Music and wine
Music and wine © Getty  /  Don Mason

Wine and music, forever allies

At the heart of the relationship between music and wine lies a drunkenness, almost an intoxication...at times divine, ambiguous, and sometimes even political.

Music and wine are linked, intimately and historically. From ancient banquets and feasts to glasses of wine consumed during opera intervals, it would seem that wherever there is music, there is wine...and vice versa. 

Why have the arts of wine and music been so intertwined for so long? The answer may well be one word: intoxication.

Divine intoxication

One cannot discuss music and wine without mentioning Dionysus. This important character of Greek mythology is the god of wine and  excess. He was celebrated every year to mark Dionysia, great dramatic festivals during which paraded the "retinue of Dionysus", inebriated and merrily singing. According to Aristotle, the Greek theatre was born from these wild, but no less artistic, celebrations. A musical theatre, during which the audience could hear instruments and choirs. 

Somewhat ironically, though excesses of body and mind were discouraged by the church in the Medieval period, it was in those very monasteries that viticultural techniques were first developed. Monks and abbots also composed the first Gregorian chants, premises of what would later become Occidental music as we know today. Daily life within the monasteries was shared between liturgical music and viticultural work, and modern French wine maps also contain references to the great abbeys of yore.

Political intoxication

If the festivities held in honour of Dionysus gave way to excess, they were no less a way of reinforcing a sense of community: in Greek society, there where wine and music flow freely, it is always at the service of the city.

Another occasion during which the Greek citizen could drink wine was the banquet, an important moment (to say the least) for socialising and reflection. The guests shared wine cut with water, debated and exchanged following strict rules, and listened to tales of great heros sung by musicians.

For the philosopher Plato, wine and music were two political instruments. They soothe and raise the spirit, not towards the heavens but rather to dialogue and politico-philosophical perceptions...as long as they are not consumed in excess. The master of the feast was often the one to decide the quantities of wine to be consumed by each guest, and similarly the musicians were reglularly sent away when the discussions turned serious.

This tradition of feasts and banquets, with plenty of wine and music for the social gathering, can be found at every moment in our history: from the great feasts held by the lords of the Middle Ages, entertained by jesters and troubadours, to the French café-concerts of today, without forgetting the Baroque feasts or the Parisian musical theatres of the 19th century where it was always respectable to be seen.

Dangerous intoxication

"Drunkenness is a voluntary madness" Seneca the Younger 

As early as Plato, the sense of ecstasy and loss of motor function through inebriation have alwas been reasons for wariness and control. Though Plato extolled the virtues of wine and music, he also questioned their limits. In his Laws, the Athenian character asks an important question: "Does the drinking of wine intensify pleasures and pains . And how about sensations and recollections and opinions and thoughts ?" The same Plato saw a distinction between "good" and "bad" music: the "good music"is one that respects the natural (and mathematical) harmony found in nature, allowing the human soul to become one with its environment. It muyst be simple and pure, never excessive. 

The church also advised caution against "bad" music, that which would corrup the soul. The church initially rejected profane music, the ars nova, feared by eclesiastic authorities for driving the faithful away from payer, unable not comply with the will of God.

For the birth of the first drinking songs, we must thank the subversive Goliard monks. In the face of prohibitive rules emerged the profligate, one who celebrates the pleasures of the flesh and the tavern through bawdy and lurid texts put to music, soon to be a long-lived tradition since wine and music are not only linked, but draw inspiration from one another. The wine-tasting vocabulary, for example, is strongly influenced by the musical vocabulary, and similarly numerous composers have acclaimed the pleasures of good wine through their music.

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