring these connections and not simply dismissing them as pejorative “myth.”

The “Song of Songs” contains some of the most sensual love poetry in the world, and scholars like Robert Graves have illuminated its associations with the goddess of love. Sappho describes a “sweet apple turning red,” and the Hebrew bard of the “Songs” says, “comfort me with apples for I am sick with love.” From the irresistible temptation in the Garden of Eden to the poisoned apple of fairy tales, the red fruit is a symbol bursting with meaning. Let’s consider one of its mythological appearances.

Recalling Carson’s quotation from the Iliad, we know the “face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen of Troy was under the sway of Aphrodite. In Michael Tippett’s Iliad-inspired opera, King Priam, the famous “judgment of Paris” is presented with ingenuity worthy of the masters of musical drama. Paris wins the hand of Helen when he awards Aphrodite the sacred apple as the winner of an Olympian beauty contest (which really “happened” on Mt Ida). As Tippett recreates it, Hera (Juno), the wife of Zeus, is represented by Andromache, Hector’s husband and Paris’s sister-in-law. Hera / Andromache represents “hearth and home.” Athena (Minerva) is played by Hecuba, Paris’s mother, symbol of wisdom and protection. Aphrodite is played by Helen, the incarnation of beauty and love. As reward for awarding the apple to Aphrodite, Paris wins Helen, and thus starts the Trojan War.

(Diane Kruger as Helen in the Wolfgang Petersen film, Troy)

Helen was the daughter of Leda, she of the swan, impregnated by the Aphrodite-inflamed Zeus whose disguise as a white bird fooled no one. Walter Pater describes Leonardo’s masterpiece, “Mona Lisa” (aka: “La Gioconda”) as “beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh.” In an image perfect for our celestial musings, he describes a Venus-inspired landscape as a “strange veil of sight” hovering in the “faint light of eclipse.” He compares “La Gioconda” to “Leda or Pamona, modesty or vanity… the seventh heaven of symbolical expression.” (from Studies in the History of the Renaissance.) In that single image we find our “sacred and profane” dialectic present on the planes of morality (“modesty or vanity”) and metaphysics (“the seventh heaven”).

The red apple is another “symbolical expression” of love and of spring. It is fitting this Transit of Venus occurs the night after the full “Strawberry Moon” of June, a symbol of the ripening year and the transit from spring to summer. The full moon of June 4 is the last lunar zenith before the summer solstice, and thus the Transit of Venus on June 5 heralds this “midsummer season” of love and plenty. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves says the “Rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys” in the “Song of Songs” is a reference to the red anemones associated with the blood of Adonis, one of the mortal lovers of Venus. “Venus and Adonis” was one of Ovid’s famous “Metamorphoses,” and the subject of one of Shakespeare’s greatest poems.

(Titian: Venus and Adonis)

Aphrodite’s other famous couplings with mortals include those with Pygmalion, “the dwarf,” who loved a statue of the goddess so pitifully she animated the relic to life. Pygmalion is the name of the George Bernard Shaw play on which My Fair Lady is based. Her most important heaven-to-earth union was with the cowherd, Anchises, who became the father of Aeneas, the subject of Virgil’s unfinished epic, The Aeneid. Of the Venus of Melos, Pater paraphrases his friend Oscar Wilde’s couplet, “O for one midnight and as paramour / The Venus of the little Melian farm.” Might Wilde be describing the setting where Aeneas, the heroic champion of Italy, was conceived?

(Venus of Milo)

In The Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch leaves us satellites of lyrical wisdom in an epic novel of the great Roman's poet's last days. “Many things that are at first mere presentiments gain their inner meaning only by time.” Virgilian operas from Purcell’s compact Dido and Aeneas to Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens attest to the crescendo of “inner meaning” over time.

The “music of the spheres” is one symbol of the kinship of mathematics, astronomy and music that has been noted by poets for centuries. Of Virgil’s fertile imagination, Broch writes, “the singing of the spheres did not cease for him, he kept on hearing it, it continued to sing because he remained human.”

The author of Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel observes, “the spheres of science and poetry probably intersect in all eleven dimensions.” In the November 2006 volume of Poetry magazine, her essay “The Earth Whirls Everywhere” references planetary poems by Robert Frost, Diane Ackerman and John Ciardi. In her book, The Planets, she “used poetry throughout the chapter about Venus as a way to equate the planet with beauty.” She notes the timelessness of poetic invocations of “the evening star” and “the planet of love.”

