The Impacts of the Nature / Culture Binary on Western Art Music

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Develop a considered position on your own view of the nature/culture binary. How will it impact your chosen profession? Citing original sources, what works of culture or science support and engage your views.

Through history, Western Art Music has been greatly influenced by the concept of nature, and it has asserted its ideals on the creative streak of composers, inspiring and affecting their creative output. Predominantly focussing on the aesthetic of the earth in its purest form, the notion of nature has acted as an influence in the composition of an uncountable amount of works throughout history. Having said this, as human philosophies surrounding nature have progressed and evolved, so has the approach to musical creation, and the urbanization of human life is reflected in composers’ compositions.

In looking at progression of urbanization and correlating it with works of Western Art Music, as well as ideas and philosophies surrounding it at the time, it should become relevant that composers have adapted their approach towards composition according to the culture surrounding them. This essay will study the various movements and paradigms regarding Western Art Music from the Renaissance onwards. Through examining this timeline of examples through Western Art Music history, it will be suggested that although the culture of humanity is becoming evermore urban and destructive in nature, music will always have the ability to depict the purest of landscapes or emotions. Having explored this culture/nature binary within music, I will hypothesize how it may affect my future employment as a professional singer.

Before exploring the notion of a culture/nature binary in Western Art music, it is of utmost importance to understand precisely what a binary opposition is. In forming a clear grasp on what binary oppositions are, the ways in which the culture/nature binary opposition affected Western Art Music should be more apparent.

Binary opposition, as stated by Chris Baldick, is the ‘principle of contrast between two mutually exclusive terms, which sees distinctions fundamental to all language and thought’[1]. These oppositions are viewed as utterly distinct from each other in all ways, and Sorcha Fogarty holds the view that this is because of ‘Western propensity to organize everything into hierarchical structure; terms and concepts are related to positives and negatives, with no apparent latitude for deviation.’[2] Examples of common binary oppositions include black/white, male/female and heterosexual/homosexual, to name a few. Culture and nature are viewed by many as binary opposites because of the differing concepts each represent - nature is the aesthetic of earth in its untouched, pure beauty, whereas culture is a human creation, spurred on by our destruction in forming urbanity and living for our own purposes. Given that culture and nature are considered binary opposites, it begs the question: how does this dichotomy affect Western Art Music? It is universally accepted that music is a consequence of cultural upbringing influencing a composer’s creative streak. John Blacking, an ethnomusicologist, states that music can be defined as ‘humanly organized sound’[3], but although this points toward music being wholeheartedly culturally relevant, nature has always played a big role in the influence of how composers express themselves through music, whether it be a depiction of natural scene or an abstract work created due to natural surroundings. Though both side of the culture/nature binary opposition heavily affect Western Art Music, when tracked alongside various events in history it becomes clear that urbanisation distorts the balance between culture and nature.

The Renaissance period signified a huge change in artists’ approach to literature, music and art. The first mention of the term ‘renaissance’ (translated as ‘reborn’ from Italian) came from Giorgio Vasari when describing that his purpose for writing Lives of the Artists (1550) was to help people “understand more readily the process in which art he reborn and reached perfection in our own times”[4]. He felt artists of the time had advanced greatly through returning to the classical roots after Art had “declined from its noble position to the most degraded status”[5]. Though this first mentioning of the term was in 1550, it being applied to describe the period Vasari lived in as an era wasn’t until Jules Michelet stated the Renaissance was the “discovery of the world, and of man”[6], in reference to the cultural advances of the time in scientific discovery, global exploration and the study of the humanities. Jacob Burckhardt further elaborated on this concept, claiming (in reference to the close mindedness of man in the medieval period):

“It was in Italy that this veil first melted into thin air, and awakened an objective perception and treatment of the state and all things of this world in general; but by its side, and with full power, there also arose the subjective; man becomes a self-aware individual and recognises himself as such.”[7]

In this concise paragraph, Burckhardt perfectly sums up the developing role of humanism during the Renaissance period. The construct of human thought was evolving, and this change in artistic culture affected subsequent history. Humanism brought forth a new wave of perception, with people now questioning what they were taught, and expressing themselves through the arts.

In the early 1600s, composers were no starting to use compositional techniques to portray the nature of a text. Thomas Weelkes in his madrigal As Vesta Was[8] uses word painting techniques to further emote the meaning of the text, the piece commencing with a segment about women in which only the upper parts sing with motifs on the words ‘ascending’ and descending’ rising and falling accordingly. This concept of portraying the text’s meaning through musical elements was a development caused by the humanist movement and was greatly influenced by the natural surroundings of composers.

Although composers drew upon nature in their compositions in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, these works tended to share ‘Apollonian’ qualities, being extremely ordered and disciplined, whereas in the late Classical and early Romantic periods composers started to develop a more ‘Dionysian’ style, expressing spirituality and emotion through more spontaneous music freer of conventions. This change in approach regarding composition could be seen as correlating with the two binaries of culture and nature, the Apollonian music of the Renaissance and Baroque drawing vastly upon the natural world and using compositional techniques to recreate its aesthetic juxtaposed to the Romantic Dionysian means of portraying a composer’s spirituality through composition, a trait which greatly depends on their surrounding cultural upbringing. This being said, this period in time correlated with the industrial revolution, and although composers were trying to convey themselves through their music, many were becoming tired of the Victorian factory-plagued city life, and wanted an element of escapism to the countryside. Though many composers could not move out of cities, they could not find inspiration in the ugly, industrial cityscapes, so instead they drew upon rural areas to act as inspiration in their works. Jim Samson commented on this, suggesting that these traits may have been introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed that “the artist should aspire, through spontaneity of expression, towards the dignity of ‘natural man’”[9]. The Sturm und Drang literary movement which dominated the Romantic era of literature and depicts tension and a desire to return to natural surroundings, and this style served as an inspiration for composers around this time period for works such as Haydn’s Trauersinfonie and Mozart’s Idomeneo. The fact composers were inspired by this literary movement suggests they held a sense of unease with the industrialisation and urbanisation of contemporary society, and seeked refuge in the escapism of their music.

