top of page
  • David Kiser

Symphonies and Sphinxes: Moby Dick Part 2

I've finally come to the end of Herman Melville's massive Tome, Moby Dick. It has been nigh as long a journey as they take on the Pequod. I picked up the book in the California Edition at Mr. Ks in Greenville, gave it to my father for a Christmas gift, took it back and stared at it while my daughter read the lite version, then read the first chapter, put it away for another year and finally cracked it out again for no other reason that it had been haunting me every time I open my book cupboard! I had a similar experience with Infinite Jest. That one I threw behind the couch in utter frustration, only to have it resurface when the piano movers brought the Steinway D into the living room, necessitating momentary pivoting of the couch and lo' there it was leering at me again. It has since then sulked off to some dark corner of the house where I shan't read it. I realize I loath but need visual reminders, thus my desk is every indication of a living sticky note.


Off the coast of Jeju Island a few years back

But you are not reading this to learn about my reading habits. This is part of my Music in Literature series and I am happy to report while there have not been any specific discoveries, music as I 'm led to believe, plays an important role in Moby Dick. Let's get into my findings since page 183 where I last left you in a previous blog post here (again this is the California Edition page numbers).

I will include here in a kind of slipshod order some interesting phrases that I wished to comment on for a variety of reasons, but mostly in order to share the tidbits that make up the main reading pleasure in this work. I found it extremely hard to read, with massive chunks of paragraphs moving past like ships in the fog: leaving no name, purpose, plot, or meaning, except a general mood. But then he leaves us with these razor sharp, personable, mythic thoughts that call to be underlined.

"...while the thought of Virginia's Blue Ridge is full of a soft, dewy, distant dreaminess?" p. 195.

I point this out because one reason why I suppose Moby Dick is immortalized as one of the great American novels is because of its constant references back to American landmarks, most often Nantucket, but here one close to us: the Blue Ridge Mountains. And how lovingly does he refer to them? Later on another famous landmark is called upon. "...with a lantern we might descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach."

Our first music reference in these pages comes in a beautiful way as Queequeg and the narrator are weaving a "sword-mat".They enter a kind of trance wherein the narrator says they inhabit a "Loom of Time":

"Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I started at a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds whence that voice dropped like a wing." p. 218

The voice belongs to one of the harpooners, Tashtego, who is singing out for a whale, in a "marvellous (sic) cadence." Melville revisits a phrase he writes here for the first time later on in the book. The phrase is: warp and woof. It immediately reminded me of the composer Sarah Gibson's piece for the Atlanta Symphony called warp & weft which explores a similar trancelike state of sewing.

We are without a scant reference to our topic until one that, years later became a quite famous musical reference and we find it on page 230 in a stunning sentence: "The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the white curdling cream of the squall."(italics mine). I don't know where Melville read it but of course we know it from the Beatles' famous song of the same name and the darker book about the Manson Murders.

There is a sensuousness about Melville's descriptive language that borders on the impressionistic, splashes of color found in the music of Ravel and Debussy. I can't help but recommend a playlist of the great seaworthy, sensual works of classical music to accompany your reading. Often Melville starts his chapters with visual descriptions that both unmoore and localize, for how does one place a ship precisely on the ocean in 1850?; scholars have made maps of the progress of the Peqoud from Nantucket to the seas of South Asia to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.



...the Cape winds began howling around us, and we rose and fell upon the long, troubled seas that are there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness, till, like showers of silver chips, the foam-flakes flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than before." p. 238

You'll notice throughout the book his descriptions give an eerie sense of foreboding. The reader begins to put themselves in the place of the crew. Is Ahab really mad? While reading Moby Dick I couldn't help but recall the youthful pleasure of reading another nautical work, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. I wonder if Lewis read Moby Dick. I suppose he did. The language is not as floral and intricate, but it contains the mythic element and the characters might as well be on a star ship, exploring the rim of a black hole:

"...and every morning when the sun rose out of the sea the curved prow of the Dawn Treader stood up right across the middle of the sun. Some thought that the sun looked larger than it looked from Narnia, but others disagreed. And they sailed and sailed before a gentle yet steady breeze and saw neither fish nor gull nor ship nor shore...and it crept into their hearts that perhaps they might have come to a sea which went on for ever." --The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p. 102.

On page 242, Melville touches on a similar sentiment, and funnily enough, perhaps an apologia for flat-earthers:

"Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
"Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts;"p. 242

And one can immediately see and hear the difference of language: the utilitarianism of Lewis vs the romantic poetry of Melville. It seems to me you could pair Beethoven's Pastoral reasonably well with the Lewis, but Melville requires lushness--I have a Beethoven coming up, read on. Here are the impressionistic pieces that played through my head.

That last piece, A Sea Symphony, was dangerously close to sending me down an internet rabbit hole and it made me think of something else that I must mention here first before pulling together its reference to Moby Dick; more and more I'm finding that my non-internet artistic experiences as realized in physical forms like an actual book, a real-life performance have meant so much more to me than an excursion through the ephemeral waves and eddies of links following links; therefore, I almost hesitate to share that many links because as soon as I do anything with YouTube I vanish into it for too long! Don't be like me. The effort to pay attention to one thing at the exclusion of all others is an expression of freedom.

But back to Moby Dick. Much later in the book as the chief mate Starbucks finds more and more reason to pity his captain, you'll hear him utter variations of "Oh captain, my captain!" And of course at once you might remember that poem by Walt Whitman on the death of Abraham Lincoln. And you'll learn that A Sea Symphony draws its text from Whitman's "Leaves of Grass". I love finding all these connections and marveling at them. And to be perfectly honest I've never heard the whole Sea Symphony, but I must do so.

