Sunday, July 12, 2009


Sobbing Children and Singing Shillings

I'm in the new music issue of The Believer with a piece on William Gardiner's obscure 1832 treatise The Music of Nature. The book was a great favorite of Emerson and Margaret Fuller, not least because Gardiner attempt to render ordinary sounds in musical notation:

Gardiner was fascinated with the sound of ordinary objects, like ringing true and counterfeit coins against a tabletop: "Half crowns having the sound of--

--bankers quickly discover the least deviation from the proper tone, by which they readily detect the counterfeits," he wrote....

The Music of Nature is about music in the way that Anatomy of Melancholy or Religio Medici are about medicine: it is an extraordinary digressive meditation. His music scholarship is no more reliable today than Burton's medical advice is, and yet how can one not be charmed by a text that observes that a glass of flat champagne rings with a purer tone than a bubbly glass does? What parent has not suspected that "Providence has bestowed upon children a power of voice, in proportion to their size, ten times greater than that of an adult"? Who would not want to believe his wonderful claim that "In a watchmaker's shop the timepieces or clocks, connected with same wall or shelf, have such a sympathetic effect... that they stop those which beat in irregular time"?

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