Nature and Music

By Emmanuel Reibel

Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid

Introduction: Isis’s Veil and Orpheus’s Lyre

Nature, mysterious in day’s clear light
Lets none remove her veil.
—Goethe, Faust

Like painters and poets, musicians have continuously drawn inspiration from nature: they’ve sung about the alternating of day and night, the turning of the seasons, the majestic flow of rivers, the beauty of the starry sky, and the tumult of the raging elements. Music certainly doesn’t have the same power of representation as painting or literature: in music, it’s impossible to convey the idea of a tree or a flower with precision! However, it is perhaps of all the arts the most in sync with nature. Listen to the melody of a nightingale, the lapping of waves or the sound of the wind whistling through the trees: man has merely taken these ringing sounds and outdone them by blowing into carved reeds, banging on animal skins and shells, and inventing countless instruments from the wood of ash, pear, or chestnut trees.

As it cannot easily imitate nature, music often hopes instead to find resonance with it through echo. The Ancients represented the cosmos (nature as an orderly system) as a harmony: that is to say, a resonance between perfect proportions. The sounds produced by instruments allow us to return to the “music of the realms”: they place men in tune with the world. In primitive societies, incantations were used in an attempt to master the elements, in order to attract or conjure up the forces of wind, fire, or rain. Throughout history, the conviction has persisted that through music’s mysteries, it is possible to commune with nature, or even to have an effect upon it. Does Mozart’s The Enchanted Flute tell us anything else? In this most universal of operas, the initiation of Tamino and Pamina brings music’s power over nature to the forefront, at the heart of Isis’s temple.

An Allegory of Nature

Like Demeter or Ceres, Isis has become, since Antiquity, one of the most famous allegories of nature. She personifies its generosity and fertility; she also embodies its dimension of regeneration. When, on the morning of August 10th, 1793, a large crowd of people assembled in Paris at the ruins of the Bastille, all gazes were directed towards the center of the square: an imposing statue of Isis had been erected for the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic. Flanked by two lions, the Egyptian goddess had her hands folded over her chest, from which gushed the water of a fountain. A symphonic orchestra and a large choir of men and women suddenly broke into a ringing rendition of the powerful Hymn to Nature: the music was written by François-Joseph Gossec, the official composer of the Revolution. By turns solemn and pastoral, it celebrated the benefits of nature, invoked so as to spread its purifying balm. Eighty-six representatives of the French nation’s departments were therefore invited to drink the water of Isis at the fountain of regeneration.

The ancient Egyptian goddess played a key role in this major ritual of civic unity. In those troubled times, she symbolized the reviving power attributed to nature. But she also embodied its mysteries. Isis is often depicted adorned in a veil that mortals cannot lift, following the tradition of the inscription that embellishes her temple in Sais: “I, Isis, am all that has been, that is, or shall be; no mortal Man hath ever me unveiled.”  Isis hides herself, as though ultimate understanding of her is impossible, even forbidden. Her veil translates a fundamental ambivalence: nature presents itself to man as a wonderful spectacle of the universe and all of its life forms, but behind this fascinating appearance, it seems to want to shy away, masking its deepest motivations, its principles and its laws. So what does this veil hide? And is it possible to lift it without consequence?

From Science to the Arts

From Kant to Goethe to Beethoven, many artists have reflected on the inscription at Sais. But scientists, philosophers and artists don’t respond to its enigma in the same way. Two major attitudes seem to have been at opposition with each other throughout history.

The first attitude, which is voluntarist, consists in attempting to tear nature’s veil away from it, whether by trickery or by force—as Prometheus did when he heroically stole fire from the gods. That’s the undertaking of modern science, by which man seeks to master and possess nature in order to force it to submit to his own desires. Many scientific volumes that appeared in the Classical time period begin with the iconography of Isis-Nature’s unveiling, a subject that was also popular in sculpture. The sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias brought, for example, his monumental Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science to the new Faculty of Medicine in Bordeaux in 1899. Now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, the polychromatic marble masterpiece represents a young woman slowly raising, with a movement of her arm, the banded onyx veil in which she is shrouded. If scientists dream of an Isis who offers herself up, the reality is often more violent: in the twenty-first century, we have become sensitized to nature’s technicist destructions, the unforeseen consequences of which end up turning against man.

The second way to lift Isis’s veil is through the arts. Promethean acts of boldness give way to Orphean incantations. If Orpheus has become the mythic model for all poets and musicians, it’s because nature obeys him: accompanied by his lyre, his song was capable, so it is said, of taming the wildest of beasts, holding back the flow of streams, controlling the elements, even triumphing over death. The arts allow another way of understanding nature to become possible: more intuitive, more immediate, and hopefully no less efficient. It’s in this spirit that most major musicians have celebrated nature’s mysteries, perhaps as a way to control it, perhaps as a way to bring their art back to its essentials. “Wouldn’t the musician find that he has the same rapport with the nature that surrounds him,” wonders E. T. A. Hoffmann, “as the hypnotist with his sleepwalker?” In the middle of his Kreisleriana, the German author suggests to all potential Orpheuses to linger “at the doors of Isis’s temple” so that they can reflect deeply on its teachings: “Music is the universal language of nature, which speaks to us in wonderful echoes, full of mystery.”

No matter which way it is analyzed, this intrinsic link between music and nature explains without a doubt the reason for which numerous composers are so attentive to nature, sometimes until the point of obsession. When they’re not seeking to tell the story of its beginnings, from Haydn (The Creation) to Thomas Adès (In Seven Days), they are imitating its physical manifestations (Vivaldi, The Four Seasons), analyzing its effects on one’s emotions (Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony), reproducing its movements (Debussy, The Sea), conjuring up its elements (Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring)… and all this, against the formalist diktats proclaiming the autonomy of art, or the supremacy of “pure” music, freed from all exterior referent.

A Rich Concept

The relationships between music and nature are nonetheless too rich and too subtle for us to be satisfied with pages of description of seasons, landscapes, seas, and flowers. By “nature,” do we mean all that is not man-made? What is in opposition to culture? What has been untouched by art and artifice? Such a diversity of meaning proves that it doesn’t only represent the entirety of physical elements that make up our environment, whether living (plants, animals) or non-living (minerals, chemical elements): it’s also a concept that has varied throughout the course of history. Antiquity associates it with the spontaneous power of growth inherent to all things: the Greek physis, and the Latin natura (“what is being born”) suggest a principle of movement and of internal development. Judeo-Christian thought states that it is a divine creation; modern science has framed it as an important book to decipher; the contemporary era underlines both its complexity and, since environmentalism has come into general awareness, its fragility. The eighteenth century was a time of stormy debates about the idea of nature, from Rameau to Rousseau.

And yet depending on how it has historically been conceived—as a static space that functions like a vast mechanism, or, to the contrary, as an inherent force—it has been embodied in different ways in creative works. We will therefore invite the reader to re-examine several exemplary masterpieces, chosen among the “scholarly” musical repertoire from the Baroque to the contemporary era, in order to demonstrate how musical evocations of nature have been articulated throughout the history of the idea of nature. And thus we will see the ways in which Orpheus’s lyre has tried to lift up Isis’s veil.