Image for The Unity of Art, Literature, Music and Life

*Pic: Poussin ... a Dance To The Music of Time

This is a longer article than usual because, although it covers four distinct subject areas, it would have defeated the purpose to break it into separate shorter articles. The piece came to me and was conceived as one unified whole. Hopefully, the reader will understand the reasons why this must be so by the end of the article.

One would be hard pressed to choose a work of art that represents the unity of art, literature, music and life more richly than Poussin’s masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time. Poussin’s brilliant conception unifies time and space, the natural with the supernatural, the sensual with the philosophical, and the particular with the universal.

As we contemplate the many elements depicted and how they are integrated into one unified vision of life, we soon become aware that we are in the presence of an artistic genius of incredible sophistication and intelligence, expressed through an extraordinary artistic talent.

While the painting depicts the joyful scene of beautiful youths dancing merrily to a musical accompaniment in a natural landscape, one is immediately struck by the incongruity of the watchful old man Time, in all his naked, muscular physicality.  With the authority of an angel, he plays the tune to which all must dance, reminding us of our mortality and the ephemerality of the youthful delights we are witnessing. The two infants unconsciously play out the same message (one blowing bubbles, the other holding an hour glass). The herma statue on the left implacably portrays the two faces of youth and age of Bacchus, the bringer of wine and merriment. (Legend has it that Bacchus was given to the world by Jupiter, in response to complaints from the Seasons and Time, as compensation for the miserable lives we mortals must endure!)

The dancers are not only beautiful young people enjoying life in the moment. According to the rich literary tradition upon which Poussin constantly drew, they represent the four seasons and/or prevailing conditions of life: autumn and poverty (the male in darkness at the rear), winter and labour (the female in orange on the right, with her bound hair and shadowed face), spring and riches (the one in blue on the left, with a garland of roses on her head) and summer and pleasure (the one in white at the front, with ears of corn in her braids).

The dancers herald a new day in the dawn light but the setting is autumnal, with dark clouds foreboding the coming of winter, to which summer always returns in an endless cycle of life and death.

All this is played out in the natural physical world of earth, trees and sky, but also in a firmament depicting the guiding forces on a supernatural level. Aurora, the goddess of dawn, leads the chariot driven by Apollo, the sun god, who holds the Zodiac ring that governs the lives of the mortals below. The passing Hours follow in train. We get but a fleeting glimpse of them all blazing across an ominous sky, soon to disappear from our vision again, as ‘dawn goes down to day’. Time moves so quickly!

The painting has a musical quality about it: one cannot but be caught up in the dance. As the poet Yeats concludes at the end of Among School Children:

Oh body swayed to music; Oh brightening glace;
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The music and dance are only possible in time. However, it is Time which also limits it, tragically.

So here is the great affirmation of exuberant life in the face of mortality. But any such ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ is inseparable from the actual lived experience of responding personally to the painting as a whole. And as we pay more attention and our response deepens and becomes more complex, so our experience becomes ever richer. Poussin was to return to these themes later in life in his great masterpieces The Four Seasons.

I first consciously encountered these themes as a youthful 17 year old at Sydney University, in the very first poem of my very first Introduction to Poetry lecture:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I had never studied a poem before. I was completely innocent and totally ignorant. But when an inspirational lecturer, Derick Marsh, read and talked about this and other poems, I was completely bowled over and became hooked on poetry and literature for life.

Poussin creates a particular, precise impression of life conceived in paint, on less than a square metre of canvass. Frost gives us another equally vivid conception in eight simple lines of verse on a page, using just 40 ordinary everyday words. The abstract ‘message’ is the same: nothing beautiful or valuable or pleasurable can last. But the experience of reading the poem, like looking at the work of art, is something else: a uniquely personal experience that is altogether richer, more intellectually provocative and emotionally moving than any such reductionist statement about its ‘meaning’.

And it is achieved by similar artistic means, through a complex process of multiple, simultaneous associations of striking images. These are at once familiar, yet also alluring and rich in connotation. Before we know it, we are drawn very quickly into the inexhaustible world of the imagination, where the perception of both artist and recipient are inseparable from the image, word or sound in which it is contained.

Frost’s poem works because the value of the beauty of spring is firmly established by the surprising accuracy of his observation. If you look closely—and he wants us to look closely at the world of nature—the first budding of the leaves is more golden in colour than green and every leaf begins in the form of a flower. The literal truth of this justifies the metaphorical paradox that ‘green is gold’. While gold is the traditional measure of material value because it is considered incorruptible and endurable, ‘Nature’s first’ suggests that there is another value in nature that is primary and takes precedence.

