Music, Myth and Man: A New Concept of Teaching Music Appreciation

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In the struggle to give the wishes of my heart artistic shape, . . . my studies thus bore me, through the legends of the Middle Ages, right down to their foundation in the old Germanic myths. . . . What here I saw was no longer the Figure of conventional history, whose garment claims our interest more than does the actual shape inside; but the real naked Man, in whom I might spy each throbbing of his pulse, each stir within his mighty muscles, in uncramped, freest motion: the type of the true human being. (Richard Wagner)1

The study of literature in its largest sense, the great imaginative works in the Western tradition, is essential to the academic philosophies of this small private institution, The University of Dallas, which values also its legacies of Classical civilization. As our 1976-77 Bulletin attests, a literary work "provides a concrete paradigm of the movement into insight, the exciting discovery in which one suddenly comes to know oneself in relation to a greater reality."

A course recently devised to attract liberal arts students and provide an elective which would relate to their core curriculum turned out to be interdisciplinary in approach, yet musical in basic content. It drew not only from Classical literature, but also from Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Laforgue, folklore and the Bible in order to rouse in the student a vision of himself and of his place in the universe. But even more significantly, it explored the art of music as a meaningful mirror of this ever-expanding universe.

Intending to introduce the great masterpieces of Western music literature, the course was described in the Schedule of Classes as follows:

Linking the generations of our Western Civilization, myth is one of man's most intimate possessions, touching his deepest desires—his fears, his hopes, his passions, and his artistic expression. The legend, moreover, has awakened countless latent musical spirits, transforming the raw idea into a timeless work of art. This course probes the inspirational forces behind a great musical composition. By minimizing the more conventional historical or technical approach with its organization into style periods or genre, this unique "music appreciation" course places prime emphasis upon opening doors to music's multifaceted vistas. The student is encouraged to become a vital critic, continually seeking and challenging the universal roots of all creative expression.

It was important during the first class meeting to come to grips with the term "myth" itself, searching for clues which would unlock its meaning in the writings of great scholars. Since no suitable textbook could be found for the course, the introduction of a general bibliography provided a good means of opening class discussion and an opportunity to explore the students' variegated potentials. All members of the class agreed that the topic of the myth concerns inner, not outer, life. With scholar Franz Winkler, they concurred that its chief concern is the kind of consciousness which determines the course of history, not history itself.2 Man, therefore, is in dire need of discovering and tapping the wellsprings of creativeness, which once flowed in his cultural ancestry.

At this point it was deemed felicitous to introduce the concept of myth in Hellenic civilization as the fundament of the entire history of Western music. The term "music" was explored as derived from the Heliconian Muses, those "eloquent daughters of mighty Zeus" who fly about at night "letting their beautiful voices be heard,"3 and the doctrine of ethos was analyzed in an attempt to understand the effect of musical sounds upon the listener. Within the cults of gods, Apollo and Dionysus, moreover, were found music's contrasting sensuous properties. For the search for the temperate versus orgiastic, calm versus stormy, classic versus Romantic has been operative throughout all Western musical history, thus reflecting Paul Henry Lang's dictum that "every tone from the past raises an echo in us today."4

While remaining consistently connected with man's spirit, the ever-changing elements of rhythm, melody, texture, instrumental color and form convert the art of music into a kaleidoscopic means of expression and place it within a tradition, which embodies man's entire mythical experience in its broadest sense. To insure that the class began on common footing, six of the remaining thirty-six sessions (which met for one and one-half hours twice weekly) were devoted to those five important elements of music. Numerous short examples embraced all musical eras and genre in order to clarify the nature of inspiration, the creative process and musical communication, as well as to introduce some basic terminology. Most of the students had never had a formal music course; only a few could read music even with a minimal degree of proficiency. Since the course concerned itself primarily with heteronomous music, these introductory classes afforded opportunity to discuss the purely abstract forms, such as sonata form within the Classical symphony, and to lay open the broad question of autonomous versus heteronomous musical expression. For even music, which presupposes completely absolute ideals, embodies some element of "mythical experience," and programmatic music must always of necessity stand on its own, purely musical, feet when the literary inference is stripped away; music is far more than a mere servant of the myth.5

