January 28, 2012

Music did not sing as poets say she sung

The Harvard Musical Association was founded in Boston in 1837 by John Sullivan Dwight, a minister, former Brook Farmer, editor, and musical critic. On January 28, 1874, the annual dinner of the Association was held at the historic Parker House in Boston. The evening included a poem by Christopher Pearse Cranch (pictured). A friend of Dwight's, Cranch was an artist and musician as well as a poet. Years earlier, both were also in the same circle of Transcendentalists. Cranch's poetic contribution to the dinner was the simply titled "Music":

When "Music, Heavenly Maid," was very young,
She did not sing as poets say she sung.
Unlike the mermaids of the fairy tales,
She paid but slight attention to her scales.
Besides, poor thing! she had no instruments
But such as rude barbaric art invents.

In those early days, Cranch writes, there were no well-known instrument makers like Steinway or Chickerings — in fact, many instruments did not yet exist. After all, "Music was then an infant." Other arts developed more quickly, including painting and architecture.

But she, the Muse who in these latter days
Lifts us and floats us in the golden haze
Of melodies and harmonies divine,
And steeps our souls and senses in such wine
As never Ganymede nor Hebe poured
For gods, when quaffing at the Olympian board, —
She, Heavenly Maid, must ply her music thin,
And sit and thrum her tinkling mandolin,
Chant her rude staves, and only prophesy
Her far-off days of immortality.

Like Cinderella waiting for her prince, Music sits idly somewhat impatiently. As "the years and centuries rolled on," slowly the world of music grew and new instruments evolved:

But every rare and costly instrument
That skill can fabricate or art invent, —
Pianos, organs, viols, horns, trombones,
Hautboys, and clarinets with reedy tones,
Boehm-flutes and cornets, bugles, harps, bassoons,
Huge double-basses, kettle-drum half-moons,
And every queer contrivance made for tunes.

Through these the master-spirits round her throng,
And Europe rings with instruments and song.
Through these she breathes her wondrous symphonies,
Enchanting airs, and choral litanies.
Through these she speaks the word that never dies,
The universal language of the skies.
Around her gather those who held their art
To be of life the clearest, noblest part.

The great composers, like Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (chief of all) swarm to her in long processions of, as Cranch writes, "the lords of Tone," who come to attend her "like a queen enthroned."

Ah! greater than all words of mine can say,
The heights, the depths, the glories, of that sway.
No mortal tongue can bring authentic speech
Of that enchanted world beyond its reach;
No tongue but hers, when, lifted on the waves
Of Tone and Harmony, beyond the graves
Of all we lose, we drift entranced away
Out of the discords of the common day;
And she, the immortal goddess, on her breast
Lulls us to visions of a sweet unrest,
Smiles at the tyrannies of time and space,
And folds us in a mother's fond embrace,
Till, sailing on upon that mystic sea,
We feel that Life is Immortality.

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