By Peter Davison
When mankind first landed on the Moon in the summer of 1969, any lingering mystique about the satellite, which has orbited our planet for almost 5 billion years, came to an end. Prior to NASA’s Apollo missions, the Moon was observed from Earth as a magical silver orb. Now it was mere lifeless rock. Its former symbolic or astrological meaning was swiftly replaced by images of men in airtight suits executing mundane tasks – planting flags, digging up stones and even playing golf.
For those of a more poetical bent, who had found beauty and inspiration in the age-old mythical Moon, it was another painful loss of enchantment as science once more recast the Universe to suit the modern mind.
Astrologically the Moon is often linked with serenity, sleep and harmonious forms of romantic love; the mood so beautifully captured by Shakespeare’s words and Vaughan Williams’ glorious tone-painting at the opening of his Serenade to Music (1938).
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Yet archetypal symbols customarily encompass their opposites, so we should not be surprised to find the Moon also associated with deception, chaos and madness. The enchantment of love can all too easily degenerate into lunacy, driving men and women to distraction and even suicide. The Moon marks the gateway to the unconscious, where opposites not only meet but where feelings and ideas are not yet coalesced into anything definite.
This is the tantalising realm of intuition, where many things are possible, but nothing is sure. The entangling of opposites may leave matters fraught with ambiguity, but the combination of the Moon’s light and dark side can also lead to wholeness, where the spiritual and earthly become one.
The Moon is thus associated with Christ as the incarnation of the divine, and we hardly need reminding that Easter Day each year coincides with a new Moon. In this context, the Moon is a symbol of renewal, expressing Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, imagery used to powerful effect in the central episode of William Byrd’s anthem Sing Joyfully (1519).
The Moon derives its light from the Sun, so that in a patriarchal culture, it can represent a weaker feminine counterpart, able to function only as a mirror to masculine authority and as a servant of the rational mind. The lunar presence thus signifies not power, justice and knowledge, which are the Sun’s domain, but the ever-shifting realm of emotion and the ceaseless change manifest in Nature’s repeated patterns of life, death and rebirth.
But to consider these elements as inferior is to underestimate the Moon’s potent and necessary influence. The waxing and waning of the Moon arguably make all life possible by creating the ebb and flow of the tides. Its phases have long been associated with female fertility, the passage of the months and seasons. Now and again, the Moon even eclipses the Sun, bringing unexpected darkness, irrational fear and portents of disaster.
A good example of the Moon’s fateful presence can be found in Dvořák’s opera Rusalka (1900). The work’s most famous aria occurs at the moment in Act 1 when the eponymous water-sprite addresses the Moon. She sings poignantly of her love for a human prince, invoking the celestial body as an all-seeing, all-knowing presence, the key witness of our human existence.
Moon, deep in the sky,
I see your light from afar.
You wander around the wide world,
looking into people’s homes.
But the Moon offers more than a watchful eye. Rusalka wants its secret knowledge to seep into the dreams of her beloved to influence his desires and actions. The Moon expresses Rusalka’s seductive character and her wish to meddle in human affairs. She may long to experience the transient joys of mortal love, but she is nonetheless willing to invoke fairy magic to be certain of it.
Shine on him distantly,
to tell who awaits him!
If his soul dreams of me,
awake in him that memory!
The prince’s spell-induced infatuation awakens him to unimaginable ecstasy, but such intense and supernatural emotions cannot be endured by ordinary mortals. Love transports the young man metaphorically to the Moon which, devoid of its spiritual light, becomes a deadly place with no prospect of embodied human existence.
Gustav Mahler also found himself attracted to the magical powers of moonlight. In Ken Russell’s sensationalist biopic Mahler (1974), the film director, with uncanny insight, connected the climactic central episode of the Seventh Symphony’s first movement with the emergence of the Moon from behind a cloud.
In the music, the sounds of mysterious birdsong and bubbling springs tell us that we have come to the dark womb of the creative impulse, where the artist must humble himself before the mysteries of Nature. What follows is a glimpse of the goddess, the Eternal Feminine, illuminated by the light of the Moon. It is the symbol that would dominate Mahler’s next and most ambitious symphony.
This visionary passage is reminiscent of Das Marmorbild (The Marble Statue), a short story by the German poet and novelist, Josef von Eichendorff, which Mahler must surely have known. By night, the story’s protagonist Florio seeks a mysterious woman whom he has glimpsed in the forest:
… Florio walked on for a long time, until he unexpectedly arrived at a large lake, encircled by lofty trees. The Moon, having just appeared over the tree-tops, clearly illuminated a marble statue of Venus that stood on a stone, close to the water’s edge…The longer he looked, the more strongly did he feel that…life was blooming like a delightful song, bringing warmth as it rose up the lovely limbs.
The two Nachtmusiken (Nocturnes) that follow this opening movement capture the erotically charged atmosphere of the moonlit forest, where nothing is quite what it seems and where the mind is easily enchanted by dreams of romantic love.
The poet risks all for his art, and none more so than Li Bai who penned the original ancient Chinese text of the first song in Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. One story relates that Li Bai drowned in a state of intoxication as he leapt from his boat, hoping to seize the Moon which was reflected on the surface of the lake’s dark waters. In Mahler’s setting of The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow, the Moon is a significant feature. The poet is a drunk, seeking to escape life’s suffering. At the song’s climax, the moonlight shockingly illuminates an ape in the graveyard, a fearful image of death.