Going into the 20th Century, Western Art Music took many varying different paths in terms of approach to composition as well as self expression within the music. Composers were creating music which challenged cultures in which they lived in, as well as commenting on human nature through undertones in their works. Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) is an example of a composer whose musical output contained undertones regarding ways of thought that challenged political and societal views of the time, with the prejudice regarding homosexuality being a key principle among others such as innocence in children, the inclusivity of the arts, pacifism, and the vocality of music. Homosexuality in Britten’s era was seen as something of disgust with bigotry rampant against anyone who felt this way. It is therefore rather surprising, and somewhat heroic, that Britten dealt with the issue so openly in the public, especially with the ‘concatenation of musicality and homosexuality’[10] in his opera works.

Britten was often viewed as having childish tendencies and even a predilection for boys aged between 12 to 16, so it is a point of interest that Britten specifically used treble voices (boy soprano) in his opera, The Turn of the Screw (based upon the novel of the same name by Thomas Hardy). This was one of the first times a lead role of a boy in an opera had utilised actual boy trebles. Previous to this, females would have played the roles to mimic boys of this age and sing playful arias, an example of this phenomena being Englebert Humperdinck’s (1854 - 1921) Hansel Und Gretel, but Britten’s use of a treble not only illustrates the musical aesthetic that only a child’s voice can portray, but also validates his ‘vision of innocence…[and]...pre-nescience’[11]. That being said, The Turn of the Screw actually depicts the loss of innocence in the child figure of Miles as he longs for a homosexual relationship with Quint. Sadly ‘in repressing love, as society bids him, he is consigned to death’, and were one to view Quint as being a personification of Britten, its undertone represents the worry Britten had concerning the relationships between himself and his child companions. These means of approaching societal rejection through the medium of music are an example of how culture can greatly inform a composer’s approach to composition, and Britten’s A Turn of the Screw exemplifies how musical philosophy in the 20th Century was affected by the culture/nature binary opposition.

Through examining these various trends in Western Art Music history and delving into a selection of compositional examples, it can be see that composers throughout history have created works which draw upon and gain inspiration regarding both sides of the culture/nature binary opposition. It is reasonable to assume that composers will continue to create works which express naturalistic qualities, or which are based upon cultural phenomena, as although there are composers which compose Absolute Music (music merely made for aesthetic purpose and solely for listening with no programmatic quality whatsoever), it is human nature to create art which reflects the surroundings and happenings in which we live in. As a studying singer who already works professionally, I myself am somewhat excited to see where composers will draw inspiration from for future works. As the performer, although I will not necessarily feel affected by the effect of the culture/nature binary upon any given work I sing, it is my job to engage in the aesthetics held within a piece and portray them to an audience. It is of my opinion that the ways in which this binary opposition affect composers can in no way degrade the quality of composition, that is rather determined by the craft and care of a composer. I also believe that one's surroundings will affect compositions, whether intrinsically or extrinsically, and composters will evoke nature and culture for years to come. As such, I am somewhat indifferent as to whether I would prefer music to be affected more by culture than nature, as I would prefer the focus to be on the quality of a work rather than where it drew inspiration from.

In summing up, I would like to draw an influential figure in Western Art Music history. John Cage once said whilst lecturing that ‘‘emotion takes place in the person who has it, and sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly’[12]. Views on the culture/nature binary opposition are something which I believe to be personal and unique to each and every individual. Ignoring what people consider as being ‘pure’, the environment continue to inspire the composition and performance of Western Art Music, as will the culture/nature binary. Richard Wagner sums up the concept of music aesthetic and how culture and nature influence regardless of a composers consciousness of their surroundings and lifestyle, saying:

Where the speech of humankind leads off, there the art of music commences.[13]


[1] Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, (Oxford: OUP, 2008).

[2] Sorcha Fogarty, The Literary Encyclopedia. [Accessed on 15 October 2014:]

[3] John Blacking, How Musical Is Man?, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).

[4] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, (Bungay: Penguin Books, 1965), p.46.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jules Michelet, Histoire de France, (Paris: Librairie Abel Pilon, 1855), p.58.

[7]Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (Salzburg: Phadien Press, 1951), p.83.

[8] Thomas Weelkes, As Vesta Was, (1601). Can be heard at:

[9] Jim Samson, 'Romanticism', in Grove Music Online, Available from: Oxford Music Online. Accessed on 16/10/2014.

[10] Phillip Brett, ‘Britten’s Bad Boys: Male Relations in the Turn of the Screw’, in George Haggerty, Music and Sexuality in Britten Selected Essays, (CA: University of California Press, 2006), p. 91.

[11]Phillip Brett, ‘Britten’s Bad Boys: Male Relations in the Turn of the Screw’, in George Haggerty, Music and Sexuality in Britten Selected Essays, (CA: University of California Press, 2006), p. 101.

[12] John Cage, in a lecture to the Convention of Music Teachers National Association, (Chicago: 1957).

[13] Richard Wagner quoted in Josiah Fisk, Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writing, (Boston: North Eastern Press, 1997), p. ix.