It is amusing to pull out Frost’s satirical quasi-Platonic dialogue poem, “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus” (with the self-deprecating subtitle, “A dated popular-science medley on a mysterious light recently observed in the western sky at evening”). The “Evening Star” itself inspires a rich associative list ranging from Edgar Allen Poe to John Clare (invoking Venus’s synonym, “Hesperus” or Vespers). William Blake and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote evening star poems. Schubert’s friend, the classicist poet Johann Mayrfhofer inspired one of the composer’s greatest unsung songs, Abendstern. Louise Bogan may be most known to musicians for “To be sung on the water” (its title refers to a famous Schubert song, An den Wasser zu singen). "To be sung on the water" inspired Samuel Barber’s final – and most haunting – a cappella choral work. In another poem from the same collection, she describes the “Evening Star” as a “Brief planet, shining without burning.” Though she may not be referring to the Transit of Venus, in which the “brief planet” will appear as a small black dot in front of the fiery sun, her description evokes the phenomenon.

Venus has inspired other contemporary poetic riffs. In “Against Botticelli,” Robert Hass refers to the “sacking of Troy” and that which “survives imagination / in the longing brought perfectly to closing.” I don’t think he’s referring to Dido’s lament, but his Bosch & Goya associations are fascinating. In another Erato-inspired poem, Conrad Aitken translates the Birth of Venus into something wholly "other." “Sea Holly” is a mysterious nymph-like creature, “begotten by the mating of rock with rock” in “the fruitful sea.” Galway Kinnell, echoing the Romantics, opens “Last Gods” with a timeless image of sensual beauty. “She sits naked on a rock / a few yards out in the water.” The composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa was inspired by the same 1882 Transit of Venus that prompted the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. poem in the epigram above.

Poets of all ages have tried to restore our connection to the “lost gods.” Gérard de Nerval followed the “Evening Star” like a magi guided by her heavenly course. He reenacted the journey of Virgil / Aeneas through darkness into light. In his fantastic dream world he communed with these seemingly remote deities and participated in the mysteries of Eleusis. He didn’t record a literal Transit of Venus, but noted the “heavenly vision” of the “Evening Star,” and felt as if he “ascended into its dizzying heights.” Our communion with celestial bodies engendered by events like the Transit of Venus is an opportunity to reconnect. There are many paths towards this worthy goal. We might attempt to reenact one of the ancient mysteries or rites or celebrate the coming solstice. We might honor the proximity of the Full Moon and the Transit of Venus with a midsummer festival or recreate a festive bacchanalia. Or we might simply watch the celestial phenomenon (which begins at approximately 6 pm EST) and marvel at another wonder of the universe.

Thomas Paine died in 1809, the year before Nerval was born. His amazement at our capacity for inquiry, experiment and discovery is as inspiring as it is timeless.

It should be asked, how can man know these things? I have one plain answer to give, which is, that man knows how to calculate an eclipse, and also how to calculate to a minute of time when the planet Venus in making her revolutions around the sun will come in a straight line between our earth and the sun, and will appear to us about the size of a large pea passing across the face of the sun. This happens but twice in about a hundred years… and has happened twice in our time, both of which were foreknown by calculation. It can also be known when they will happen again for a thousand years to come… As, therefore, man could not be able to do these things if he did not understand the manner in which the revolutions of the several planets or worlds are performed, the fact of calculating an eclipse, or a transit of Venus…

(from The Plan and Order of the Universe)

(from the 2004 Transit of Venus)

Friday, June 1, 2012

“Rewriting the world…” from the troubadours to Tannhäuser

In Studies of the Histories of the Renaissance, Walter Pater (1839-1894) situates the origins of that “many sided but yet united movement” known as the Renaissance in 13th century France. Like many a universalizing concept, the “Renaissance” originally referred to a specific cultural and historical era “in which the love of the things of the intellect and the imagination for their own sake” flourished and thus engendered the movement which bears its name. “Of this feeling,” where the imagination and intellect both opened to the revival “of old and forgotten sources” from the classical world, Pater cites “a great outbreak” at the end of the mediaeval period. From Gothic architecture to “the doctrines of romantic love, in the poetry of Provence, the rude strength of the middle age turns to sweetness, and the taste for sweetness generated there becomes the seed of the classical revival in it.”

