Correlationof Music and Literature Over the Years


The high arts of music and literature have remained in an interestingrelationship with one another over the years. This marriage of musicand literature has ushered in an interdisciplinary research fieldlooking at both types of art and how they have developed bothindependently and interdependently since antiquity. A lot ofattention has been given to the cultural and aesthetic interactionsbetween music and literature as well as the influence of eachdiscipline on the other, which is well enhanced by critical theoryand new methodologies of studying arts. Consequently, there are newways of conceptualizing music and literature created by authors andplaywrights from the past. Some of the early authors and playwrightswhose work make interesting cases of study include Jean BaptistePoquelin De Molière (1622-1673), William Blake, and SamuelColeridge. Individual styles and approaches to art were influenced byother artists as well as the surrounding environments. Time has alsoserved as a major driver of change in art over the centuries. Takingthe period of mid-17th centry, highlighted by the works ofMoliere and late the 19th century as captured by the worksof Whitman, there is clear indication of a strong correlation betweenmusic and literature. The two disciplines shared similar environmentinfluences and responded in unique ways besides each disciplineimpacting the other. Thus, this essay seeks to show that the culturaland aesthetic interactions of literature and music offer fitting andcomplex analogies for either discipline.

First and foremost, art must be perceived as a product of creativeimagination. However, creativity cannot function in a void itdemands a suitable environment that nurtures creativity as well asdesired and random ideas. In music and literature, such anenvironment is delivered by both animate and inanimate aspects ofnature as well as manmade creations. Through the senses, individualsand artists perceive the surroundings, process them, and interpretthem during the waking hours such that they invoke certain emotions,attitudes and perception of life and nature. Thus, by making use oftheir memory and imagination, individuals can produce works of art asexpressions of the same. This means that, although works of art maybemotivated by a wide range of issues, the piece must always be viewedas a product of the artist’s imaginative mind with a communicativepurpose. Thus, in assessing how music and literature from themid-17th century to the end of the 19th centurycorrelate, the artworks must be seen as subjective expressions ofartists’ ideas under certain environments.

The social and cultural forces behind any form of art constitute thefoundations for making any inquiries about art. Dayan (2006) assertsthat it is logically difficult to regard music or literature asuniquely expressive without examining the underlying contextual andsocial factors that give meaning to the work. Context varies widelywith time and location. Thus, time is very essential in theexamination of cultural and social drivers as it determines thepotential environmental influences on an artwork. As products of theimaginative mind, music and literature are greatly influenced by thepolitical, social, economic, and cultural environments of the authoror composer. In the case of the 17th century France,there were wide ranging public debates on education and the access toeducation in a highly stratified society. In England, there wereheated debates over the role of religion and the monarchs in society.Different artists and authors might perceive and interpret suchenvironments differently or similarly. Therefore, similarites in theexpression of ideas through art even under similar environmentscannot be guaranteed. For this reason, the essay compares authors andcomposers from similar time periods for comparison purposes andtracks the changes under several art movements.

During the classical era, Moliere stood out as an author whose workwas heavily influenced by Italian commedia dell`arte. Hisfamous play, The Bourgeois Gentleman, employed both literatureand music to address common social, cultural, and political issues ofhis time. The piecework was created in 1670 and was first staged atKing Louis XIV’s court. As a classical musical comedy, Molierewrote the play while the music was composed by Jean-Baptiste Lullywith Moliere’s troupe performing. The play sought to depict thecase of a middle class man attempting to move up the social ladderinto nobility. This was an attempt in vain as nobility in 17thcentury France was attained by birthright. Moliere recognized thedesperation of the poor masses to move up the social ladder into themiddle class. In the play, he also attempted to make fun of Turkishnobility as instructed by King Louis XIV. However, instead ofdirectly depicting the struggles of the lower social class, hedepicted the vain struggles of a middle class man in climbing thesocial ladder into nobility using the Turkish system as a shortcut.The music in the play is captured both as a theme and as part of theperformance. The music accompaniment captures the mood of despair andfrustrations. As a theme, music is portrayed as a social classindicator in the sense that the main character, Jourdain, makes anattempt to learn music and dance moves associated with the nobles. Inact one, the music master teaches Jourdain a Russian song, The VolgaBoatmen, whose lyrics read in part

I mourn night andday

Nor sleeps my pain

Since those fair eyes

Imposed this heavy chain

But tell me my love

What dire fate attends

Your enemies

If thus you treat your friend? (Moliere Act I, 1670).

