By David Whitwell Essay Nr. 30: On Music as a Language Music is a language without words. Martin Luther



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His next invention was quite different, a kind of Morse code consisting of four pitches (sol, ut, mi and sol) intended to be played by a trumpet for use in the military. His system was a competitor of the newly developed telegraph, which at this time consisted of long wires leading to a hill top where a device contained large letters of the alphabet. The field commander would send signals over the wires and the required letters would pop up to be read by the soldiers in the field. Since Sudre’s system was designed to be heard, not requiring the wires, etc., he called his system Telephonie or Telegraphe Acoustique. It was the first coining of the word telephone!

The Telephonie was given a field test on the Champ-de-Mars in 1829 before a number of generals. A general would give an order such as “Start to march at 4:00 in the morning,” and Sudre’s trained trumpeter would play the appropriate sequences of four pitches. Another trained trumpeter at the opposite end of the field immediately translated the sounds correctly for a general standing beside him.70

This was the first of many trials for both the army and navy and they always ended with a recommendation to the government to adapt Sudre’s system because it was a noticeable improvement over the ancient system of trumpet calls (“charge,” “retreat,” etc.). In addition the government requested several tests before the Institute de France. One in 1833 included among the Jury the leading composers of Paris: Cherubini, Lesueur, Berton, Boieldieu, Auber and Paer. They enthusiastically endorsed the system. A similar test in 1852 included on the jury the composers Auber, Halevy, Adam, Carafa, Onslow and Thomas. One demonstration in 1835 in the hall of the Conservatoire was heard by Berlioz, who wrote,

For the second time, day before yesterday, we have seen and heard M. Sudre….

We have seen the telegraph of M. Sudre function, and we predict the ruin of all the present telegraphs of day and night. All of the diplomatic notes will be transmitted in musical notes….

To sing out of tune would now become a capital sin like the lie, a crime against the nation like perjury.71
During this time Sudre was requesting a modest payment from the government to reveal the secret of his system, patriotically resisting firm offers from Germany to buy the system for their military. But the government never responded, in spite of the frequent commissions who enthusiastically endorsed the various trials.

Growing weary of the military ever adopting his system, Sudre moved on the grander plans – a system whereby five pitches (and later up to seven) could reproduce everything necessary for ordinary communication in the French language. Now he developed a dictionary of nearly 13,000 combinations of five pitches, organized by tonal centers. For example, the key center of D included household items, the key of B included all government vocabulary and the key of G included the fine arts and science. Thus, in the key of G, “flute” was sol, re, do, me and “oboe” was sol, re, do, fa, etc. Eventually he made corresponding dictionaries in ten other languages including Arabic and Chinese!

It staggers the imagination to suppose anyone could learn thousands of combinations of five pitches, but Sudre and his students regularly demonstrated this new system, now called the Universal Musical Language, in public. Typically Sudre would be on stage next to a blackboard which would be turned so only the audience could see it. A member of the audience would contribute a phrase of French written on paper, which Sudre would then write on the board for all to see. Then he would play his musical translation on his violin whereupon a student trained in the system would hear Sudre’s playing from a distant closed room and would then enter the auditorium and invariably announce the very French phrase written on the blackboard.

Sudre demonstrated his new Universal Musical Language in numerous public venues, in France, Belgium and in England. All were described in detail in the press. In a typical summation the Le Temps of Feb. 27, 1835, wrote,

It was a curious thing to see the master dictate on his violin various successive notes which the student translated so rapidly on the blackboard in words of the common language. The phrase had been given extemporaneously by the spectators, and no one could be tempted to suspect in all of this any sort of trickery [charlatanisme].
In the summer of 1835 Sudre made a demonstration in London presided over by the president of the Royal Society of London. The Morning Herald reported,

Mr. Children, secretary of the Royal Society, was present at this reception, as well as chevalier Bernardi, a scholar of Romance Languages, who had written the phrases which were dictated by His Highness in Hebrew, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, Swedish and Dutch. Despite the difficulties in inflections and aspirations of all these different languages, M. Sudre, by means of his instrument, communicated them with a precision which was all the more surprising when one considers that the young student, who had been placed at the end of the long gallery of the magnificent library of His Highness, repeated them exactly even though he did not know any of the languages.72
Sudre, stubbornly and yet understandably, steadfastly refused to reveal the key to how his system worked in the hope the government would eventually award him the commensurate grant of 50,000 francs which he had requested. The government never did and Sudre died without revealing the key to his system.73 We should like to close this part of the story with a quotation from another review by Hector Berlioz about Sudre’s system, because it is also a wonderful tribute to Berlioz’ own extraordinary foresightedness.74 Having written articles for years in support of the acceptance of Adolph Sax, who was also rejected at every turn, Berlioz begins with a sad reflection on the fate of inventors.

And yet the telephonie method has not yet been adopted officially, and the fifty thousand francs have not been given over, and the poor inventor, in order to live, is driven to the last expediencies. If he is not indeed driven mad, he will die of hunger, and it is a true scandal whose causes the Assembly of the Representatives will shortly be called upon to examine.

But this is the fatal law to which the unfortunate, bent under the weight of a new idea, have, in all times and in all places, been subjected. Two years have not passed when they wrote before, here, very seriously to prove the impossibility of the use of the electric telegraph and the absurdity of the attempts made for its application. Yet, today human thought circulates lightening fast from one end of Europe to the other, and in the northern half of America, by means of this simple wire, so ridiculed, whose conduction power (they said) would be paralyzed by the simple contact with a magpie. Napoleon did not recognize the future of steam, and Fulton, in his eyes, was only a fool, whose claims and experiments obsessed him.

Shortly, we will have the repetition of the same spectacle for a discovery even more important, that of the directing of lighter-than-air craft by means of a combination of propellers and inclined planes. Obviously, the latter, once demonstrated and put into usage, the relations of the diverse peoples who make up the large human family will be entirely changed; an immense revolution will be accomplished whose fortunate consequences are incalculable. This is precisely why the audacious mechanic who wishes to give man wings capable of defying the winds and swooping over the storms will experience a stronger and more obstinate resistance. He will be ruined, he will die in harness; he expects to, he is prepared for it. But navigation of the aerial ocean will nonetheless be opened to us sooner or later, and our descendants will be astonished then, because a corner of the veil had already been lifted, that their fathers, doubting for centuries the solution to the problem, should have been so seemingly determined to prowl the terrestrial crust like the most infirm animals.

Time is a great teacher, it is true, but man is a very stupid student.
And so it would seem that Sudre’s amazing discovery came and disappeared without leaving a trace on civilization. But, maybe not. The first thing we thought of when, in the National Library in Paris, we saw examples of Sudre’s system of nouns represented by a few pitches, and especially the transpositions, such as do, mi, sol for “Godand sol, me, do for “Devil,” was the leit-motiv system of Richard Wagner.

Wagner was in residence in Paris in 1839 – 1842,75 a time when Sudre was still conducting his public demonstrations. As witnessed by the leading composers who participated in the several commissions which studied Sudre’s system, not to mention the very idea of the system itself, one may reasonably assume that the Universal Musical Language was much discussed among the musicians of Paris. Wagner was an intellectual with very broad interests, as is documented by the diverse topics contained in his numerous prose articles. It is impossible to believe that Wagner could have been living in the center of Paris fosr nearly three years and not have attended one of the public demonstrations of the Universal Musical Language by Sudre.

Could Sudre’s system have been the inspiration for Wagner’s leit-motiv system? There were earlier examples of the use of a single melody to personify a character in works by Weber and in Berlioz, but no one has ever believed these cases were related to Wagner’s idea. Wagner himself never answered when asked where he got the idea for his leit-motivs, so we will never be able to determine if Sudre’s system is where he got his inspiration. But it would be nice to think that Sudre’s life was not lived in vain and that his rejected Universal Musical Language was a seed that blossomed into some of the world’s greatest music.

1 The Prose Works of Richard Wagner (New York: Broude), II, 224ff.

2 Philosophical Dictionary, “The Alphabet.”

3 The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans., Robert Burke (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), I, 259ff.

4 “Mathematics,” in Ibid., I, 259.

5 John, “On Music,” 51, in Hucbald, Guido, and John on Music, trans., Warren Babb (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 51.

6 Ibid., 52.

7 Thomas Dekker, “Lanthorne and Candle-Light” (1609), Grosart, The Non-Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker (New York, Russell & Russell, 1963), III, 194.

8 A subject to which we will devote another essay.

9 “Life of Demosthenes.”

10 Quoted in Giovanni Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 167.

11 St. Basil, “Letter to Gregory of Nazianzus,” in Letters of Saint Basil, trans., Sister Agnes Way (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1951), I, 20.

12 Philosophical Dictionary, “The Alphabet.”. Franz Liszt in a letter to Richard Wagner of June 8, 1854, writes,

…the real kernel of people’s phrases has not been, and cannot be, clearly expressed.



13 Ibid.

14 “If only words were not so cold!”, Letter of Mendelssohn to his family, London, Nov. 6, 1829.

15 Letter to Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville (February, 1737.

16 Guillaume de Machaut, “Remede de Fortune,” trans., James Wimsatt and William Kibler (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1988), 180.

17 “Chanson Royale,” in Kristen Figg, The Short Lyric Poems of Jean Froissart (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), 211.

18 “Remede de Fortune,” Op. cit., 368.

19 And he is quite correct, only the left hemisphere of the brain is capable of lying.

20 “Remede de Fortune,” Op. cit., 374.

21 L’Ameto, trans., Judith Serafini-Sauli (New York: Garland, 1985), 40.

22 “A Congratulatory Poem [for] Prince Philip, Upon his Happy Return,” in The Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), LXXXV, 139.

23 “Panegyric for archduke Philip,” [1503] in Ibid., XXVII, 67. The “tragic poet” is Seneca, Phaedra, 607.

24 Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans., M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1993), III, viii, 1050.

25 Poem in honor of the publication of Johann Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), trans., Ernest Harriss (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), 74.

26 We have devoted a previous essay to this subject.

27 Der volkommene Capellmeister, Op. cit., I, iii, 83, 88.

28 Ibid., I, iii, 89.

29 Leibniz, “A New Method for Learning and Teaching Jurisprudence” (1667), I, xxxiv, in Leroy Loemker, Philosophical Papers and Letters (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1956), 89.

30 Curiously, among his various speculations, the one obvious factor which apparently did not occur to Leibniz at all was the fact that all languages use the same five vowel sounds. In his discussion of a few vowel sounds he does refer to Johann Becan (1518-1572) a Belgian scholar who believed that Adam spoke German!

31 Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1704), trans., Alfred Langley (La Salle: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1949), III, i, 1. Leibniz himself was inclined to believe that mathematics was the universal language and in a treatise “The Art of Discovery” (1685) he suggests that a way might be found for mathematics to express basic grammar, etc.

32 Leibniz, “An Analysis of the Elements of Language,” in General Investigations Concerning the Analysis of Concepts and Truths, trans., Walter O’Briant (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1968), 33.

33 Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding, Op. cit, III, x, 13.

34 Leibniz, “Criticala Thoughts on the General Part of the Principles of Descartes” (1692), “On Article 37,” in Leroy Loemker, Philosophical Papers and Letters (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1956),, 388.

35 Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, Reflexions critiques sur la posie et sur la peinture [Paris, 1719], quoted in Peter le Huray and James Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981),18.

36 Ibid., 21ff.

37 Charles Batteux, Les beaux-arts reduits a un meme principe [Paris,1746], quoted in Peter le Huray and James Day, Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 260.

38 Ibid., 260ff.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid., 262.

41Saint-Evremond, Letter to d’Hervart, February, 1675, quoted in John Hayward, ed., The Letters of Saint-Evremond (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), 161ff.

42 Batteux, Op. cit., 263.

43 Ibid.,50

44 “Compendium of Music,” Walter Robert, trans. (American Institute of Musicology, 1961), 11.

45 “The Answer.” See also his poems “The Maid of Orleans.” “The Nature of Pleasure” and “The Henriade.”

46 Quoted in John Wilson, Roger North on Music (London: Novello, 1959), 291ff.

47 Charles Avison, An Essay on Musical Expression [London, 1753] (New York: Broude Reprint, 1967), 2ff. Of course, he had not heard the pop music of our era!

48 Ibid., 69ff. In a footnote, Avison reflects that the “wonderful effects” attributed to the ancient Greek composers must have been due to “the pure simplicity of melody.”

49 Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument [1676] (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1966), 272.

50 William Shenstone, Men and Manners (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927), 49.

51 Ibid., 73.

52 Earl of Chesterfield, letter to his son, July 9, 1750.

53 Letter to Adelheid von Schorn, Rome, Sept. 15, 1877.

54 Wagner, “A Happy Evening.”

55 Quoted in Nat Shapiro, An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (New York: Da Capo, 1978), 199.

56 Letter to his mother, Leipzig, May 8, 1832.

57 Letter to Friedrich Wieck, Heidelberg, Nov. 6, 1829.

58 Memoirs.

59 Quoted in Nat Shapiro, Op. cit., 194.

60 Letter to Adalbert Lindner (June 6, 1891)

61 Quoted in Nat Shapiro, Op. cit., 197.

62 Ibid., 11.

63 Letter to Carl Zelter, Rome, June 31, 1831.

64 Letter to Marc Andre Souchay (October 5, 1842).

65 Critical and Historical Essays (1912).

66 Wagner, “Judaism in Music.”

67 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (New York: Broude Brothers), V, 77.

68 Bruno Walter, Of Music and Music-Making (New York: Norton, 1957), 65.

69 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Op. cit., V, 65ff.

70 In Germany, one B. C. A. Weyrich published in Leipzig in 1830 a similar system of which we know nothing. He called it Die Instrumentation-Sprechkunst oder Anleitung durch instrumentaltone alle Nachrichten in die Ferne zu geben, sowloll in Frieden als in Kriege, beim Civil und Military, auf dem Lande und Meere.

71 Vert-Vert, January 27, 1835.

72 A great number of such reviews are reproduced in David Whitwell, La Telephonie and the Universal Musical Language (Northridge: Winds, 1995).

73 A variation on his system based on the human hand and intended for the deaf and blind actually had some success during the following years in institutions for such students.

74 Journal des Debats, November 17, 1849.

75 In visiting Paris today, the reader can stay in one of the (small) rooms Wagner lived in, Room Nr. 55 in the Hotel du Quai Voltaire, 19, Quai Voltaire, 75007 Paris.


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