Monday, January 26, 2009

Music from behind the Moon, from James Branch Cabell

James Branch Cabell wrote a seemingly little known work that passionately describes the aching that some of us feel for music that is strange, deep, otherworldly, and perhaps, to some extent, “dark”. “The Music from Behind the Moon” is a short story, which is a portion of a larger book called “The Witch Woman”. It concerns the quest of a bard, Madoc, to find the source of the “skirling” music of Etarre the witch woman that is all “a doubtfulness and a discontent”. Madoc is described as a skilled musician that plays upon a bronze harp, and sings beautifully. He is popular in the courts and with the heads of the regime in which he lives. However, he knows in his heart that his music is really nothing, that it just delivers to these followers of his art what they want to hear to feel, namely that everything is right in their world. He is tormented by the memory of Etarre’s music, which he once heard, but now has lost. The courtly, “patriotic” music that he plays and sings makes the courtiers feel that their country is the best that has ever been, but Madoc feels that such nationalistic fervor is delusional, that one’s country is an “insignificant pimple in the pages of history” from a more enlightened perspective. Only Etarre’s music will satisfy the yearning that he feels for something deeper and stranger, and he pursues it relentlessly.
This short work of Cabell’s is really a fable, and, in addition to beautifully making poignant observations about depth in music, also illuminates aspects of romantic love. Indeed, this work is, I believe, part of a series of books he has written which he describes as “woman worship”. Ironically, in this very same story, he also makes some moving comments about death and human mortality.
Let me add here before moving on to other examples that I love Cabell’s elegant style which involves, somehow, the ability to use whimsical humor and irony to evoke feelings of wonder, and often to make observations about life. Only he and Lord Dunsany, in my experience, seemed to be able to do this.
Two other works come to mind that present a related idea to the above: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zahn”, and a French film “Tous les Matins du Monde”.
In the Lovecraft work, a short story that has been realized in short films that can be found on Youtube, a rather troubled and impoverished student of metaphysics takes a room in a desolate and unchartered area of a city, and he so happens to be in a room immediately below a most odd musical genius, a fiddler, Erich Zahn. He cannot help but hear the strange unearthly music from his room, and, as with Madoc, the student is obsessed with the weird music of Zahn and aggressively pursues hearing it from closer quarters. Zahn himself turns out to be a wildly tortured old man, and seems to be driven by something not of this world. I will not give away more of the story here, but just note that Lovecraft admirably captures the itch that so many of us have for the romantically strange (a desire that pervades a great deal of Lovecraft’s fiction).
In the film mentioned above, the main character is a viola da gamba player and composer, an actual historical musician in the 16th century named St. Colombe, who writes and plays music that is dark, somber, brooding, etc. The young gambist that comes to him for lessons soon becomes seduced by the desire for facile fame and the pompous music of the courts. Perhaps the same kind of music that Madoc had to play---only the young student does not seem to hear the “skirling music that is a “doubtfulness and a discontent”. Even as the student begins to achieve renown, Colombe scolds him for “playing music for kings”, and at another time destroys the student’s instrument in disgust by bashing it against the hard floor. Painful, to be sure, for us musicians, but it makes the point.These three works of art thus have the common theme of showing how the deepest music is not usually the music that is popular, and often not the music that makes us simply “feel good and complacent”. There are many among us that yearn for the transcendent in music, even if it involves elements of tragedy. Of the three works mentioned here, for me, only the Cabell story is profoundly moving. But the other two, the Lovecraft short and the film, are memorable, capture truths about music, and provide a degree of validation for those of us who find ourselves defending our tastes for “darkness” in music and the arts in general.

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