Dante and Boccaccio are the two great writers of the late Middle Ages generally credited with heralding the “classical revival” in 15th century Italy that would define the start of the modern western world. Pater takes one step further back to consider “this notion of a Renaissance within the limits of the middle age itself.” French seeds enabled “the magnificent aftergrowth of that poetry in Italy,” and across Europe.

The troubadours were the “inventors of romantic love” in that theirs were among the first notated love songs. If their subjects did not always predict the Renaissance obsession with the Hellenic world of Greece (and Rome), their themes were parallel with those of Homer, Virgil and Ovid. Songs of the bards revolve around heroism and love, conquest and defeat, the sweet spoils of victory and the bitter tonics of loss. In the middle of that “dark age,” there arose “a world in which the world could be rewritten” in the remarkable marriage of poetry and song. Richard Zenith echoes Pater in calling troubadour poetry “another plane of reality… autonomous, transforming the first expressions of the unrelenting individuality that was to lead to the Renaissance.” (113 Galician – Portuguese Troubadour Poems. Carcanet, 1995.) If Homer was our prototypical bard, the original singer-songwriter, then the troubadours were the first “composers,” reviving the ancient tradition of storytelling through singing, then writing the songs down for others to “cover.”

If the troubadours were motivated to find escape and release from the hardships of the “mean life” of their “dark age,” they ”transferred the feudal concept” of the secular plane and merged it with “the Christian idealization of Mary.” In other words, the troubadours united sacred and profane love. This mystical and sensual syncretism would fuel not only the Renaissance movement but find another creative resurgence in the 19th century Romantic period. In addition to renewed interest in the classical world, these vibrant artistic periods were marked by an interest in the ancient sagas of Northern Europe, from Celtic and Druidic legends to the Nibelungenlied of Germany and the Icelandic Eddas. Do I hear an opera?

Another syncretist aspect of the troubadour tradition was the hybrid nature of its form. As Venice would be a cross-cultural center merging Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions of music and art in the Renaissance, the songs of the troubadours blended European, Hebraic and Arabic elements nearly a millennium before “globalization” came into vogue.

“In that poetry,” Pater writes of the troubadours, “earthly passion, in its intimacy, its freedom, its variety – the liberty of the heart – makes itself felt.” The apparent timelessness of these sentiments is one of its essential and universalizing qualities. Before turning to the Provencal poem that is his introductory chapter’s subject, Pater reminds his readers of the “the great lover,” Abelard, who “connects the expression of this liberty of heart with the free play of human intelligence round all subjects presented to it.” The object of Abelard’s love was the classical scholar (his former pupil), Héloise. Her education was “then unrivalled,” thus “enabling her to penetrate into the mysteries of the older world…like the Celtic druidesses.” Alexander Pope, in his famous 1717 Ovidian epic poem, based on letters discovered from their illicit 13th century affair, echoes this connection to the “mysteries.”

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

The third line of that verse (the 209th in the poem) became the title of a Charlie Kaufman film. The equally cryptic and delightfully wry Being John Malkovich, another cult favorite Kaufman film, features an “Eloise and Abelard” puppet show. The poem is the inspiration for an evocative soprano aria by our esteemed friend, the composer Deborah Mason. It can be heard in a performance by Amy Cofield Williamson, who recently recorded “Eloise to Abelard” to help promote Mason’s Alexander Pope – inspired opera, The Rape of the Lock. One never knows what surprises are in store within the labyrinth. The joy of discovery is its own reward.

(Leighton's 19th century canvas, "Eloise and Abelard")

Punished by provincial relatives for defying convention, “Abelard became a monk and Héloise a nun.” As referenced above, “their relationship survived in the form of their correspondence.” Is it any surprise the mother of all muses is Mnemosyne or Memory? It has been said the most important word in Judaism, as vital as it is simple, is: “remember.” That is the best answer I know to the not infrequently asked question, “why do you spend so much time with the past?” Anyone who has lived in the company of those whose memories are suspect – whether from laziness or disingenuousness – knows the ever-present truth of another famous maxim. “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” These musings are affirmative efforts, modest attempts to illuminate corners of the past often hidden in shadows. They aim to be re-creations of neglected stories, encores of forgotten songs, re-minders, re-discoveries and re-connections.

In an endnote to the Oxford paperback edition of Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Matthew Beaumont includes a paragraph Pater added to subsequent editions of his classic study.

The opposition into which Abelard is thrown…which breaks his soul to pieces, is a no less subtle opposition than that between the merely professional, official, hireling ministers of that system, with their ignorant worship of system for its own sake, and the true child of light, the humanist, with reason and heart and sense quick, while theirs were almost dead. He reaches out towards, he attains, modes of ideal living, beyond the prescribed limits of that system… As always happens, the adherents of the poorer and narrower culture had no sympathy with, because no understanding of, a culture richer and more ample than their own.

“Holy indictment, Batman! Have artists always railed against the corrupt and philistine world and been suspicious of systems and institutions?” Yes, Robin. That is one of the reasons why the mother of muses is named Memory, and not Profit, Expedience, or Status Quo. Though we trouble-making complainers have always been in the minority, we have always been, and our songs have always taken up the themes of opposition. When Pater writes of “the poorer and narrower culture” he is not describing an impoverished or “primitive” society but a culture of the creative mind. The “poorest” village may very well have the richest of cultures. “One of the strongest characteristics of that outbreak of the reason and the imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart in the middle age, which I have termed a mediaeval Renaissance, was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the age.” He means the repressive moralism that contributed to the age’s description as “dark,” lest this aesthete be dismissed as immoral, amoral or degenerate. That Pater was gay in a time when it was even more dangerous to be “out” contributed to his neglect. He describes a “return of that ancient Venus… those old pagan gods still going to and fro on the earth, under all sorts of disguises. The perfection of culture is not rebellion but peace; only when it has realized a deep moral stillness has it really reached its end.” And artists have used all sorts of tricks to rejuvenate those gods and precipitate that utopian perfection of culture through the synthesis of art and science, the marriage of sacred and profane love, and the union of harmonious social ends through cultural means.

A favorite “trick” of the Romantics was to “rediscover” or “translate” or simply “adopt” the persona of an ancient. Just as the mad poet Artaud would take on his crazy great uncle Nerval’s mantle in the 20th century, the Romantic Scots poet James MacPherson “became” the ancient Gaelic bard, Ossian. An inspiration to Goethe and Schubert and beloved by Thomas Jefferson, “Ossian” was a 19th century re-creation of one of the ancient Homeric or Ovidian or Druidic bards – to quibble over the semantics of his “authentic” origins is to miss the romantic point entirely. While it does matter when and where the “Arabian Nights” originated, such factual debates can overshadow the symbolic relevance of its contents and its essential contribution to our understanding of the mythologies of ancient Africa and Arabia. Like the troubadours, Ossian sang “some intenser sentiment,” which came “from the profound and energetic spirit” of “poetry itself.” Regardless of either’s “origins.”

(Girodet's early Romantic canvas, "Ossian receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes"
Ossian thus serves a parallel function to the Valkyries of Norse legend and Wagner...)

Pater’s allusion to “that ancient Venus” is a reference to the legend of the German Minnesinger (or troubadour), Tannhäuser, the subject of Wagner’s most autobiographical opera. As was his wont, Wagner conflates his ancient sources with original inspiration. He marries the legend of the 13th century troubadour consort of Venus with the famous “singing contest” at Wartburg. The novel in which Novalis develops his romantic archetype of longing in the symbol of the “blue flower” is Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Heinrich is one of the singers of the Wartburg Sängerkrieg, and in Wagner’s opera, he is Tannhäuser. The other Minnesingers (or Knights and Minstrels), like Walther von Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach were historical figures. Wagner read plays and poems from several authors, such as Tieck, Hoffmann, Heine and Eichendorff. He then united aspects of the historical singing contest with the legend of the (historical) crusading knight who spent seven years in Venusberg with the goddess of love, in a crusade of an entirely different order.