Look down upon the moonlit graves,
there squats a wild ghostly figure.
It’s an ape! Hear him, how his howls
scream out amidst life’s sweet scent!
However, by the time we reach the work’s final song, The Farewell, this existential agitation has been transformed. The Moon becomes a ship with a numinous cargo sailing serenely across the night sky.
O see, like a silver boat, the Moon
floats upward in heaven’s blue lake.
The Moon now represents the journey of the soul from terror towards transcendence. In response, the music swells with feeling and, as the movement unfolds, we realise that the emotional landscape has been utterly changed. The wild ape of the first song has become the human friend with whom the cup of wine is now shared. Intoxication no longer means lunacy, but an ecstatic celebration of Nature’s beauty. Boundlessness is no longer chaos, but the freedom of the soul to merge with the renewing energies of Spring and to soar beyond the horizon’s eternal blue.
During the early 20C, as the First World War approached, the Moon as a symbol grew increasingly negative. One artist attuned to this decay was Arnold Schönberg whose ensemble piece Pierrot Lunaire (1912) depicts the Moon’s sickness as evidence of the soul’s corruption and the loss of love. In Albert Giraud’s surreal poetry, Pierrot gradually descends into madness as he enacts a sequence of bizarrely cruel and morbid scenes.
Or does he? Pierrot is after all a clown and a trickster, so that blasphemy and mockery are true to his nature. His melancholy utterances verge on self-parody, exaggerated by Schönberg’s ‘crazy’ vocalisation technique of Sprechgesang, where the words are half-sung, half-declaimed. Schönberg presents himself as Pierrot the artist; an ambivalent figure caught between wild fantasy and unadorned reality, an outsider who laughs at his own seriousness, who is drunk on misery and driven mad by introspection. The Moon, which has the potential to be both spiritual and deadly, is the source of this volatility, symptomatic of a soul in need of a cure.
But this placing of the wounded inner self at the heart of a work of art has its dangers. The lunar madness leads Pierrot to celebrate a grotesque Mass, in which the body and blood of Christ are replaced by his own bleeding heart. The Moon then becomes a scimitar that will decapitate the hapless fool. The head represents the assertive ego which must accept sacrifice and abandon its victim stance, if it is to restore an innocent relationship with Nature.
Moon-sickness, it transpires, is Nature’s revenge upon a man for living through his head, not his heart. Cut off from the light-giving Sun and fruitful Earth, the Moon inspires fantasies to avoid the full depth of human suffering. Relief comes by reawakening to the beauty of earthly existence and by rediscovering the possibility of love under the warm illumination of the Sun.
O ancient fragrance of fairy-tale times
Arouse me again.
I gave away all my ill humour,
And from my Sun-encircled window
I freely view the love-filled world…
The text hints at Schönberg’s regret for abandoning traditional tonal harmony. His sense of loss is experienced as nostalgia for the bliss of an E major chord; a key associated with Schubert’s most pure and heavenly music. The fragrance of fairy-tale times suggests a lingering memory of lost childhood innocence that hangs in the air, which may show how the crisis can be resolved. The denouement of Pierrot Lunaire signals that earthly experience must be embraced with child-like wonder, if joy is to return.
Leoš Janáček may have had Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in mind when he wrote his satirical opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon (1918). Wishing to flee his alienation from earthly life, a combination of daydreaming and intoxication transports Mr. Broucek to the lunar surface. Surely, he believes, people on the Moon must be happier than on Earth. He is disappointed to learn that the Moon is populated by rarefied aesthetes who are offended by his primitive manners and tastes. The Moon is once again a place where reality is denied or falsely idealised, where art is used not to educate and enlighten, but to escape and avoid.
One of the most striking musical evocations of moonlight can be found in Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes (1945). At the opening of Act 3, the fishing village sleeps serenely at night, as we hear a slow-breathed sequence of chords in the lower strings. Shafts of moonlight shimmer on the cottage roofs. Yet there is a subdued sense of menace at the dawn of another day. Grimes is a scapegoat for the community, identified with the inhuman forces of the Universe, particularly the sea, which feeds and devours its dependents indiscriminately. The Moon could easily be considered complicit in this destructive potential but, at this moment, it sits above the fray, a haven of clarity and stillness. It offers a perspective that is not analytical and objective, but felt through the senses, intuiting what lies beneath the visible surface.
In our own times, the Moon has continued to be more planetary object than meaningful symbol. Paradoxically, landing on the Moon in 1969 may have shattered many romantic illusions, but the Earth viewed from the Moon could now be fully appreciated as a beautiful living organism. It was revealed as the ‘blue planet’, a fragile and fertile eco-system, amidst a vast and impersonal Universe.
When the feminine aspect was projected upon the Moon in the sky, its value seemed remote, obscure and fantastical. Yet the increasing evidence of serious physical damage done to our own world makes all the more urgent the need to relate to these forces as earthly and immanent. The music of the Moon has much to teach us about how the feminine force of Nature shapes the human world but, if we are not to succumb to madness or destructive fantasy, we must listen with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.