Transcendentalism, Music, and Conservationism: Philosophical Development of Music and Environmental Ethics in the Nineteenth Century

By Doctor Comrade

At the end of the eighteenth century, European philosophy naturally flowed from one movement to another as Romanticism formed as a backlash against the Enlightenment. Romanticism critiqued the ideas that human rationality and perception could accurately describe existence and discern a universal ethical paradigm. Transcendentalism developed as the first American philosophical movement as an offshoot of Romanticism. Transcendentalism sought to explain the fundamental aspects of existence by exploring the spiritual ties between humans and nature. By relying on nature, Transcendentalism valued the natural world and its inherent connections to humanity. Transcendentalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau created Transcendentalism as an aesthetic and ethical framework that recognized the power and beauty of nature as well as humanity’s place in the natural world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As the movement grew, stemming largely from Emerson’s seminal work Nature, it began to influence other aspects of American culture. Early conservationists found powerful arguments in Transcendentalism as responses to the nascent Industrial Revolution and its exploitation of natural resources. The Transcendental movement inspired artists, writers, poets, composers, and musicians to create works that espoused the beauty of nature. In this way, Transcendentalism influenced music as an aesthetic expression and a form of conservationist protest. The growth of conservationism vis-à-vis Transcendentalism is due in large part to John Sullivan Dwight, an outspoken Transcendentalist who published the influential magazine Dwight’s Journal of Music. In the journal, Dwight linked Transcendentalism to popular works of contemporary music as well as publicized musicians and writers that were influenced by Emerson and Thoreau. Transcendentalism laid the philosophical groundwork for the environmental movement and inspired works of music that reflected the growth and development of the conservation movement at the end of the nineteenth century.

Romanticism shifted European philosophical thought from a focus on rationalism to an emphasis on emotion and perception. Romantic thinkers sought to revolutionize how philosophers perceived the natural world. Rather than using science and rationality to understand reality, Romanticism moved towards individualism, imagination, and emotion.[1] Thinkers in the United States reacted to the European intellectual revolution (and particularly German idealism) by appropriating Romanticism into a new form that was uniquely American.[2] The Transcendentalists incorporated the European emphasis on perception and emotion with the expanses of American environmental beauty and frontier mentality. They used Romanticism to fight against religious conservativism in New England and traditional rationalism in contemporary thought to form “a protest of the human spirit against emotional starvation.”[3] Thoreau argued that cold rationalism discovered “nothing but the surface” and failed to “penetrate the inner mystery of things,” so his project sought to understand the relationship between nature’s mysteries and humanity’s abilities to perceive.[4]

Transcendentalism emphasized humanity’s connections with nature and particularly how humans perceived the natural world. For Emerson, nature encompassed all creation, both man and everything that is “not man.”[5] He argued nature is the art of God, which creates an intrinsic link between man and nature. Additionally, Emerson divided nature into four parts that created extrinsic links between humans and nature: Commodity, Beauty, Language, and Discipline. As a commodity, nature nourishes humans. As beauty, nature is visually, spiritually, and intellectually pleasing. As language, nature symbolizes spirituality. As a discipline, nature provides intellectual truths by showing the concepts of order, likeness/difference, arrangement, change, and other lessons. Nature constitutes the permanent framework for human existence, which indicates it exists outside of human perception. As its core, nature speaks to the spirit of humanity like a teacher because it has its own spirit from the will of God.[6] Emerson’s arguments marked a radical departure from other thinkers. He argued that all aspects of society should respect nature as the reflection of the human soul, the binding analogies between real and ideal, and the backbone of universal symbolism. In this way, Emerson presented an epistemological system that relied on nature as its foundation.[7]

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau also emphasized intrinsic connections to nature. He contended that humanity was not separate from nature but completely immersed in the natural world. From immersion, humans could interpret “essential facts of life” and the essence of existence. In order to reveal beauty as well as order, philosophers had to discover the various aspects of organic life. From this point of view, Thoreau derived the other aspects of his philosophy, including self-sufficiency, ethics, and conservationism.[8] In terms of conservationism, Thoreau detested human “improvements” and argued that changes in the land violated “the environmental whole.”[9]

