'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

15 December 2010

Music - The Madness of the Muses

The ancients played instruments, sang hymns and rustic tunes, danced for the gods and for pleasure. Apollo gave music to mankind and David sang his psalms. Everyone from Richard the Lionheart to a friend has a go at a tune. Why do we make music and sing? It seems that speech can convey much of what we wish to communicate, but when we sing we seem to move to a level that also transmits the soul of what we feel. Music takes many forms which we like to categorise as ethnic, classical, techno etc. etc. but while all might not speak to us individually, music of one sort or another does form part of the life of most human beings and has always done so. It has been said that music is as old as civilisation, as old as man, or even older. Birds are known to create their own song and they pre-dated us by millions of years. From cave paintings dating back some 40,000 years we see our ancestors dancing. Perhaps it began with percussion, a reed blown or whatever, but soon we find stringed instruments and there are many examples excavated or represented in ancient temples and on discovered artefacts.

One of the overpowering images I have of a great lost love, which appeared to suit him, is that of a single musical note. Not the sound, because that would be a complete Mahler Symphony, but the appearance of one solitary, little crotchet. He danced, he sang, and his body had a flow of graceful proportions that moved and pounced like a piece of music that stirs the imagination and passions. To look at him was like looking at a note on a page that is waiting to be brought forth, producing glorious sounds or feelings that will make the world want to dance or sing. When he created music of his own it had an originality that spoke immediately to me. When he sang, his voice  came from a strange and lonely place deep within his soul. There was pain, there was anguish there was a soul in the notes he screamed at you. Dance to him was such a personal activity. He danced for himself and there was no inhibition as his body used to leap and throw the passions within him out into the world and at himself. For him, just to stand was an expression of beauty. A fine, delicate piece for solo instrument, incomplete and tantalising. In contrast to the way he expressed himself in dance and song, he walked with an air of choreographed restraint, and spoke in a voice that was soft and lyrical, with the modulations of a Romantic string trio.

Mythological Beginnings

There were nine Muses (daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne). Calliope - the muse of epic poetry, Clio - the muse of history, Euterpe - the muse of lyric poetry, Melpomene - the muse of tragedy, Terpsichore - the muse of choral dance and song, Erato - the muse of love poetry, Polyhymnia - the muse of sacred poetry, Urania - the muse of astronomy and Thalia - the muse of comedy.

Mercury invented the Lyre by drilling holes in a tortoise shell and adding nine strings in honour of the nine Muses. He gave the Lyre to Apollo. The Muse Calliope bore a son, Orpheus. Some say Apollo was his father or his lover and had taught him to play the lyre which he subsequently left him as a love gift when they parted. Orpheus' playing was so beautiful it entranced both man and beast and because of his explorations and the wisdom he gathered, he set about changing his people to appreciate music, abandon bloody sacrifice and also taught the love of boys. Women were denied this knowledge, banned from the mysteries and so sought revenge on the boy lovers.  When he joined the Argonauts his strings helped launch the Argo, his music set the rowing pace and his gentle song put the guarding Dragon to sleep when they found the Golden Fleece. Returning from the voyage he married Euridice, but sadly she died, so he followed her to  Hades, the underworld, and his singing bought her release, but when, against warnings, he looked at her at the moment of escape he broke a vow and she once again returned to the shadows of the underworld. He gave up the love of women and became a priest of Apollo and his favourite love was Calais the Son of the North Wind who had wings on his head and feet. They had met on the Argo. At the time of the festival of Dionysus the Thracian women broke into the temple and murdered the men including Orpheus. Their screams had drowned out his music and thus being no longer protected, he was torn to pieces and the lyre was thrown into the river. It was said that a nightingale sings more sweetly at his grave and also that Zeus sent a vulture to retrieve the Lyre, which he placed among the stars as the constellation Lyra. Others say that it was the Nine Muses who carried the Lyre into the heavens. Lyra is next to Hercules and it is suggested that it was placed there to sooth him.

Ancient Instruments

The Didgeridoo is the sacred sound and the spirit of Australia. Today it accompanies all ceremonial, sacred and festive occasions throughout the country. This unique instrument originated in Arnhem Land, in the north of Australia, and has endured from the past and captured the soul of the modern Australian.

There is evidence from Slovenia that 50,000 years ago the Neanderthals constructed a flute from prehistoric cave bear bone. "The flute of course was broken in some ways, but sufficiently intact that you could make a guess at what kind of a flute it might have been....the dexterity as well as the intellectual insight to construct such a thing is quite considerable.." Doctor Jelle Atema- a biologist and flautist has reconstructed such items from pre-history.

An ancient Egyptian Sistrum and the earliest complete and playable musical instruments - 9000 year old bone Flutes from China. 

Music pervaded ancient Greek culture. It accompanied festivals both religious and celebratory, funerals, banquets, for the army and in the home. It was anintegral part of the education of boys. The great epics of Homer were chanted and dancing. The lyre and the flute predominated and developed into more complex instruments with the addition of extra strings or reed pipes and holes. Like today, music consisted of many modes (scales- harmoniai).  Although singing followed the melodic line the instrumentation grew in complexity, and embellishment from the written note soon developed, but earned the disapproval of the conservative Athenians including Plato.

In ancient Rome music and musicians were regarded with contempt and music was not part of the standard education of boys. Musicians formed guilds which were originally for self protection. However music must have had some importance as there was much consternation in 311BC, as Livy describes, when the flute players went on strike. The late republic saw an encouragement of music and then the Emperors Augustus and Nero did much to encourage competition. Domitian built a music hall in the centre of Rome for these contests. Music accompanied pantomimes and there were also concerts by large ensembles held in the theatres as well as the wide spread use of music at dinners and banquets. Apart from the lyre and flute, an Etruscan influence introduced trumpets and horns particularly for funeral rituals.

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