However, by the end of the second line of the couplet, our confidence in this begins to fade. We are told that this first ‘hue’ (barely tangible as a solid colour) is ‘Her hardest hue to hold’. We are reminded that this is just the ‘first’ of many signs of spring, which quickly change in colour and form. Nothing we value in spring can be held on to in the way we can hold a bar of gold. The multiple associations of ‘hard’, ‘hue’ and ‘hold’, the effect of the alliteration and the rhyme all combine to reinforce the central paradox. Within two lines of simple words, arranged with great care and precision, we already have an extraordinary richness and complexity of meaning.

The leaves that were so fresh in spring fall to join others on the ground in autumn and the word ‘subsides’ prepares us for the analogy of ‘So Eden sank to grief.’ Here is the heart of the poem: the loss of all that freshness, innocence and beauty in nature—of all that is of value in life—is personal and universal. Such grief is devastating and heartbreaking. It is experienced simultaneously as something at once natural and inevitable—like the falling leaves and the transition from ‘dawn’ to ‘day’—and yet also as a tragic fate, with the mention of ‘Eden’ carrying connotations of the Fall (the term Americans still retain for Autumn). All this is foreshadowed by the cumulative effect of ‘subsides’, ‘sank’ and ‘goes down’, with the rhythm (another form of dance) and the rhyming couplets, leading us inexorably to the conclusion: ‘Nothing gold can stay.’

And yet the poem is not defeatist. Because the beauty of spring is experienced fully, notwithstanding the reality that it will pass, the poem affirms a value (rather than an object) that we can hold on to in the face of mortality: a value that is experienced in time but also transcends time’s cycle of life and death. Of course, it is each person’s individual response to the poem as a whole that matters. And each person’s experience is itself unique, irreducible and ultimately ineffable.

Essential to the experience of loss is the willingness to grieve fully. In Spring and Fall Gerard Manley Hopkins retains the religious connotation in the title but he concentrates on the human experience of the young girl, who grieves unashamedly at the falling of the leaves. Grief is something that unites us all, no matter what the age or reason: ‘Sorrows springs are the same’. As Margaret grows older, she will come to realize that grief is unavoidable and is part of the human condition:

It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

In music, we can find similar themes relating to the seasonal cycles of life, imaginatively reconceived in sound and rhythm. The most famous examples are Vivaldi’s exuberant Four Seasons, Beethoven’s gentle Pastorale Symphony and Spring Sonata and Stravinsky’s explosive The Rite of Spring.

But to get a sense of the unity of grief and joy, suggested by the poetry, I would go first to the music of Mozart and then Schubert. Here’s what my favourite musician and interpreter of their works, pianist Murray Perahia, said about the value of such music, in an interview entitled Singing with the Fingertips.

Music is life itself: it cannot be separated from it. Music is about the meaning of life; it is philosophy. That’s why I can devote so much time to it. I’m beginning to understand Mozart’s philosophy. But that of Bach fascinates me just as much, and I still don’t have the slightest key to it: of course there’s the religious feeling, mellowed, meditated, totally structured and infinitely felt, but I wonder what his music says about deep anguish and at the same time about love, the love of life — that double feeling you find in Mozart’s last years and very strongly in Schubert: a profound sadness mixed with an attachment to life. It’s not at all negative, on the contrary. The consciousness perhaps of what love and human destiny are. Understanding this takes a whole lifetime.

For Perahia, the most important thing is one’s emotional commitment: ‘If you are not playing music that you love, then your love is not being used. And if it isn’t used, it’s not part of your musical vocabulary, and then what good is that music?’ Integrity is everything to the true artist. Interpretation can never be merely an intellectual exercise, because it involves one’s whole being: ‘If music is going to mean something—to somebody else and to yourself—it has to be a part of you.’ It involves ‘singing a story’ and, when that music strikes a chord deep within us, it has ‘a power beyond words’.

With Mozart we are in the presence of an extraordinary creative genius. This is apparent from the following excerpt from one of his letters:

First bits and crumbs of the piece come and gradually join together in my mind; then the soul getting warmed to the work, the thing grows more and more, and I spread it out broader and clearer, and at last it gets almost finished in my head, even when it is a long piece, so that I can see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind, as if it were a beautiful painting or a handsome human being; in which way I do not hear it in my imagination at all as a succession – the way it must come later – but all at once as it were. It is a rare feast. All the inventing and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream. But the best of all is the hearing of it all at once.