Emerson and Thoreau particularly affected members of the musical community. John Sullivan Dwight was a musician, writer, and music critic who became strongly influenced by Emerson. Dwight worked fervently to publish hundreds of essays on articles and contemporary music that claimed Transcendentalism and music were not only linked but deeply important to each other. Dwight’s project theorized about the philosophical underpinnings of music, which he believed were deeply transcendental.[10] He argued that music was a critical form of cultural expression that embodied both beauty and ease of communicability. The journal he founded was the largest and most important disseminator of musical information in the US until he ceased publishing in 1881.[11]

Transcendental thinkers also influenced Charles Ives, an American composer. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were few American composers, and Ives’ work was only appreciated by a few high-society patrons. [12] However, his major contributions came from his writing. He authored essays that described how his compositions related to Transcendentalism. He claimed that music was a subjective expression of objective reality, which amalgamates subjectivity and objectivity. In turn, he believed his music had an “Emersonian ethos.” He wrote endearingly of Emerson in particular, including their shared philosophical values.[13] Additionally, he mounted a spirited defense of Thoreau against his critics. He also wrote that he saw similarities between Beethoven’s symphonies and Thoreau’s rhythmical prose. Ives thought Thoreau could hear “natural sounds” coming out of nature,[14] and Thoreau himself wrote that he thought the “magic and charm” of unique vibrations in nature formed music.[15]

John Sullivan Dwight

John Sullivan Dwight

For Emerson, nature represented the spiritual link between God and humans.[16] He argued that God created the sky, earth, and seas both as a habitat for humans and as a beautiful entity of its own. Therefore, nature contains both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Emerson re-positioned nature from the background of existence to a coequal partner of humanity.[17] Even thought humans try to tame and manipulate nature, ultimately nature teaches humanity about itself and about existence. In this way, nature is not a passive entity of creation, but it was designed by God to be an active participant with a constant interplay with humans. Nature grows plants, makes animals, and controls the flow of water and air, so it contains a spirit inside itself that directly interacts with humanity. [18] More importantly, it transmits itself through beauty, an inherently irrational and indefinable trait. People have to employ the full use of their faculties in order to understand the fullness and beauty of Nature.[19] Emerson argued for resistance against the injustices of the world, like every day work and industry.[20] He believed industry distracted and removed humans from their natural place, so people should stop focusing on extracting resources from the environment and begin focusing on knowledge and experience.

Thoreau also argued that nature is intrinsically valuable. He maintained that the human spirit is intertwined with the physical world. The physical world thus has a spiritual quality, which makes it valuable to humans and in itself as a sacred entity.[21] Furthermore, Thoreau considered every man to be the builder of his own temple, which he constructs with flesh and blood comprised of natural materials.[22] These arguments describe how Thoreau perceived the Earth to be linked with the lives of each individual human. In its time, Thoreau’s work influenced contemporary philosophers, particularly his emphasis on the value of land, self-sufficiency, and organic life. His work remains influential and continues to serve as ground for modern environmental philosophers and it permanently altered the flow of the Western philosophical canon.[23] Thoreau helped shape how Transcendentalism attempted to re-imagine the interpretation of nature: Emerson and Thoreau emphasized the importance and interconnection of the natural world and humans. As a result, conservationism drew on Transcendentalist works. Thoreau’s work, and particularly the emphasis on preservation and fair land use, helped build a “bridge from the Romanticism of the early American period to the beginnings of preservationism in the late nineteenth century.”[24] That bridge consisted of:

            “The Transcendentalists’ overlapping interests… in the primacy of nature…. Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden were two texts that inspired budding naturalists and stimulated the founding of the environmental movement in America. Figures such as John Muir and John Burroughs drew from these texts for their own early work in conservation.”[25]

As a result of Emerson and Thoreau’s writing, the early conservationists derived both inspiration and philosophical arguments.