Within the main body of the course the concern was for aural analysis and comprehension of larger musical masterpieces with their associated literary or extra-musical sources of inspiration. Although the basic intent was to eschew a deliberate chronological approach, the six units progressed logically, nonetheless, from early to later musical styles. (See Appendix for course outline and bibliography.) Unit One: Classical Mythology began with early opera and the critical year of 1600, focusing upon the Orphic legends in Monteverdi and Gluck. Unit Two: Mysticism, Freemasonry, and W.A. Mozart devoted three classes to The Magic Flute. Unit Three: Baudelaire's Musical World showed this important critic's links with the great nineteenth-century artistic philosophies, especially those of Richard Wagner. Emphasis in this unit was on the Ring cycle, which to Winkler "opens man's heart to the history of the hidden essence of his own self, and to the changing forces that are active behind the sensory phenomena of man and earth."6

The remaining four units continued to explore music's diverse associations with myth. Unit Four: Folklore and Fantasy focused upon nationalism and the tone poem. Unit Five: Irony and Satire probed the significant motivating forces behind twentieth-century music. Concluding the course, Unit Six: The Christian Revelation—Fall and Redemption investigated the magnificent imagery of legends, which Jung doubtless would find stemming from "religion" rather than "creed." The Bible itself, rooted in this form of consciousness, tells the story of man's spirit in a universal language which speaks to humanity as a whole. Music, in turn, heightens this intuitive experience, arousing in all men from past to present a renewed spiritual perception and self-awareness. In this regard, the drama of evil versus good, darkness versus light, is as inherent in Boito's Mefistofele as it is in Bach's St. Matthew Passion; it justifies the juxtaposition of Bernstein's Mass with Handel's Messiah, or Haydn's Creation with Milhaud's La Création du monde. In order to codify and re-emphasize these very special revelatory powers of music, a recommended final lecture might include portions of Mahler's Symphony #2 "Resurrection."

The basic analytical approach throughout the entire course, then, was facilitated by a comparison of works associated with common mythical-literary events and characters, rather than grouping according to style, period or genre. It should be stressed that at all times the creative manipulation of musical materials (rhythm, timbre etc.) was of primary concern. Illustrating the success of this method were the students' enthusiastic responses during class discussions and their exemplary, spontaneous essays on written tests. Admittedly, the latter aspect reflected their unusually fine training in literary skills prior to taking the course.

A typical class lesson began with student oral reports and discussion on a previously assigned subject. This usually involved the mythical or literary preparation for the musical work or works presented thereafter to the class. Unit One, for example, opened with a style of music which evolved from the Renaissance veneration for classical antiquity, early opera. It provided an excellent link with mythology and allowed the students to explore the artistic philosophies of primitive and Greek cultures, as well as those of the Renaissance. As a focal point the figure of Orpheus, with his ability to animate lifeless objects, was selected for research.7 Discussed in class before the study of Monteverdi's and Gluck's respective Orfeos, the topic lay open not merely the ancient legend itself, but the Orphic powers as they appeared to the great philosophers and writers, such as Pythagoras, Socrates and Boethius.

From very early times, Orpheus was associated not only with a certain abstract eloquence, but interestingly, with the power of actual secular music. However, some modern authorities on Greek civilization believe that only in the early forms of the legend was the Thracian poet-musician infatuated with music. Bertrand Russell ascribes to the Orphic cultists a "transmigration of souls" theory, in which the soul's happiness hereafter is determined by its way of life on earth. But more significantly, Joseph Kerman in his Opera as Drama remarks that "the myth of Orpheus deals with man specifically as artist, and one is drawn inevitably to see in it, mirrored in a kind of proleptic vision, the peculiar problems of the opera composer."8 For Kerman, Orpheus achieved as artist what he was unable to accomplish as man, and it is the musico-dramatist's task to clarify, if not resolve, this dichotomy between art and life.

The question is reviewed in a new light by twentieth-century writer Victor Segalen, whose science-fiction fantasy, Dans un monde sonore, inspired Debussy to write an opera in which Orpheus would be completely wordless. While the opera never materialized, Debussy's rarefied ideal may be found in a line taken from Segalen's drama:

Orpheus is a part of our changing ideas of humanity; the need to hear and to be heard; the will to live and to create in sound. Orpheus is the symbol of our escape from the sordid sensations of sight and touch. An actual figure of Orpheus never existed, only Orphic powers which, having reached their zenith, enable us now to pronounce a judgement on the world of the past.9

Following the class presentation of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, with its elements of understatement and mythical evocation, did not appear incongruous. Besides linking past and present, the study effectively illustrated to the students the innate timeless properties of a great musical work. How vastly different, one might ask, is the flute solo in the Elysian fields scene of Act II of Gluck's opera from the opening of Debussy's Faun? What underlying forces conjoin, as well as separate, operatic and instrumental expression; the styles of Gluck and Debussy?