The lyrics of thesong impersonate the French culture in the eyes of Jourdain who ismistreated by the class of nobility that he so much desires yet doesnot welcome him. In this case, Moliere utilizes music as a theme andas an accompaniment to his play. The most interesting thing is thathe borrows music from Russia that also captures the political andsocial climate in France at the time. Accordingly, the convergence ofthe music with the play as a theme and as an accompaniment bestexemplifies a case of transmediality, which is basically a themebeing addressed by different art mediums simultaneously.

Composers and authors are likely to share common views toward theirsurroundings thereby leading to convergence in themes acrossdisciplines. The fact that the musical accompaniment for Moliere’splay was composed by Jean Baptiste Lully, a recognized Baroquecomposer, indicates a convergence of ideas between Lully and Moliereon social classes. Their collaboration also captures influences frompast collaborations by other artists. Powell (2006) indicates thatthe collaboration, which was their ninth, copied past collaborationsbetween Mozart and da Ponte. The play thus brought together artistswith a common view of the social system in France. The music playedby Lully in the play reinforced the intended mood of the play whichwas gloomy. The original act begun with an instrumental overture andconcluded with a ballets à entrées. Thisstrengthened the message of the play in line with intentions of thecomposers.

Aesthetically, the early 18th century era produced piecesof literature and music that responded to the prevailing social andpolitical issues. Daniel Defoe (1719) authored the novel RobinsonCrusoe in which he narrated the heroics of a young man who survived ashipwreck. Other novels published around the same time dealt with thenotion of spreading knowledge and allowing lower class masses toaccess knowledge. As such, knowledge and literacy were viewed asenablers of social mobility as captured in The BourgeoisGentleman. Defoe’s book illustrated the importance of knowledgeand literacy through Crusoe’s survival skills and reading ability.The author also captured the concept of religion as Crusoe read theBible in search of deeper peace and hopes. The religious orliturgical elements in some musical compositions in this age were notso evident. Musically, the compositions were short and simple phrasesthat were pleasant to listen to and contained repetitions (Houle1999). Compositions around the early 17th centuryconcentrated on discourse and oration. The ancient Greek approach tomusic named monody, which comprised of solo singing accompanied byjust one stringed instrument called kithara, was common in the17th century. Such was also heavily employed in plays asan accompaniment (Houle 1999).

The use of simultaneous tones, pitches and instruments around themid-17th century coincided with increased complexity inliterature. During the Rococo years, music was largely homophonic andlight in texture, melodic, and intricately enriched. The French namedthis style gallant or elegant style while the Germans named itempfindsamer stil (sensitive style). In France, which waslargely religious, François Couperin (1668-1733) led thecompositions of music for religious purposes. In Germany, twobrothers C. Bach (1714-1788) and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782),composed music for religious purposes under the Rococo style. Othermusical compositions were composed and performed in front of thenobles in their courts but not for mass consumption as nearly allsocieties in Europe were highly stratified (Houle 1999).

However, with the coming of the classical period, political upheavalsand wars marked an important phase in the history of music. Music forconsumption by the masses started being produced. This changed theearlier notion where music and literature alongside education wereperceived as preserves of the nobles and the middle class. Publicconcerts were common in major cities that had large theaters andamphitheaters. This also marked a major change in terms of thecontent and themes of music and plays as motivated by publicenjoyment and entertainment. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), WolfgangAmadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)dominated the field in Germany and developed the art of balancingconsonant and dissonant sounds. Instrumental forms were introduced:the symphony, concerto, sonata, and in instrumental chamber music.For instance, Beethoven introduced string quartets and choral musicthat were better suited to be performed for the larger publicaudiences. Secular themes and vulgarity emerged (Houle 1999). Thesame was witnessed in literary works that had been very conservativepreviously. Political themes such as the one covered by Moliere inThe Bourgeois Gentleman emerged. All these were geared towardsappealing to a diverse population as opposed to the rulers and themiddle class.

The Romantic period marked a new way for music and literature tocorrelate. Ideally, the Romantic Movement placed emphasis on emotion,individualism, terror, horror, love, and beauty of nature with aninclination towards the medieval as opposed to the classical period.The movement also emphasized on social and political ideologiesleaning towards liberalism, nationalism, and radicalism (Sutherland2013). Thus, the period ushered a new approach to how music andliterature would interact and influence one another. A host ofEnglish poets such as William Wordsworth (1770&nbsp– 23 April1850), Samuel Coleridge (1772 – 25 July 1834), William Blake (1757– 12 August 1827), George Gordon Byron (1788 – 19 April 1824),and Percy Shelly (1972-1822) spearheaded the movement through theirworks. Shelley M. (1818) in her book Frankenstein alsopresented Romantic ideas in what is described as the first sciencefiction novel that would later influence such horror plays and music.