What a privileged consciousness! No wonder many musicians I know refer to Mozart’s music as coming from God! Certainly, as a description of the divine creative process, this surely is as good as it gets. This quality is beautifully captured in the superb film Amadeus and is exemplified in Perahia’s luminous recordings of Mozart’s Complete Piano Concertos. It is worth adding that Perahia eventually did find a key to Bach’s ‘philosophy’ and went on to make many equally sublime recordings of his keyboard works, such as the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas and the Keyboard Concertos. These are matched only by Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s wonderful interpretations of Bach’s great choral works, such as the Xmas Oratorio, the Mass in B minor, the St Matthew and St John Passions and his many Cantatas.

What is most striking about Bach is the way his profoundly felt experience of the religious texts is conceived in terms of sound that is expressed through music of incredible invention, virtuosity and power. All this creativity is in the service of reconciling the universal drama of human existence portrayed in the Four Gospels. By Bach’s time, there was already well over 1000 years of extraordinary art dedicated to exploring these rich religious narratives that Bach sets to music.

For Gardiner, ‘Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius’, fully justifying his own life-long dedication to performing his music, which he describes in his aptly titled magnum opus: Music in the Castle of Heaven. By contrast, Albert Einstein’s response was: ‘This is what I have to say about Bach’s life’s work: listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.’

The other great composer of this era is, of course, Beethoven. If Bach’s music provides the longed for consolation for the trials and tribulations of life within a religious sensibility, and Mozart’s and Schubert’s unite a sense of profound personal sadness and anguish with a more secular love of life, Beethoven’s music is an uncompromising exploration of individual consciousness to its limits. It produces music that continually reminds us of the extraordinary depth and complexity of life, its often unendurable agony and its occasional sublime joy. Just listen to his great Ninth Symphony!

But not all music is so uplifting. In my lifetime, the composer that most characterises our contemporary troubled world is Dmitri Shostakovich. His music exemplifies the crucial relationship between art and politics when truth speaks to power.

His prophetic Fourth Symphony was written in protest against tyranny during Stalin’s Great Purge/Terror but was considered so dangerous to perform that he was persuaded to withdraw it at the last minute, for fear of his life. This forced Shostakovich to develop a different kind of subversive musical language of political resistance. The result was his extraordinary Fifth Symphony, which is the best point of entry to his musical genius. His Seventh Symphony was composed during the siege of Leningrad, as a symbol of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism and as a musical testament to the estimated 25 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives fighting with the Allies in World War II—a scale of suffering we in Australia can barely imagine.

These symphonies and his Eighth String Quartet (his personal requiem “to the victims of fascism and war”) convey viscerally the brutality of oppression, the horror of war, man’s inhumanity to man and modernity’s spiritual malaise. (This, of course, has also been the subject of many courageous artists, from Goya’s The Third of May to Picasso’s famous Guernica.)

Shostakovich fully appreciated the value of literature, particularly the crie de coeur from the contemporary poets, many of whom were murdered or sent to the Gulag by Stalin. His very stark Fourteenth Symphony for soprano, bass, string orchestra and percussion, composed in 1969, is set to their very disturbing texts. And it stretches his musical language and our nerve endings to the extreme. The work concludes climactically with Raine Maria Rilke’s profound meditation on death. It ends with a bang, not a whimper!

All-powerful is Death.
It is on watch
Even in the hour of happiness.
In the world of higher life it suffers within us,
Lives and longs
And cries within us.

And yet, once again, the actual experience of the music and the poem, however desperate and tragic, is not defeatist. It is certainly agonising in the extreme but it is also unflinchingly courageous and honest and, as a consequence, is also strangely exhilarating.

According to Simon Rattle, in his superb documentary series Leaving Home: Music of the Twentieth Century:

This music expresses Shostakovich’s core philosophy: the artist has only one advantage over the tyrant and that is Truth. And if the truth is told enough times, then eventually it will come through victorious.

Most of all, Shostakovich felt compelled to bear witness to the suffering: ‘My symphonies are tombstones to the dead.’ Significantly, his motivation for this great testamentary work was altruistic: ‘I had to write this, to save a whole generation from the bitterness.’ 

Like all great art, this unsettling music ‘grabs you by the jugular’, ‘cuts to the quick’ and ‘takes your breath away.’ It proceeds ‘to shake you up’ to the core of your being and then goes on ‘to radically re-order your sense of reality.’ In doing so, it establishes a value that transcends—and helps us to confront and deal with—the horror of the world as it really is. But such art has to be experienced, directly and personally, to be effective. You cannot get it secondhand.

