Frye and Music


“Thank God for Bach and Mozart, anyway. They are a sort of common denominator in music,—the two you can’t argue about.  Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner—they give you an interpretation of music which you can accept or not as you like.  But Bach and Mozart give you music, not an attitude toward it.  If a man tells me that Beethoven or Brahms leaves him cold, I can still talk with him.  But if he calls Bach dull and Mozart trivial I can’t, not so much because I think he is a fool as because his idea of music is so remote from mine that we have nothing in common” (The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1:43.)

About Bach, Frye writes the day after his twentieth birthday: “I have shelved the Temperamental Clavichord for a week or so in favor of the Three-Part Inventions. I have owned them for years and never realized it. The ones I am going after now are those in E minor, A major, B-flat major and C minor—four of the loveliest little pieces I know. You should look at the B minor fugue in Book One of the W.T.C. [Well-Tempered Clavier] too. It’s the longest of them all and covers the whole nineteenth century” (ibid. 41)

“Music was the great area of emotional and imaginative discovery for me” (Interview with Deanne Bogdan, see below)

* * *

The letters between Frye and his girlfriend Helen Kemp in the early 1930s are filled with references to the music they are listening to and practicing: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Glinka, Schubert, Gluck, and Brahms.  Kemp, who attended the Danard Conservatory, was considerably talented as a young musician herself.  A reviewer of her first public recital (February 1929) wrote in the Toronto Daily Star under the headline “Young Pianist Charms Large Audience with Varied Program” that Kemp “played with fire and conviction.”  She performed works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Goossens, and Liszt, and she played a Brahms trio with violinist Ruby Dennison and cellist Marcus Adeny.  The Toronto Globe pronounced her debut as “successful.”  The following month she performed in Kitchener, Ontario, sharing the stage with the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir.  The reviewer for the Kitchener Daily Record remarked that “while the choral work was of a high order, the evening’s enjoyment would have been greatly lessened by the non-appearance of the assisting artists, Marcus Adeney, cellist, and Miss Helen Kemp, pianiste.”  During his first year at Oxford Frye foregoes the purchase of a typewriter in favor of a piano, which he has delivered to his Merton College room.

* * *

Frye’s early musical training came at the hands of George Ross, organist at the Saint John’s Presbyterian Church in Moncton.  Frye reported to Ian Alexander that Ross, who had been a student of Sir Hubert Parry, was “a music teacher who had a tremendous influence on me, not so much from what he said or did but simply from the authority which he carried from knowing his subject.”  When Frye was sixteen he played several movements from Schubert’s sonatas over WNRA, the radio station in Moncton.   His special interest was in piano music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  He was attracted to this music, he told Ian Alexander, “because of the rather simplified, rather square-cut tunes.  The music expresses to me the kind of sanity which is the front entrance, so to speak, of a very profound serenity.  I have cultivated composers who are not as well-known or famous as Schubert, like Clementi and Hummel and Dussek, because they seem to me to be eminently composers of sanity, which I find is very important in my general emotional stability.”  In an interview with Deanne Bogdan, Frye reported that “the night that my wife went into the hospital for a hysterectomy, I played 25 Clementi sonatas straight through.”

I have been investigating Clementi–he really is a tremendous genius‑‑something of Mozart’s polish and Scarlatti’s vigour held in solution. (Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp

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Frye on Piano Playing (late 1980s):  “I’ve been resisting playing the piano for so long that I will perhaps never get any skill back.  I don’t know why, but instead of relaxation it’s become a mechanism for churning up the gibbering monkey’s recital of embarrassing memories.  My adolescent interest in Classical music (I could never hear anything in popular music but an unpleasant noise) was obsessive, a reaction against Monctonian, parental, & school environments.  I was never very good: my sense of rhythm was poor and I have always been too lazy (and weak) to play up to speed and volume.  I had dreams of being a great composer but never worked at them as I worked at my writing.  Why this furtive scurrying approach?  Far worse, I can’t play in public because the same gibbering monkey sits at my ear and says at intervals ‘all right now, it’s time for you to make a mistake.’

