The roots of sustainability

Géricault 's painting The Raft of the Medusa

Géricault 's painting The Raft of the Medusa has a documentary realism, showing hope and despair, man at the mercy of nature.

This is a continuation of my previous post, inspired by Hurricane Irene and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.  I’d lamented the loss of innocence that’s implied by the notion of global warming: that we can’t very well think of Nature as our “Mother” when we’re systematically killing her in so many ways.  Or to put it another way, we can’t be surprised when the planet gives back some of our bad karma.

I have this gut feeling that the sustainability movement begins with a romantic thrill upon viewing the sea, paddling a canoe, smelling the air.  Perhaps i am thinking of the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony which is titled “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country”.  I find that’s the most vivid part of that Symphony for me, a sense of feeling more alive (cheerful feelings?) in one’s connection to what’s around you.   Before we had David Suzuki and Walt Disney creating documentaries(if you’re old enough you’ll remember), we had books, and we had compositions like the ones I have been writing about (last time and today).  I think it had to be different fundamentally, because of course, those folks weren’t sequestered in offices with laptops or riding public transit glued to their electronic devices.  Nature was real to people who were not (yet) surrounded by concrete and steel structures.

And so,  I was trying to think of some romantic music that speaks to our relationship with nature, and probing for the sentiments behind eco-friendly ideologues.  Does that sound crazy?  I don’t mean what’s David Suzuki’s favourite song, or what’s in Jane Goodall’s ipod.   I am thinking of a kind of meta-text, a background consensus about the world in the time before Darwin changed our world-view. I had a vague feeling there had to be something, given that nature has inspired so much music over the centuries, and that nature is in one of the abiding concerns of European Romanticism.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote the poems Meeres Stille and Gluckliche Fahrt

And then a title popped into my head.  In English it’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”, the title of a pair of poems by Goethe (originally Meeres Stille, and Glückliche Fahrt)  that inspired at least three adaptations:

  • two discreet songs by Schubert
  • a single choral work by Beethoven
  • a youthful overture by Mendelssohn

Let’s start with Goethe’s poems .  They bespeak a world far less cocky than our own, far from sure of their command of nature.  Ha… WHAT command? Those words suggest a healthy aand fearful respect for nature, based upon a reliance upon the wind & water, and not so different from the despair one sees in the faces of Gericault’s painting (shown above).  Travel by sailing ship is not an imposition upon nature, and surely unlikely to leave any sort of carbon footprint.

Today we fly between cities even when hurricanes threaten and rain drenches runways.  When a volcano spews ash, disrupting air travel, people have no wonder or awe, just annoyance.

But Goethe’s ecology is unpredictable and worthy of respect.  In the first poem, while the stillness of the waters is portrayed with a pastoral beauty, there’s also an implicit threat.  A ship becalmed without wind is in danger, needing wind to find its way to shore, escaping the virtual desert of a calm sea.  The second poem is like a catharsis, a release after the containment felt in the first poem, boisterous and exuberant.  Together the pair of poems celebrate and revere the powers of wind & water.

Let’s look at the three adaptations I mentioned above.  I don’t know the chronology of their composition in history, but that’s not important, except to observe that the overture was written a dozen years after the Beethoven setting.  So perhaps, knowing that, let’s begin with Schubert’s songs.  It makes perfect sense to create two discreet compositions as  Schubert did, honouring this pair of antithetical poems, as opposite in tone as in matter.

First, here’s a stunning performance of Meeres Stille from bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  This tranquil setting is as calm as the water it would portray for us.   

Now let’s listen to Glückliche Fahrt, sung by Elisabeth Scholl. Notice that this song is not even a minute long, with a powerful rhythmic pulse in the accompaniment [note to self: i must get this and play it!] contrasting the tranquil song about the calm sea.  

Now let’s turn to Beethoven, who once again gives us a choral piece in D: like the Ode to Joy.  It’s opus 112, which  falls right after the last magnificent trio of piano sonatas, but still a few years before the final towering choral achievements in the 1820s (Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony).

Notice that Beethoven’s approach is hyper-sensitive to the text, making the chorus react to the words with genuine emotion, singing this phrase:

Todesstille fürchterlich!  / Deathly, terrible stillness!
In der ungeheuern Weite  / In the immense distances

And when they describe the physical phenomenon (Reget keine Welle sich./ not a single wave stirs. ), the lack of any pulse in the music is quietly scary.  Hitchcock would be impressed.

The ocean finally stirs five minutes into the 7:40 composition.  The celebratory second poem seems to have been what drew Beethoven to Goethe in the first place.  As with Schiller in the 1820s, Beethoven might well be saying, “oh friends, not in those sombre tones, but these exuberant ones.”  

Why isn’t this piece better known? Oh my God it’s so beautiful.

I might say the same for Mendelssohn’s adaptation.  The overture was written when the composer was still a teenager.  While I like the Hebrides Overture surely there’s room for this other youthful masterpiece.

Once again Mendelssohn ventures into genuinely romantic territory.  Just as he wrapped Oberon & Titania in musical fairy-dust for his A Midsummernight’s Dream overture, here we get a vivid seascape to conjure powerful images.  There is a kind of introduction as the sea is quiet, deep, massively brooding, and unmistakeably powerful.  Our calm sea episode is relatively brief, compared to the adaptations of Beethoven & Schubert where we’re made to suffer the suspense of the becalmed awaiting the rescuing breezes.

Mendelssohn then takes classical sonata structure and puts it to ideal use.  Normally one gets an exposition leading one away from the tonic, into a development, and then a recapitulation solidly in the tonic key.  Mendelssohn brilliantly affirms a kind of musical geography, as we feel ourselves sailing away (from the tonic) in the exposition, wandering –as one usually does—in the development, before heading for home and the tonic key at the end.

Here’s Gabriel Chmura conducting “Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt” composed when Mendelssohn was only  nineteen years old.  

In case it’s not crystal clear I desperately love these last two compositions (Beethoven’s choral setting and Mendelssohn’s overture), and psst any of you conductors reading this should consider programming them.  The public hasn’t yet become tired of them because they’re programmed so rarely.

Perhaps you too sense the connection to sustainability.  I wonder, is the reason these pieces are comparatively obscure because we are so far removed from that place, standing in terror and awe of nature?  A calm sea has no terror for us, because we don’t need the wind to move.  And there’s lots more music, often with a far more domesticated version of Nature that knows its place, like a housebroken pet.  Think for instance of the nature music in Wagner’s Ring operas, where the orchestra paints marvellous images of colour that are among my most favourite moments; but neither the story nor the dramaturgy ever imply that the backdrop is anything but a safe place for story-telling.  For me, the compositions based on Goethe’s poems are like a time capsule, a glimpse of an entirely different world and assumptions no longer held.  They’d be precious if they were only nice tunes, but they’re so much more than that.

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2 Responses to The roots of sustainability

  1. John says:

    I think one of the bet, and least ‘friendly’ depictions of Nature is Peter Grimes. Britten conveys brilliantly that the sea is never a safe or predictable place.

  2. barczablog says:

    Agreed. Neither the townsfolk nor nature are shown to be hospitable.

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