In his beautiful poetry collections The Prayer Tree and A Common Prayer, Michael Leunig calls us to celebrate, praise, give thanks and rejoice for all those composers and musicians who dedicate themselves to the expression of life’s mystery and joy:

Who nourish our hearts in its yearning.
Who dignify our soul in its struggling.
Who harmonize our grief and gladness
Who make melody from the fragments of chaos.
Who align our spirit with creation.
Who reveal to us the grace of God.
Who calm us and delight us and set us free to love and forgive.

I would extend this to all those artists ‘who tell us the truth about ourselves and our world’ and who

      help us to change. To change
ourselves and to change our world.
To know the need for it. To deal with
The pain of it. To feel the joy of it.

And I would include Shostakovich among those composers most to be valued.

Leunig’s poetry reminds us of another theme which has been a major preoccupation of artists, writers and musicians: the importance of forgiveness. Because this is a central theme in the Christian story, it is not surprising that some of our greatest artists painted it. What we get from Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son or Poussin’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene in Penance, for example, is a profoundly moving experience that goes far beyond the words of the text.  They radically challenge our preconceptions and extend our range of sympathy.

One of the most moving and sublime moments in opera is at the end of the politically subversive comedy of errors, The Marriage of Figaro, when the Count kneels and begs his wife’s forgiveness for his exposed infidelity. The Countess forgives her husband and order is restored because of her love. Mozart creates music of such transcendent beauty that it casts a blessing on all who behold this astonishing moment of reconciliation.

Forgiveness was also a major preoccupation of our greatest secular writer, Shakespeare, from Portia’s appeal to ‘mercy’ in The Merchant of Venice, through King Lear’s tragically late realization of its importance, to the ‘quiet consummation’ of the late revelatory plays of reconciliation, particularly The Winter’s Tale. His last play, The Tempest, ends with Prospero’s:

My ending is Despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so it assaults
Mercy itself and relieves all faults.

But such forgiveness cannot be willed or demanded: all the great artists recognise that it is ultimately an act of Grace from beyond. And it comes, if it comes at all, usually only after enormous personal struggle, as Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, intimate, heart-rending novels Gilead and Home demonstrate with great tenderness and wondrous love. It is no coincidence that her profound insight is informed by a religious sensibility that Bach would have recognised. Both have the quality of prayer and bequeath ‘a legacy rich in reverence’.

It is also no coincidence—however surprising it may be—that a leader of the most powerful nation in the modern world should recognise such quality. During his Presidency, Barack Obama went out of his way to visit and interview Marilynne Robinson, whom he clearly regarded as not only one of the greatest writers of our time, but of all time—an assessment with which I agree. What resulted was a fascinating conversation ‘about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in’. It was subsequently published by The New York Review of Books:

When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

Can we find a comparable leader with a similar sensibility in our own democracy? 

Have a look at Paul Keating’s passionate, eloquent and provocative affirmation in the remarkable Preface to his After Words.  He characteristically makes even bigger claims for the value of great art, literature and (especially) music to life in general and to genuine political endeavour in particular.

FRIEDRICH SCHILLER, THE GERMAN PHILOSOPHER , said: ‘if man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice, he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom’.

Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation.

The moral basis of our public life, our social organisation, has come from within us— by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction. Immanuel Kant referred to our inner impulses as ‘the higher self’, an unconscious search for truth, going deeply into ourselves to establish who we are and what we should be.

Beauty is about the quest for perfection or an ideal, and that quest has to begin with aesthetic imagination— something informed by conscience, carved by duty. Kant called it ‘the inner command’, the ethical construct one creates to guide one from within.

But we need tools to mine good intentions: inspirations, ones which await the creative spark, the source of all enlargement. Creativity is central to our progress and to all human endeavour.

He believes that the creative forces, which guided his extraordinary political life and changed the country for ever, spring

from two sources: policy ambition in its own right and from imagination— the dreaming. Policy ambition arising from Kant’s higher self, and imagination promoted by those reliable wellsprings— music, poetry, art and architecture— blending the whole into a creative flux.

It is these which give us that creative spark of inspiration, which sustain the enormous creative energy and drive required for effective action and which provide the creative ‘frameworks for the intuitive resolution of complex problems which require multi-dimensional solutions.’

Of course, this is not a matter of simple direct causation: it is a deep and subtle integrative process that is largely sub-conscious. But it provides the best foundation for any genuine political decision-making, which must always, in a healthy democracy, act on the basis of personal conscience and ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’ for the common good.

I believe we should embrace Keating’s enlarged sensibility in this respect, irrespective of what we think about his political behaviour or contribution.