Nonetheless, each author addressed personal views and interestsbesides those of the movement, thereby making their works unique. Forinstance, in Coleridge’s (1798) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,he glorifies the heroics of a bird that is later killed by one ofthe sailors and uses repetitions such as Day after day, day afterday, ….. Water, water, every where.” Wordworth’s (1798) LinesComposed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey captures the beauty ofnature by describing Wye as “a wild secluded scene impress,Thoughts of more deep seclusion.” Similarly, Byron’s (1815)description of a land where “flowers ever blossom, the beams evershine” in Canto I captures beauty of nature. Byron alsoshows his appreciation of religion and medieval Greek mythology inAll Is Vanity, Saith the Preacher where he talks of “TheHeracleidan blood” and refers to Greece repeatedly. Blake (1794)leaned towards the heavenly beings in The Angel where hedreamt of being “a maiden Queen Guarded by an Angel mild” whileShelley’s (1820) England in 1819 is a condemnation of thepolitical class and an appeal for nationalism. She changes tact inOde to the West Wind where she vividly describes humanmortality and the beauty of nature. She even talks of a “wildSpirit, which art moving everywhere Destroyer and preserver hear,oh hear!” (Shelley 1819). The pieces all capture the changinginfluence and the choices in audiences that also followed theapproach by musical composers who varied their orchestras and evenallowed for conductors.

Towards the end of the romantic period, the transcendentalismmovement was born and risked undoing all the good done by previousart eras. While Christianity had played a huge role as a patron ofart over the years, the transcendentalism movement (1820-1830s)sought to distance itself from the Church. The art of this period waslargely influenced by new discoveries in psychology and philosophy,biblical criticism, and anti-establishment. The movement sought todiscredit major social institutions which were viewed to corrupt theindividual. The Realists were also opposed to romantic ideas ofnature. In literature, the Realist sought to create alteredcharacters with human like attributes. For them, description becamean important part of storytelling. Internal monologues as informed byhuman psychology were common. Competition and antagonism of variousideas are internalized to mark key turning points in the story. Formusicians, common references to day dreams, nightmares and similarpsychological aspects reflected new knowledge in psychology.Furthermore, deeper and more complex notes in music were captured myartists such as Anthony Philip Heinrich. Heinrich’s complexcompositions were largely influenced by his experiences in theinternational scene that resulted in complex music (Houle 1999).

The Realism era in art also brought another phase of interactionbetween music and literature that had a greater impact up to today. This style sought to present everyday realties in life through musicand literature truthfully. From a cultural perspective, the era wascharacterized by emerging issues in modern societies such as theindustrial revolution, exploration into new lands, and similarescapades. Aesthetically, journalistic techniques were largelyemployed alongside adherence to facts and scientific knowledge.Fundamentally, this approach in literature that followed reportformats adhered to facts and clarity in adherence with journalismmarking a marriage between journalism and literature. In so doing,the authors of the time created fictional characters but kept torealistic events and progression of such events. Given that theRealist approach in art was perceived to serve the interests of themiddle class, a sub-genre of Realism that sought to highlight theplight of the lower class emerged. This subgenre sought to portrayemployers negatively- people who exploit employees under the guise ofcapitalism. This would later be called social Realism as inspired byKarl Marx’s socialist ideologies (Sutherland 2013). Among themusicians inspired by such ideals that were largely viewed as apreserve of literature included Englishman Vaughan Williams.Williams’ music and symphonies touched on common themes such as theFirst World War and well as English folklore, thereby making his workappealing to the masses (Houle 1999).

Walt Whitman is the icon of the shift from transcendentalism intoRealism. The American poet and journalist developed a collection ofcontroversial poems that have been described as overtly obscene. InThe Leaves of Grass, Whitman (1855) celebrates humanity insensual pleasures. Other contributors include Frederic Henry Hedgewho together with Whitman led discussions critiquing religion. One ofHedge’s (n.d.) literary works is the book Reason in Religion.In this book, Hedge examined the validity of religion in the face ofnew knowledge in philosophy and psychology.

The correlation of music and literature over the years as discussedat length above lies in the shared cultural, social, and economicinfluences as well as the aesthetic appeals. In aesthetics andcultural appeals, there are points of convergence. The best method ofcomparing the two disciplines occurs through assessment of the vocalsand text as opposed to instrumental music. The beliefs of thecomposers and authors were also influenced by prevailing conditionsas expressed in their works as illustrations of their creativeimagination with environment al influences. Thus, it is clear to seethat music and literature have enjoyed interdependence as well asbeing influenced by similar factors but expressed in different ways.


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