Dwight and Ives both argued that Transcendentalism changed musical theory, both in terms of composition and tonality. Dwight wrote in 1849 how Emerson’s work on beauty had shaped the perception of modern music, including how “Music is both body and soul…Its body is beauty…. But in this very word beauty is implied soul, a moral end, a meaning of some sort, a something which makes it of interest to the inner life of man.”[26] The key component to Dwight’s writing was the marriage of aesthetics with ethics, a move Emerson made by laying out the four roles of nature. By marrying those disparate parts of philosophy, Dwight wrote that it gave music a “material form… an object of sense, what lives in essence only in the soul.”[27]

Transcendentalism influenced two different genres of music. On one hand, educated Transcendentalist writers saw transcendental qualities in neo-classical European music. On the other hand, American folk singers incorporated transcendental themes into their lyrics. In terms of neo-classical music, Dwight and Ives wrote on contemporary composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johann Sebastian Bach. When Dwight and Ives heard Beethoven, they both perceived complex messages were being transmitted through the notes. Dwight wrote that Beethoven’s artistic domain included all of human nature, including self-sufficiency. Beethoven expressed that message by transcending traditional musical forms and “[overstepping] the bounds… of even the art itself.” The darkness and disorderliness of Beethoven’s work allowed him to pursue the mysteries of nature, what was “strange and spectral,” and the mysteries that eluded the untrained artist.[28] Ives believed Beethoven transmitted complex messages in simple, four-note motifs, as in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. To Ives, those combinations of notes represented the interplay of humanity and divine mystery.[29]

Dwight also wrote on the work of Bach. To Dwight, Bach’s work represented religious exploration. Bach rejected euphony, which was subject to simple phrasing and uniformity. Instead, he relied on “freer, mightier movement” that allowed him to dig deeper into religious mysticism. His “transcendental boldness” revealed how his method challenged clearness and comprehensibility.[30] In Dwight’s contention, Bach principally stayed in the main key but also strayed to the outer edges of comprehension, as in a metaphor for exploring what humanity had not yet discovered in musical theory, and nature by extension. Dwight also contended in the same way that composers wrote music to develop metaphors and themes by using different or unique tonalities, melodies, harmonies, and songs written in multiple keys. For example, the sounds of the voice project musical notes that carry “all the noble emotions which human beings can experience,” like songs with multiple keys explore contradictory or wide-ranging topics.[31] Dwight’s Transcendental ethos influenced several generations of American composers such as Horatio Parker, Anthony Philip Heinrich, Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Charles Ives.[32]

Transcendentalism also influenced folk music. In 1837, George Morris and Henry Russel made “Woodman! Spare that Tree!” and it is considered to be the first explicitly environmentalist song. It contained the lyrics, “Woodman, spare that tree! Touch not a single bough! In youth it sheltered me, And I'll protect it now. 'Twas my forefather's hand, That placed it near his cot: There, woodman, let it stand, Thy axe shall harm it not!”[33] Artists produced songs like “Woodman!” for the next hundred years, which played key roles in promoting the conservationist movement, the foundation of modern environmentalism.[34] Folk music made a natural backbone for the environmental movement because it encompassed a populist spirit, tradition of protest, and acoustic and homemade instruments. Its widespread popularity, catchiness, and easiness to learn helped spread conservationist rhetoric across America. One of the most well-known songs was the “Boll Weevil Song,” which railed against “the ecological dangers involved in industrial monocropping and the ways in which invasive insect vectors can lead to both local and regional environmental catastrophes.”[35]

Transcendentalism shaped the complicated interplay between mutually reaffirming environmental and musical movements. Conservationism inspired musicians, and music inspired conservationists; both relied on Transcendentalism for their philosophical justification. Popular Transcendentalists argued that neo-classical music espoused themes like self-sufficiency, beauty in nature, interconnection of performers and listeners, and the power of human emotion. Even if Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach were not composing with Transcendentalism in mind, the power and influence of Dwight and Ives propagated the view that Transcendentalism had infiltrated the greatest composers of the time. In particular, Dwight published the most influential music literature in the country, spreading views to the educated class on the importance of Transcendentalism. The lower classes experienced the importance of Transcendentalism through the ubiquity of folk music.