In preparation for a class on Strauss's Don Juan, it was considered more important to understand the character of the Don than the events surrounding him, so the class surveyed the emphasis on different aspects of his nature by various writers. Don Juan first appears in literature in an early seventeenth-century play by Spaniard Tirso de Molina. Although it was in Spain that he received identity with a sort of perverse sensuality, some literary scholars claim that he is a universal type and the subject of local myths in many countries, a knight in shining armor—the very force of life itself. With Molière in 1665 new comic effects and the character of Donna Elvira were introduced. While Lord Byron was concerned with high adventure and esprit, George Bernard Shaw saw a modern, satirical "Don" in his Man and Superman, and so forth.

By the time the musical works were presented, not only did the students understand the character very thoroughly from diverse vantage points, but also they were in a propitious frame of mind to receive the full impact of music's appearance on the scene. In Mozart's Don Giovanni, from which only a short scene was selected for demonstration, the Don is "humanized" by Mozart's music and, in addition, the characters with whom he comes in contact. Mozart, in short, accomplishes a miracle in musical characterization through the kaleidoscopic melding of music, poetry and drama which is the essence of opera.

One hundred years after Mozart, Richard Strauss, inspired by Nicola Lenau's arcane poetry, also achieves a miracle—but within the expanded orchestral form known as the tone poem. Since the "Don I," "Elvira," "Anna" and "Don II" themes had been taped before class began, it was possible to show their aural, hence their subtle psychological, relationship during class before the entire tone poem was played. Through inspired musical means, such as a common initial upward surge of the melody, might Strauss be implying that these four themes are manifestations of the Don's inner nature and of man's eternal struggle within himself?

Several students responded well to questions about these aspects on their written, in-class examination and, characteristically, with a touch of original perception. Cecelia Loyall commented:

For the nineteenth-century Strauss, psychological motivation, and what we children of the "Era of Introspection" would call the man behind the heroic love exploits, seemed a more interesting subject than the classicist's man of deeds. His vibrant, heroic Don is a man in search of self-knowledge rather than merely satisfaction (a point well-illustrated by the alterations to the "Don Juan I" theme throughout the course of the tone poem). His heroic self-assertiveness is expressed by upward-striving horn passages set like massive gems above meditative, even dark and chilling reflective passages.

Frederic Vilbig, a junior majoring in philosophy, perceived:

Even in the opening, almost swashbuckling, theme, there is a touch of the tragic in the momentary dissonant harmonies, . . . Whereas Mozart finished (his opera) with power and determination, Strauss builds to a grand climax but does not produce it. Instead there is a very soft, sad theme in the end. There is an understatement here which suggests the fact that what Don Juan was striving for was unattainable; this is the plight of mankind.

Other studies of this kind, such as comparison of Till Eulenspiegel and Petrouchka revealed similarities in "dual personalities," yet differences in the composer's respective handling of his musical tools to effect this image. Freshman Joyce Berry found "schizophrenic" music imagery in Till's two successive motifs and man-puppet Petrouchka's simultaneous ones (or more precisely, the polytonal treatment of one motif). A literature student, moreover, could be especially receptive to probing into the comparative spheres of musical-dramatic or -narrative expression. For James Edwards the ballet genre, in this case, was concerned "not so much with the exploration of a character as with the acting out of his fate." Protagonist Till appeared to him more "developed" and melodically prominent throughout, while Petrouchka's musical and dramatic interaction among several other characters affected the loss of concentration upon him as a central figure.

Although the present brief overview of course content and approach has been of necessity limited, its inherent rich potentialities are nonetheless obvious.10 For college teachers who strive to widen their own horizons, as well as those of their students, it can have a special significance. While religion and mythology deal with the evolution of man's soul, music, as we have seen, can provide the gateway to his renewed spiritual perception. Finding the key to this sometimes "wild and rude" passageway is the aim of every serious music educator. But, like Henryson's Orpheus, he or she must study the quadrivium unceasingly in order to master the powers of "universal harmony."




Course Outline

  Myth and the creative process
  The composer's tools for expression and communication: rhythm, melody, texture, color, form

Unit One: Classical Mythology
  The Orphic legends in Monteverdi and Gluck: the historical image
  Gaugin, Segalen and Claude Debussy: the rarefied ideal
  Beethoven's Prometheus: the heroic spirit
  Berlioz's Les Troyens: the epic style in music drama

Unit Two: Mysticism, Freemasonry and W.A. Mozart: The Magic Flute

Unit Three: Baudelaire's Musical World—Hidden Workings of the Heart and Mind
  Richard Wagner's characteristic use of mythology and symbolism
  Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze
  Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Strauss
  The mind of Alban Berg

