Industry and Indolence: Aesop’s Fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper

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black ants crawl amid dry leaves and twigs“How we spend our days,” wrote Annie Dillard “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And there are few examples of how we spend our lives more appropriate to the season than Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. On the surface merely a harsh lesson in thrift and planning, on a deeper level it becomes a koan which opens up the questions of what it means to live and what it means to truly be alive. Read more

French Cantatas for Winter Winds: Discover Boismortier’s Four Seasons

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The North Wind attempts to blow the traveler's cloak off him. Illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).
The North Wind attempts to blow the traveler’s cloak off him. Illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).

People frequently declare our time the Social Era. You’ve heard that term before, haven’t you? We won’t find naming winter storms among Nilofer Merchant’s new Rules for the Social Era, but lately our human tendency to personify everything inanimate has been applied in yet another way.

We’re far from the only culture with this tendency to look at the world around us and create characters. Every culture has! If we look back in time, the wind and weather provide good examples. (Pssst! Would you like to add a word to your vocabulary? There’s a term for making characters of wind and weather. Doing this is called physitheism.)

I hope that crazy word didn’t blow you away! It is pretty abstract, and might leave you groping for examples. So what were some of these breezy, gusty epithets, and how far back in history do they go? Read more

In a Persian Garden by Liza Lehmann

Note: the timing of this post is meant to tie in with both Women’s History Month and the Persian New Year known as Nowruz or Norooz.

Often the purpose of links is to indicate further information is available on related topics. Most links are independent, but some help support this web site.

a 17th Century Persian panel of tiles in shades of blue and yellow showing people enjoying themselves outside in a setting of blooming plants and trees
Fritware wall panel now in the Louvre, 1500s-1600s, showing entertainment in a garden
(similar to this one at the Victoria and Albert Museum)

The word “paradise” comes from an old Persian word that means “a walled garden.” The intent of that walled garden, however, was indeed to create an earthly paradise. At the beginning of the Old Testament, Genesis 2 mentions four rivers in the Garden of Eden, so these spaces were traditionally divided into quadrants, known as chahar bagh. In addition, so was the country.

oil painting showing inner courtyard and garden at the Palacio del Generalife and Patio de la Acequia near the Alhambra in Granada, Spain painted in 1848 by Wilhelm MeyerThat design sounds formal, and often these areas were courtyards with pavilions and elaborate tile work. You might wonder: what did Persians plant there? Most had rows of trees such as cypresses, sycamores, or date palms, possibly low boxwood hedges, and perhaps sycamores, beeches, lindens, palms, or other trees such as mimosa or redbud at intersecting points or just planted around for shade. But despite its formal tendencies, Read more

You’ve Never Heard the Seasons in Sonic Panoramas Like This

In 1799, William Blake wrote “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way . . . But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” In 1816, John Keats wrote that no matter how still a summer day or winter night may be “the poetry of earth is never dead.” If you’re an avid gardener or a lover of the outdoors overall . . . and you’ve never heard Haydn’s large-scale treatment of the seasons for chorus and orchestra . . . isn’t it about time to find out what you’ve been missing?

This is a piece as much of our time as it was of its own. Long before Keats and Blake were alive, and in a culture far different from theirs, Confucius famously observed, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” Versions of The Seasons are available in German and English, so you can’t use the language barrier as an excuse! For recommendations, skip to the bottom, or keep on going if you’d like to find out how early The Seasons became famous, when the oratorio crossed the Atlantic, what it was like to write, or why this piece represents the epitome of Enlightenment values.

note: Often the purpose of links is to indicate further information is available on related topics. Most are independent, but some help support this web site!

images of country life during the four seasons from Flemish baroque painter Sebastian Vrancx
Allegories of the Seasons, date unknown
Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647)

On June 12, 1799, while working on this oratorio, one of the greatest composers in history wrote to his German publisher about–would you believe?–his concern that he was losing it: Read more