I always really wanted it this way: I wanted to read everything and scurry over the top of the keys.  This caused conflicts when I finally did take lessons.  I’ve been wondering recently if my relation to my brother had anything to do with it.  He left some music—I remember Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso and Raff’s Am Loreley-Fels—which convinced me that he was a very able pianist.  But perhaps he wasn’t: perhaps he just bought them and didn’t play them.  Anyway, my mother’s feeling that she had only one son and that I was a second-rate substitute for him (God provided the substitute, but God can be a pretty blundering fool in evangelical minds) may have affected me in some ways.  Fortunately I was always too indolent & selfish to make silly efforts about it, trying to ‘prove’ myself and the like” (The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:236–7).

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Some of the sources for Frye’s ideas on music are:

1.  “Music in My Life,” an interview with Ian Alexander in A World in a Grain of Sand 269–79; rpt. in Interviews with Northrop Frye 733–42.  The six pieces Alexander plays during the course of this broadcast are:

Schubert’s Impromptu, opus 90, no. 1, in C Minor, played by Murray Perahia

Sullivan’s “I am a courtier grave and serious” from The Gondoliers, Sir M. Sargent conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra

“O Isis and Osiris, grant the spirit of wisdom to the new pair!” from act 2 of Mozart’s The Magic Flute¸ James Levine conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the

Vienna State Opera Chorus “Jerusalem,” words by William Blake and music by Sir Hubert Parry, Alan Wicks directing the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, and organist David Flood

Clementi’s sonata Didone Abbandonata, opus 50, no. 3 in G Minor, played by pianist Lamar Crowson

Finale to act 3 of Verdi’s Falstaff, played by The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra

2.  “Moncton, Mentors, and Memories,” an interview with Deanne Bogdan in Studies in Canadian Literature 11 (Fall 1986): 246–69; rpt. in A World in a Grain of Sand 323–41, and in Interviews with Northrop Frye 790–808.

3.  Two very early music reviews by Frye:  “Bach Recital,” Saturday Night (30 November 1935): 8; rpt. in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 188–9; and “Hart House Quartet.” Saturday Night (7 December 1935): 23; rpt. in ibid. 187–8.

4. Section on Romantic music in “Romanticism,” in Northrop Frye’s Student Essays.  See part 3, pp. 53–65.  A substantial portion of this section of Frye’s essay appears in an unpublished paper, “The Social Significance of Music,” which he presented on 10 February 1935, to a group in Toronto called the Society of Incompatibles.  See also  in Student Essays “The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama,” where we get such remarks as this, written when Frye was 23: “The exhaustion of the possibilities of the chromatic scale in our in our own day makes it obvious that the rigidly conventionalized art forms of music based on this scale will break up and give place to something else.  But as music is a group art form, this cannot be done theoretically: Schoenberg is a grim reminder of that fact.  It cannot exist apart from a new and more cooperative form of society: and if we get that we shall assuredly get a new form of musical drama, as well as a renewed strength in religion, and the two things are bound to be associated.  The ballet is perhaps our nearest approach as yet to this form.”

5.  Three of Frye’s notebooks on music (a) “Baroque and Classical Composers”––a discussion of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Haydn (his “favorite composer”), Beethoven, Mozart, Bach (Art of Fugue: “absolute music”; The Well‑Tempered Clavier: “pure thought”), Purcell, and numerous others;  (b) “William Byrd,” and (c) “Modal Harmony in Music.”  These notebooks have been published in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 159–87.

6.  “The World as Music and Idea in Wagner’s Parsifal,” a paper presented to the Toronto Wagner Society, 27 October 1962.  Published in Carleton Germanic Papers 12 (1984): 37–49; rpt in Myth and Metaphor 340–55, and in Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 326–40.  Frye’s notes for this paper are in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings 189–92.

7.  One of Frye’s earliest published essays was “Music in Poetry,” University of Toronto Quarterly 11 (January 1942): 167–79. This essay was incorporated into the Fourth Essay of Anatomy of Criticism, rpt. in Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 9–22.

8.  “Introduction: Lexis and Melos,” in Sound and Poetry: English Institute Essays, 1956, ed. Northrop Frye (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), ix–xxvii; rpt., along with “Preface,” in Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 235–48.

The hundreds of references to music and musicians scattered throughout Frye’s other works can be traced by consulting the indexes of the volumes of the Collected Works.

* * *

The Circle of Fifths.  In his account of the phases of the mythoi in the Anatomy Frye writes, “A somewhat forbidding piece of symmetry turns up in our argument at this point, which seems to have some literary analogy to the circle of fifths in music.”  It is clear from his notebooks for the Anatomy that he sees an analogy between the circle of fifths and the twenty-four parts, not of the mythoi, but of the first three divisions of his ogdoad: Liberal, Tragicomedy, and Anticlimax.  But what is the musical analogy in the parallel between the twenty‑four elements in the circle of fifths and the twenty‑four phases of the mythoi?  Frye didn’t diagram this but he provided the basis for constructing such a diagram in Notebook 18 (paras. 57, 58, 63, and 73), an elaborate representation of which is in the Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” 398.  What Frye seems to be suggesting is that the analogy depends on whether there is a “harmony” or a “discord” between the phases.  He says that the first three phases of a mythos are related to (in harmony with) the first three of an adjacent mythos (e.g., comedy and irony).   But this relation does not obtain between the phases of opposite or discordant mythoi (e.g., irony and romance).  So far as I’m aware, no one has ever fully explained the parallel (analogy) between the circularity of Frye’s theory of modes and that of the circle of fifths.

* * *

Secondary Literature:

See the essay by James Shell, one of my former students: “‘A Mandala for the Ear’: Northrop Frye and Music,” University of Toronto Quarterly 76, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 1055–71––a study of Frye’s musical tastes and interests and the influence of music on his critical ideas.

Deanne Bogdan, “Musical/Literary Boundaries in Northrop Frye,” Changing English 6, no. 1 (1999): 57–79.  Relates the fugue and the lyric to the principles of Frye’s criticism, particularly his views on centripetal meaning and his notion of the “cultural envelope.”

A survey of Frye’s ideas on the relation of literature to painting and music is Kurt Spang’s “Melos y opsis en la crítica de Northrop Frye,” Revista de Filología Hispánica 25, no. 1 (2009): 82–7.

Byron Almén, “Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis,” Journal of Music Theory 47, no. 1 (2003): 1–39––presents a model of the narrative analysis of music based on Frye’s concept of the narrative archetype.

P.G. Baker, “‘Night into Day’: Patterns of Symbolism in Mozart’s The Magic Flute,” University of Toronto Quarterly 49, no. 2 (Winter 1979): 95–116.  An examination of the Schikaneder libretto in terms of Frye’s principles. The hero’s quest for regeneration, his initiation, and his eventual transcendence of the four elements of the sublunary world take place within a unified framework of mythically functioning landscapes and characters, with an emphasis on music-making in its literary and figurative senses.

Robert C. Ketterer, “Neoplatonic Light and Dramatic Genre in Busenello’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Noris’s Il Ripudio D’Ottavia.”  Music & Letters 80 (1999):1–22.  Applies Frye’s critical method to L’incoronazione di Poppea.

K.M. Knittel, “‘Late.’ Last, and Least: On Being Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, OP. 135,” Music and Letters 87, no. 1 (2006): 16–51.  On the ways in which various interpreters of Beethoven’s last completed work (the string quartet in F major, Op. 135) is said to be a romance, comedy, tragedy, or satire as these forms of emplotment have been defined by Frye and Hayden White.

James Reaney and John Beckwith, “‘In the Middle of Ordinary Noise . . .’: An Auditory Masque.”  In Lee and Denham, ed. TheLegacy of Northrop Frye 261–75.  The composer and the poet‑playwright imagine ordinary noises heard by Frye in Moncton, NB, during the early years of his life; they then project these toward the formation of Frye’s musical interests and ultimately to his understanding of the structural elements of literature.

Yves Saint‑Cyr, “Mathematics, Music, and Modernism: Modelling the Spatial and Temporal Parameters of Frye’s Cultural Envelope,” Transverse: A Comparative Studies Journal 6 (Winter 2006): 150–70.

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1 thought on “Frye and Music

  1. Michael Sinding

    This is very interesting stuff, thanks Bob. I’m curious as to whether Frye had any interest in jazz. He must have known something about it, but I don’t recall any mention of it in his writing, and maybe it got lumped in with that popular music he didn’t like. Any thoughts?


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