Sustainable Music


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thoreau's Pastoral Symphony

Next week I will be speaking at the University of Tennessee's School of Music, and later in Boston, on "Thoreau's Pastoral Symphony." Of course, Thoreau never wrote a symphony; but he had a singular understanding of music and its place in the natural world, one which has a good deal of affinity with contemporary composers of ambient music and environmental sound art. Here I want to say a few things about Thoreau's musical background and conclude with a word about how his understanding of music can shift our understanding from people sustaining music to music sustaining life.

Indeed, a very prominent mid-20th century American intellectual historian, Perry Miller, disparaged Thoreau's understanding of music. “Thoreau had an insatiable hunger for music,” he wrote. “His untutored flute-playing has become a legend. He could invoke Beethoven, but he knew little about music, had virtually no chance to learn. . . . The second chapter of 'The Service,' that on heroic music, is pathetic in its revelation of musical illiteracy. What he could learn of music, aside from his little 'music box' and Emerson's Aeolian harp, was only what he might hear through the windows of some burgher's house wherein a daughter of respectability was practicing her piano lessons" (Miller, Consciousness in Concord, p. 146). 

But Thoreau’s pastoral symphony was not, like Beethoven’s, a representation of pastoral; it was pastoral. After all, Thoreau didn’t just write about pastoral; he actually experienced it in his cabin at Walden Pond. And so in these public lectures I will claim that Thoreau’s pastoral symphony was the music of the whole world of Nature, humans included, with which he vibrated sympathetically. 

Thoreau understood Beethoven’s music, the music that Professor Miller said he was ignorant of, as a kind of human echoing of the music of Nature; that is, of natural sounds. Miller’s characterization was at best ungenerous; but was it also correct? What, exactly, was Thoreau’s musical background? Was he really musically illiterate? Was he limited to music boxes, Aeolian harps, and listening through a window to some respectable young lady practicing the piano? David Henry Thoreau (he later reversed his given names) was born in 1818 and spent most of his youth in rural Concord, Massachusetts. What musical education would have been available to a young man of his time and place?

If he had been a musical prodigy Thoreau might have studied performance with a master, but musical conservatories had not yet been introduced in the United States, and the formal study of music history, literature and criticism was even further in the future. We know Thoreau played the flute, loved to sing popular and folk songs, and enjoyed dancing (his mother had sent him to dancing school as a boy). In order to play the flute he would have had to had some kind of tuition which likely would have involved learning musical rudiments, if he had not already learned them in singing school as a boy, in grammar school or, more likely, in church. We can suppose that he was musically literate at least in the limited sense of someone who could read for an instrument and who knew musical intervals, melody, rhythm, and harmony. Also, he was renowned for his unusually keen ear; he could discriminate among different birds singing simultaneously and had a knowledge of each one's song (that is, he could sing it back) as well as a mnemonic device for remembering it (Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 195, 265, 354-355.)

As a young man, Thoreau went to dances and other entertainments (Ibid, 73). He did not study music at Concord Academy (where he was enrolled from age 11 until he went on to Harvard) but then it was not offered. He did not receive a musical education at Harvard either because, as far as I can tell, it was not offered. Lowell Mason established his Boston music academy when Thoreau was fourteen years old, with instruction in singing and theory, and therefore launched his music education in the schools program too late for Thoreau to have taken advantage of it. Where else might he have received his education in music? Most likely it was from his father, John Thoreau, who "took great pleasure in music and often played the flute in the parish choir as a young man" (Ibid, 8). His older sister Helen "gave music lessons" in Concord (Ibid, 10). His sister Sophia was "fond of music" and "sang and played the piano well" (Ibid, 12). So instead of being limited to what he could overhear from a respectable neighbor lady playing the piano, he in fact grew up in a musical family; his father sang and played the flute, he himself played the flute, and his two sisters played piano, one well enough to give music lessons. In point of fact, then, his musical education would have been more advanced than most of his peers for that time and place. 

Miller's conclusion about Thoreau's musical illiteracy is, therefore, likely incorrect; but as Thoreau had a much broader concept of music than Miller, the critique is also somewhat beside the point. Thoreau did not write in his journal about the soirees in the family home when he played flute and his sisters played the piano, or the social occasions when he was called on to sing popular songs and ballads. His writings did not chronicle his social life. He did write about times when he and his companions, boating on rivers and lakes, break into songs of camaraderie; and he gives some of the lyrics. We recognize these as occupational folksongs of the sort that folklorists later collected from sailors and loggers. And he also wrote about those times when adrift in a boat on a lake or pond he plays his flute in a meditative way, the scene usually compared to pastoral. Seldom did he comment about concert-going, although we know he attended them; once he wrote, in typical perverse fashion, that opera must be for deaf people. (In fact, his hearing was acutely sensitive and until the last years of his life he could recognize very soft sounds over long distances.) He mentioned Beethoven and other Western art music composers very occasionally, and usually in a complimentary way. But most of his writing about sound and music concerned the sounds he heard in the natural world: frogs, crickets, birds, the sounds of the wind and rain, and also the ambient sounds of children playing, church bells tolling, and people chopping wood and surveyors halloing through the woods to mark their location.

To digress for a moment, when I was a sophomore at Amherst College I met Perry Miller. He had come down from Harvard, where he taught, to lecture us on Roger Williams, in our American studies course. He had written a book on Williams, and in his lecture he argued that the Puritans who ruled the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been ethically wrong to convict him of sedition and heresy and to exile him from the Colony for proclaiming his views on religious freedom. Another professor had taken an opposite view, that the colonial magistrates had the right to banish someone from their community who was a threat to its very fabric. Like most of the students, I sided with Miller when I was asked to write about the conflict. Who, after all, could oppose freedom? Later in the course, as we explored First Amendment rights, I began to understand more about the context. Williams was, in effect, screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, the classic case. Therefore, when I read Consciousness in Concord, I was surprised at Miller's condescension toward Thoreau, his lack of essential sympathy. 

Thinking with Thoreau here, we begin to see the importance of music as sound, and of sound in sustaining life on planet earth. As I've written earlier, one approach to music and sustainability is to ask how we can sustain music; and I've addressed that in various writings on this blog and elsewhere. Another approach to music and sustainability, however, comes from acoustic ecology and is to ask how music is involved in sustaining life on planet earth; and it is in reply to this question that Thoreau's larger scope pertains, for he understood sound to be the natural language of the universe. Thoreau never wrote a pastoral symphony. He never needed to: it sounded all around him. We may not share his Romantic views, but insofar as sound is the primary medium of communication among the creatures of the universe, interference with and threats to the natural soundscape make inter-species communication increasingly difficult, to the point that they endanger the sustainability of life.