Unit Four: Folklore and Fantasy
  Spanish: The Three-Cornered Hat (De Falla)
  Germanic: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (Strauss)
The Youth's Magic Horn (Mahler)
  American: The message of the Beatles

Unit Five: Irony and Satire
  Le Roman de Fauvel, a fourteenth-century musical allegory
  Concepts of fate in Bizet's Carmen and Orff's Carmina Burana
  Clowns, circuses and spectacle: Jules Laforgue as revelatory critic
    Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci
    Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire
    Cocteau, Picasso and Igor Stravinsky
  Satie's Three Flabby Preludes for a Dog
  Rugged American philosophy: Charles Ives and his music

Unit Six: The Christian Revelation: Fall and Redemption
  Satanic images
    The Faust legend in Gounod and Liszt; Boito's Mefistofele
    Schubert's "Erl-King"
    The "Witches Sabbath" from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
  A Savior
    J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion
    Handel's Messiah
    Bernstein's Mass and our modern dilemma


Brown, Calvin S. Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1948.

Drinker, Sophie. Music and Women. Washington, D.C.: Zenger, 1948.

Grout, Donald. A History of Western Music, rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1973.

Hollander, John. The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700. New York: Norton, 1970.

Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. New York: Vintage, 1956.

Kraussold, Max. "Music and Myth in Their Mutual Relation" in Reflections on Art, ed. Susan Langer. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1958.

Lang, Paul Henry. Music in Western Civilization. New York: Norton, 1941.

Lesure, Francois. Music and Art in Society. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State, 1968.

Lippman, Edward A. Musical Thought in Ancient Greece. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Lockspeiser, Edward. Music and Painting. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Machlis, Joseph. The Enjoyment of Music, 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1970.

Manthey-Zorn, Otto. Dionysus, the Tragedy of Nietzsche. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Moore, Earl and Heger, Theodore. The Symphony and the Symphonic Poem. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edwards Bros., 1957.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Introduction by Robert Graves. New York: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

Winkler, Franz E. For Freedom Destined. Mysteries of Man's Evolution in the Mythology of Wagner's Ring Operas and Parsifal. Garden City, New York: Waldorf Press, 1974.

_________. Man, the Bridge Between Two Worlds. Garden City, New York: Waldorf Press, 1960.

1A Communication to My Friends," Richard Wagner's Prose Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis (New York: Broude Bros., 1966), Vol. I, pp. 357-58.

2Winkler, Man, the Bridge Between Two Worlds (Garden City, New York: Waldorf Press, 1960), p. 117.

3In her fine term paper, senior literature major Cecelia Loyall quoted from Hesiod's Theogony and concluded that the Muses were essentially guardians of man's memory. She held that "to be serious music a composition must provide its listener with a unified experience. Because music is a serial art which must gradually unfold in order to reach us, how well that unified experience accumulates depends upon how well the composer appeals to memory. . . . The Muses are themselves an affirmation of that process.

"The Muses, however, belong to the mythology of another age, and dead mythologies are singularly open to attack by the children of live ones. . . . But a modicum of respect for mystery must lie at the heart of any man's intellectual pursuits, for those pursuits are universally founded upon axioms. Not only is tolerance for the variety of mystery represented in mythology virtuous: in this particular case it can help us to understand how and why men create in sound."

4Music in Western Civilization (New York: Norton, 1941), p. xxii.

5For more on this subject, see Calvin Brown's excellent discourse, "Program Music: A Short Guide to the Battlefield," in his Music and Literature (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1948), pp. 229-56 and Robert T. Lauden, "No One Can Possibly Mistake the Genre of This Composition," Current Musicology, 25/1978, 69-82.

6Winkler, For Freedom Destined (Garden City, New York: Waldorf Press, 1974), p. 4.

7Music's persuasive powers became the topic of a term paper by junior Alice Anderson, a Classics major. She mentioned Amphion, who played his lyre, forcing the stones surrounding Thebes to form walls—seven-gated to reflect the seven strings of the lyre; Arion, also with his lyre, persuades a dolphin to carry him safely to land; the seductress Sirens lure men to their watery doom by their beautiful singing. But "Aristotle turned down a great chance to discuss this persuasiveness of music in the Rhetoric," she observed. "He asserts in Book I that rhetoric is a property of language: the use of persuasion is, he says, 'not a function of any other art.' But the effect of an entire musical composition of high quality upon an open and prepared human spirit is a peculiar form of persuasion."

8(New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 27.

9As quoted in Edward Lockspeiser, Music and Painting (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 112.

10The course divides well into two semesters for more intensive coverage. Another recommendation is to devote one semester to Western and the following to non-Western music and myth.

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