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  • 'A Mandala of the Ear':Northrop Frye and Music
  • James Shell

Music was the great area of emotional and imaginative discovery for me.

Northrop Frye ('Moncton, Mentors, and Memories' 331 )

Northrop Frye once remarked that, in his youth and adolescence, music interested him more than literature (Education 240). In his biography of Frye, John Ayre elaborates:

The crucial element of his life at this time was music … [Frye took] weekly [piano] lessons at [George] Ross's studio … Despite Frye's own overbearing enthusiasm and ambition, Ross never pushed him towards a musical career. In later years Frye realized that since he started too late, he could never have made a serious career anyway but in the short run, through his teens and twenties, the piano was a great release.


In a foreshadowing of Frye's future, George Ross's music teacher —Sir Hubert Parry, whom Frye called his 'musical grandfather' —had set Blake's poem 'Jerusalem' to music (Grain of Sand 339). While Blake would become the main influence on Frye's literary thought, Ross was also a great influence on Frye, not only for his musical instruction but for his teaching method, which Frye adopted as a lifelong model. As he explains in the interview 'Music in My Life,'

George Ross … 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 … 1928 was the centenary of the death of Schubert, and I played a couple of movements from Schubert's sonatas over the Moncton radio, which was called CNRA in those days. Fortunately, that was long before the age of tapes.

(Grain of Sand 270)

Frye consistently denigrated his musical abilities, as in this notebook entry: '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' (Unbuttoned 191). His low opinion of his radio performance, however, may have been due as much to his dislike of [End Page 1055] Schubert's music as his assessment of his own skills. He writes in Notebook 5, 'The Schubert sonatas are horribly dull, with here and there a bright moment —generally the scherzo or minuet' (7).

Frye's relationship with Helen Kemp, whom he would marry in 1937 , further stimulated his interest in music. She was herself an accomplished musician, and their correspondence is filled with the musical interests and opinions of both. Frye 'saw a logical intertwining of [his and Helen's] interests. He was delighted that Helen, an art critic, had musical knowledge. This, he noted, was "absolutely indispensable to a critic of the fine arts who wants balance and completeness" ' (Ayre 96) —an opinion abundantly exemplified in his own literary criticism. Music is a constant presence in Frye's life throughout the 1930s, as his letters and other writings from this period show; he continually refers to playing new pieces, listening to records, reading through sheet music, and going to concerts, and he often comments on his musical preferences. By 1934 , he was contemplating a BD thesis (which he never wrote) on the relationship between music and the Christian church, an early example of the pairing of music and religion that would surface often in his later work. 'I want to show,' he writes to Helen, 'that, since only the Christian Church has developed a systematic tradition in music, that music bears a peculiarly intimate relationship to Christian dogma, besides to the history of Christianity. In other words, I want to show —my old problem! —why Bach is greater than Chopin, Franck than Tschaikowsky' (Correspondence 211). In Notebook 5, which probably dates from the mid-thirties, we even learn that he is planning 'a novel in sonata form,' entitled Quiet Consummation (1).

Frye'S Musical Tastes And Interest

I am quite willing to love you and to believe that you have never been understood until I came along with my tender and sympathetic razor strap, with its two thongs of Bach and Mozart.



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