Melville always tells you what the chapter is about in the chapter titles and it is one of the fine pleasures of reading him. Chapter 70 is called "The Sphynx". A few days ago I attended a performance of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with the Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii who was born blind. (I distinctly remember Tsujii's wining performance from the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as being utterly different than his competitors). He played Chopin's E minor concerto and on the second half, the conductor-less orchestra played an orchestration of Schumann's Carnaval which included the puzzling movement called "Sphinxes". Here is what Schumann writes in the score. Of course this is quite disorienting to come to when preceding movements have been normal dances.


Pianists know this movement as the cipher for the piece as a whole, but what do you do with it? How do you play it? I can't go too much into it on this post, but it was actually nice to hear the orchestrator's (Zachary Wadsworth) take on how to play them. Pianists usually skip the movement.



Melville equates the grim, decapitated head of the whale as the sphinx. Ahab says, "Speak, thou vast and venerable head...tell us the secret thing that is in thee." Schumann's sphinx seems to hold those deep answers. If only the interpreter can bring them to the surface.

"Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot;" p. 320

Perhaps Melville gives the pianist a clue for how to play Schumann's sphinx which was composed about 20 years before Moby Dick was penned. For a pianist should sit in silence before the great head of the deep. I note too that Schumann preceded John Cage's fascination with silence with this movement. Then Ishmael states:

O head! thou has seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!" p. 320

In chapter 75 Melville draws upon musical imagery to help his reader conjure up the breathtaking visual aspects of the Right Whale. Ishmael describes as such: "If you stand on its summit and look at these two f-shaped spout-holes, you would take the whole head for an enormous bass-viol, and these spiracles, the apertures in its sounding-board." (p. 343). But perhaps my favorite simile is this one where he references the instrument in the church of St. Bavo, Netherlands, one of the most famous pipe organs in the world.

"But now forget all about blinds and whispers for a moment, and, standing in the Right Whale's mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?" p. 345

It's almost atypical that any one novel I'm reading names a specific piece. Composers are often mentioned. So what kind of classical piece of music could accompany Moby Dick that's not programmatic like the sea works I've referenced above? While upon reading page 406, an esoteric and technical legal description of Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish I thought of the piece: Beethoven's Eroica. Take a listen; take a read; see if you agree with me. The second movement of the symphony is a funeral march.

Melville identifies "base" forms of music and usually applies them to characters and scenes that are more Dionysian than aesthetic. Often the references take on a racial stereotype. There's Pip the fiddler and the "Long Island negroes, with glittering fiddle-bows of whale ivory...presiding over the hilarious jig." Earlier in the book he lambasts those that would like to be gay and merry, preferring to carouse and go to "operas" than think about deep things. I was surprised to find in my current book (Septology by Fosse) that the "Fiddler" is not an admired character and likely your mind, dear reader, might turn to Mephistopheles and his devilish playing. But let me quote Ishmael's affinity for an elevated sense of music, in its rightful place after a killing, music that has the power to transform:

"It was far down the afternoon; and when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done; and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky, sun and whale both stilly died together; then, such a sweetness and such plaintiveness, such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air, that it almost seemed as if far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manilla isles, the Spanish land-breeze, wantonly turned sailor, had gone to sea, freighted with these vesper hymns." p. 502

For Melville as stand in for Ishmael, music accompanies death. In a scene of gallows humor, Ahab asks the carpenter why he doesn't sing. The carpenter, in a scene that becomes important at the end of the novel, is working on transforming Queequeg's now superfluous coffin into a life buoy. "Hark ye, dost thou not ever sing working about a coffin? The Titans, they say, hummed snatches when chipping out the craters for volcanoes; and the grave-digger in the play sings, spade in hand. Dost thou never?" The carpenter answers, "the reason why the grave-digger made music must have been because there was none in his spade, sir. But the calking mallet is full of it. Hark to it." There are further implications in this chapter (Chapter 127), but I must keep moving.

Boy was I surprised when I came upon what I refer to as the penultimate chapter (penultimate if you take the final trinity as one). Chapter 132 is called "The Symphony" In it Ahab wrestles with the question of fate before his ultimate showdown with the White Whale:

"Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl's forehead of heaven."

His chief mate Starbuck's notices the forlorn captain leaning over the sea and they enter into a woeful conversation. Ahab says, "When I think of this life I have led [40 years on the sea]; the desolation of solitude it has been...". Starbuck naturally tries to convince him to give up the chase so that they may return home to their families. But there is no hint of why Melville decides to call the chapter "The Symphony." That is until Ahab says the word unsounded. It is as if Ahab is surrounded by a silent symphony hiding in the deep that runs all things, that moves fishes to swim, and the wind to blow. There is something (God?) that controls this symphony hidden in the depths. The composers intentions? Ahab doesn't know, but his measures have been written and he must commit, he must reach the last bar, the last note.

"Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven...By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!" p. 546

It's a stunning chapter, utterly Shakespearean. I was overall quite pleased with my efforts spent on this thoroughly modern and touching novel. It's references will stay with me for years and I'll will be sure to notice it reflected in the work of other authors. As to the classical music in it? I was surprised. No titles, but that Haarlem organ! Thanks for reading. Stay posted for another iteration of Music in Literature when I finish Fosse's Septology.


-David Kiser



Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page