It is not surprising that the ‘big-picture’ politician of our era was attracted to big forces in music. I share his love of Mahler’s music and, in particular, his appreciation of, and faith in, the power of Mahler’s incredible Second Symphony:

The symphony is written to represent the triumph of hope over despair, of belief over doubt, of resurrection— of life over death. What is amazing is that another being is able to let the rest of us into such a transformation. As Kant said, ‘Only artistic genius discloses a new path to us’.

However, I am reminded of Mozart’s more profound insight: “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love: that is the soul of genius.”  It is this love, in all its vulnerability and in all its ethical and moral complexity, that so informs the work of Marilynne Robinson.

I agree, of course, with Obama’s claim, best articulated by DH Lawrence, that ‘the novel can help us to live, as nothing else can.’ No-one could really experience George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or War and Peace— arguably the greatest novels ever written—without an enlarged sympathetic understanding of the complexity of life and an increased capacity for empathy with others. What these works share with all great art is also an uncompromising commitment to face reality—both personal and political— with unflinching moral integrity.

Obama, Robinson and Keating all recognise that these qualities are not only the foundations of a meaningful personal life but are also essential to any flourishing democracy. I also believe that the great works affirm a fundamental unity of value—spiritual, aesthetic and moral— underpinning human aspirations and conduct. Hence, the personal is political (and vice versa) at a much deeper level than is generally understood.

At a time when our contemporary popular culture seems to be bereft of any higher or deeper meaning and purpose, it is a pity there is so little interest in our rich cultural heritage.

Of course, there is much to enjoy and learn from popular culture, as John Carroll admirably demonstrates in book Ego and Soul. But there is comparatively little to sustain a meaningful personal and community life, unless one is conscious of the deeper cultural tradition from which it invariably draws and without which we have no real basis for critical evaluation.

There is much to be superficially attracted to in popular culture but very little worthy of mature reflection or sustained love. And when the richer sources are more valuable than ‘gold’, why bother with the dross? When the obsession with celebrity is rarely more than ‘the relentless pursuit of the talentless by the mindless’, why not recognise and celebrate true genius? Rather than pursue mediocrity, why not pursue excellence? Why settle for the mundane when we can experience the sublime?

And we should not be put off by any feelings of inadequacy in our pursuit of something better. No expertise is required to experience great art, literature or music. Just a little time and commitment; and a willingness to pay careful attention to (and reflect upon) what we are looking at, reading or listening to. If we let the works themselves guide us, we will be richly rewarded. For such works cultivate intelligence and sensibility together in a way that no purely intellectual, scientific, philosophical or political discourse can.

All that these cultural treasures require in order to be kept alive are good lookers, readers and listeners who are willing to pay due attention to them. This is the work of love. It is an active, creative process that requires the use of all our faculties. And if you feel you need extra guidance in developing these, there are plenty of resources readily available. The great works are inexhaustible. They are great precisely because they reward returning to again and again over a lifetime. We need to honour their legacy and pass on their wisdom. This is how culture works at its best.

According to Carroll in The Western Dreaming, ‘the western world is dying for want of a story’:

A culture is its sacred stories…We are desperately in need of guidance, both personal and communal, in the form of a story about the meaning of life and how we should live fully and relate to others…If that story is told in the right way, painted or scupltured in the right form, composed in the right key and the people on their own road to Emmaus are receptive—the story cryptically intersecting with their own—then the very foundations of being may be illuminated by the light of Truth [and, one might add, also by the light of Beauty and Goodness]. That is what Culture does.”

That has been my experience.

We are creatures destined by evolution to make life conscious: to create and respond to our best expressions of life’s mystery, whether in the form of art, music or story. Those images, sounds and narratives from our culture which ‘lodge’ deep within us constitute our lives, along with—and every bit as much as—our interpersonal relationships and our relationships to the natural world. They ground our ethical and moral integrity. They are essential to our personal and community flourishing.

Culture is transformative. Great art, literature and music not only stimulate the senses and delight our intellect: they nourish our soul. And the soul, which is deeper than conscious thought, is the ultimate source of good conscience, which in turn directs our best judgment.

Our relationship to our inner world is the only continuous relationship we will have for life. It is a relationship worth nurturing and nourishing with ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’, guided by the ultimate values of ‘beauty, truth and goodness’—values we need to continually reaffirm in our personal and community life.

*Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and writes occasional articles about politics, morality and faith, and how these relate to each other. He believes in the unity of value across all domains—spiritual, aesthetic, moral and political—and in the need for all our values to hang together with integrity. He is passionate about the value and importance of art, literature and (especially) music. He lives and enjoys walking in the beautiful Tasmanian landscape overlooking the D’Entrecasteau Channel. Above all, he feels grateful for this precious life, in all its mystery.For more articles by this author, click on Scott MacInnes, here: