From Thales to Berio: Water as a Common Theme of Philosophy, Physics, and Music

By Marisi, Rossella | Review of Artistic Education, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

From Thales to Berio: Water as a Common Theme of Philosophy, Physics, and Music


Marisi, Rossella, Review of Artistic Education


1. Introduction

Teachers can stress the unity of knowledge proposing interdisciplinary projects centered on a common theme, and guiding their pupils at focusing on the links among different points of view. Water may be an interesting theme to reflect on. For many centuries natural philosophers focused on the problem of the nature of matter and its transformations. The Greek philosopher Thales (c. 624-548 B.C.), centered his research on water, positing that it could be the basic element which gave rise to everything in the world75. The first observation might have been that water can readily be observed in the three physical states of liquid water, ice, and steam. Moreover, it is quite usual that coasts and river banks show a constant increase in size, and this may have suggested the belief that water had the capacity to thicken into earth. This theory has been proven wrong only in the eighteenth century, following experiments of Antoine Lavoiser (1743-1794).

Furthermore, the high concentration of nutrients in wetland water, which feeds different species of plants and animals, gave rise to the theory of spontaneous generation. This misconception was disproved only in the nineteenth century, as a result of the work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). Indeed, it is quite unsurprising that water has been considered of major importance to all living things; we know now that in some organisms, up to 90% of their body weight comes from water, and in the human adult body up to 60% is water. After Thales, also the Sicilian poet and philosopher Empedocles (495-430 B.C.) centered his research on the basic elements (water, earth, air, and fire), which he called roots, defining them as both, material substances and spiritual essences76.

2. Discussions

Also modern psychology focuses on these elements, considering them as archetypes, that is universal structures in the collective unconscious77. Besides scientists and natural philosophers, also many musicians pointed their attention on waterbodies, such as seas, lakes, sources, and on precipitations as snow and rain. Among these composers are Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose Concerto in E flat major RV 253 for violin, string and basso continuo, is called "The sea storm", Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), who wrote Poems of the Sea, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) who composed Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d'une source, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) who wrote Jardins sous la pluie and Des pas sur la neige. However, in this article I limit the scope of my research to the examination of some pieces whose titles refer exactly to the general term "water": Les jeux d'eau à la villa d'Este, by Liszt, Reflets dans l'eau, by Debussy, Jeux d'eau by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Wasserklavier by Luciano Berio (1925-2003).

In these pieces the composers hinted to specific characteristics of water - fluidity, undulation, wetness, and reflectivity - and depicted them using musical means. Fluidity may be defined as the state of a substance whose molecules move freely past one another. This characteristic can be depicted by means of ceaseless motion: such an effect can be obtained using specific intervals, rhythmic figurations, and meter changes. In the selected pieces there is a frequent use of particular intervals, such as seconds and fourths, which are quite unstable tone combinations. The tension deriving from this instability demands an onward motion to more stable combinations such as thirds and fifths78.

Fluidity is enhanced also by fast figurations, which may be written out in short value notes, such as sixteenth-note, thirty-second-note, or sixty-fourth-note values, as in the following examples,

or prescribed by specific directions included in the score: in Wasserklavier a footnote recommends to perform grace notes and arpeggios very fast. A third way in which fluidity can be alluded to is by means of irregular groups and meter changes, as we can see in the following examples

Undulation is depicted by means of melodies based on ascending and descending scales and arpeggios, which are frequently repeated with some minor changes, conferring to the passage a substantial staticity. …

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