Conservationism and Transcendental music developed together and reflected each other. On one side, conservationism as a political movement derived its inspiration from the Transcendental philosophers. Neo-classical and folk music contained themes from the Transcendental movement. In this union, conservationism and environmental music overlapped. For over one hundred years, folk musicians wrote, performed, and spread conservationist music around the country and had an open and willing audience. Although songs about beauty had existed for millennia, and the conservationist ethos was not new, the confluence of the Transcendental movement with the rise of folk and neo-classical music created audiences that were exposed to conservationist rhetoric; the rise of the conservation movement borne out of Transcendentalism inspired musicians to create works of conservationist art. In this way, the nascent conservation movement’s growth reflected the changing path of folk music, and vice versa.

Music developed its themes and motifs as a natural product of the Transcendentalist movement. Taking inspiration from the aesthetic and ethical frameworks established by Emerson and Thoreau, musicians created music they believed would address the inherent connections between humanity and nature. Figures in the midst of this musical transition like Dwight fostered connections between the literary and philosophical movement to contemporary musicians. Transcendentalism’s influence on music reflected the growth and maturation of the proto-environmentalist movement that coalesced against the developing Industrial Revolution. Where Transcendentalism established the philosophical framework for environmentalists, transcendental musicians reflected the nascent views of Environmentalism. In this way, Transcendentalism profoundly affected both contemporary music and the early environmental movement, which in turn shaped each other as reflections of mutual progress.


[1] Lilian Furst, “Romanticism in Historical Perspective,” Comparative Literature Studies 5, no. 2 (1968): 116.
[2] Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 10.
[3] Miller, 10.
[4] Rick Furtak, “Henry David Thoreau,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009): 5.
[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University, 2003), 1.
[6] Emerson, 2.
[7] Regis Michaud, “Emerson’s Transcendentalism,” The American Journal of Psychology 30, no. 1 (1919): 78.
[8] Furtak, 2.
[9] Robert McGregor, “Deriving a Biocentric History: Evidence from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau,” Environmental Review 12, no. 2 (1988): 118.
[10] Aaron McClendon, “’for not in words can it be spoken’: John Sullivan Dwight's Transcendental Music Theory and Herman Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities,” The Atlantic Transcendental Quarterly 19, no. 1 (2005): 23.
[11] McClendon, 26.
[12] Alfred F. Rosa, “Charles Ives: Music, Transcendentalism, and Politics,” The New England Quarterly 44, no. 3 (1971): 434.
[13] Rosa, 435-6.
[14] Rosa, 441.
[15] Thoreau, 123.
[16] Emerson, 1.
[17] Emerson, 2.
[18] Emerson, 4.
[19] Emerson, 3.
[20] Russell Goodman, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011): 3.
[21] Furtak, 2.
[22] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973), 221.
[23] Furtak, 5.
[24] McGregor, 120-122.
[25] Richard Geldard, The Essential Transcendentalists (New York: Penguin, 2005), 234-5.
[26] John Sullivan Dwight, “Music,” in The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), 411.
[27] Ibid.
[28] John Sullivan Dwight, “Bach, and Beethoven in his Later Works,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 5, no. 2 (1854): 1.
[29] Rosa, 437.
[30] Dwight, “Bach, and Beethoven,” 1.
[31] John Sullivan Dwight, “The Violin Quartet and The Voice,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 6, no. 14 (1855): 1-2.
[32] Richard Kahn, “Environmental Activism in Music,” Music in American Life: The Songs, Stories, Styles, and Stars that Shaped Our Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2013): 2.
[33] George Morris and Benjamin Brown, "Woodman! Spare That Tree!" The Deserted Bride and Other Poems (1837).
[34] Kahn, 1.
[35] Kahn, 2.

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