Tannhäuser is not only the ultimate operatic treatment of the conflict between sacred and profane love, it is one of the great music dramas of the artist’s complex relationship to society. As a romantic “renaissance” of classical characters and settings, it is a 19th century portal to the ancient world and a window into the soul of its creator. It is all of these at once. Let’s consider one detail. Venusberg is a cave or grotto. Though Wagner does not mention Novalis, the grotto is the setting of the archetypal blue flower, and Novalis’s description of the scene is worthy of a Wagnerian treatment. Here is John Owen’s translation (from Project Gutenberg):

On entering this expanse, he beheld a mighty beam of light, which, like the stream from a fountain, rose to the overhanging clouds, and spread out into innumerable sparks, which gathered themselves below into a great basin. The beam shone like burnished gold; not the least noise was audible; a holy silence reigned around the splendid spectacle. He approached the basin, which trembled and undulated with ever-varying colors. The sides of the cave were coated with the golden liquid, which was cool to the touch, and which cast from the walls a weak, blue light. He dipped his hand in the basin, and bedewed his lips. He felt as if a spiritual breath had pierced through him, and he was sensibly strengthened and refreshed. A resistless desire to bathe himself made him undress and step into the basin. Then a cloud tinged with the glow of evening appeared to surround him; feelings as from Heaven flowed into his soul; thoughts innumerable and full of rapture strove to mingle together within him; new imaginings, such as never before had struck his fancy, arose before him, which, flowing into each other, became visible beings about him. Each wave of the lovely element pressed to him like a soft bosom. The flood seemed like a solution of the elements of beauty, which constantly became embodied in the forms of charming maidens around him. Intoxicated with rapture, yet conscious of every impression, he swam gently down the glittering stream.

Novalis could be describing Wagner’s Venusberg or Homer’s Ogygia, where Odysseus spends seven years in exile as the consort of the immortal nymph, Calypso. Hard labor, as it were. The parallel with Tannhäuser would not have been lost on the romantics. Nor is it coincidence that Wagner’s Dutchman is cursed to sail the seas for seven-year periods. The love he tried to portray in the opera he wrote immediately after Der Fliegende Holländer continues its main theme. Tannhäuser is also “about” the search for ideal love. Barry Millington (quoting Wagner in Wagner. Princeton, 1984) notes he “was longing ‘to find satisfaction in some more elevated and noble element which…I conceived as being something pure, chaste… inaccessibly and unfathomably loving.’” His wish “to perish in that element of infinite love which was unknown on earth” aligns the Dutchman and Tannhäuser with the leitmotif of his life. It is the redeeming “love-death,” the Liebestod so famously represented in the apotheoses of Tristan & Isolde and Götterdämmerung.

(Böcklin's expressionist canvas of "Odysseus and Calypso," from the year of Wagner's death, 1883)

Baudelaire was so transfixed by the 1860 performance of Tannhäuser in Paris he was compelled to write to the composer to express his admiration using “a comparison borrowed from painting.” He continues, “I imagine a vast expanse of red spreading before my eyes. If this red represents passion, I see it change gradually… until it reaches the incandescence of a furnace. It would seem difficult, even impossible, to render something more intensely hot, and yet a final flash traces a whiter furrow on the white that provides its background. That, if you will, is the final cry of a soul that has soared to a paroxysm of ecstasy.” (from Musica Ficta: Figures of Wagner, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, translated by Felicia McCarren. Stanford, 1991).

“No one writes with abandon anymore,” Verdi complained just a few years after Baudelaire articulated his soul’s wild flight to the most ecstatic composer the world has known.

Wagner’s “love-death” is the redemption of the individual and ultimately, the world. It is the homecoming from exile, the return at the end of a journey, the reaping of the harvest after the due season of sowing. The “mysteries” of the ancient world and the periods of renaissance where interest in them has revived share this cycle.

In his tales of the Valois, where “for more than a thousand years the heart of France has beaten,” Wagner’s first French-poet-disciple, Gérard de Nerval recalled the ancient world and alluded to the mysteries (Selected Writings, trans. R. Sieburth. Penguin). “I have passed through every circle and trial of those scenes of ordeal commonly called theatres. ‘I have eaten of the drum and drunk of the cymbal,’ as the apparently meaningless phrase of the initiates of Eleusis runs. It no doubt means that, if need be, one must pass beyond the bounds of nonsense and absurdity…”

By sharing his interpretation of the “apparently meaningless phrase,” Nerval is letting us in on the fact these mysteries and their cryptic rituals and songs actually do mean something. Those Eleusinian initiates were participants in an ancient rite that symbolized the journey of life itself. Departure. Journey. Return. (Repeat.)

It may be absurd to spend one’s life writing or composing or singing about cursed captains and lovesick troubadours and troubled souls and the ken of their kin. As a colleague reminded me just yesterday, “earth” without art is just “eh...”