Going Green: Vegetarianism and Classical Music

Apr 21, 2017

April 22 is Earth Day and a time when I'm more inclined to reflect on how interconnected the natural world and all life really is. I'm not referring necessarily to the economic or political world. Sometimes it seems hopelessly divided as 7 billion people try to figure out how to live together on this planet with its ever-shrinking natural resources.

In the world of nature, however, there are no such boundaries and divisions. It's one vast system, and we are all a part of it. Earth Day reminds me of that.

Poets, writers, artists and musicians have always been inspired by the natural world. In classical music, you can go from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Johann Strauss' The Beautiful Blue Danube to An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss or Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness and many, many, more works.

When considering the question of how to live wisely and well in this world, which means also within nature, the food we choose to eat and how it affects not only our health but the whole system of life are important aspects. And that has serious implications for the other creatures with which we share the earth. There are omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians and vegans, and people just trying to get enough of any food to eat.

For a blog post from several years back, I looked into whether there were classical musicians who were interested in these political, cultural and environmental issues. It turns out there were vegetarians and other people in the classical music realm concerned with the humane treatment of animals in the 19th century—which should not have come as a surprise to me.

As noted in that blog post, Richard Wagner was inclined toward vegetarianism after reading German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Though he was best known as the philosopher of pessimism, Schopenhaur was also an early advocate for animal rights.  

After Wagner published an essay endorsing vegetarianism, it influenced Gustav Mahler. Mahler, a late-Romantic Austrian composer and conductor, tried to become vegetarian for both health and ethical reasons, and these ideas were circulating around Viennese cafes at the time, influencing others there, like composer Hugo Wolf.

Today's version of this would probably be people debating the environmental, social and economic impact of animal agriculture, the treatment of animals in our mass food system, should food be "organic" or "humanely raised" and so forth. On the health side, the discourse might focus on, should one go vegetarian, vegan or paleo?

In Mahler's time, people were having these discussions before factory farms existed and before much was known about the possible negative health effects of too much meat and dairy. In Russia, writer Leo Tolstoy became a vegetarian for ethical reasons, and composer Alexander Scriabin became one as well.

Closer to our time and in the United States, John Cage was vegetarian, and among notable contemporary composers, Philip Glass, who is now 80, has been vegetarian for over 50 years. Among vegetarian classical musicians, probably the most famous is violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who also happened to be born 101 years ago on April 22, the day we now celebrate Earth Day.

Menuhin has always been an inspiration for me, both for the depth and humanity of his playing, and for his concern for the planet and everyone and everything on it.

So, happy birthday, Menuhin, and happy Earth Day.