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read into music

April 28, 2011

read into music

On the inside cover of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony recently issued by Columbia there is a note on the meanings of that work. Bruno Walter, however, says that he never heard Mahler intimate that the symphony had any meanings except the meanings of the music. Does this impair the meanings of the commentators as meanings? Certainly this music had no single meaning which alone was the meaning intended and to which one is bound to penetrate. If it had, what justification could the composer have had for concealing it? The score with its markings contains any meaning that imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it. It takes very little to experience the variety in everything. – Wallace Stevens, “Opus Posthumous”

One of my favorite poets is Wallace Stevens, and seeing as how National Poetry Month is drawing to a close and he’s a writer who seemed particularly attuned to music, this quote seems appropriate for a music blog. Stevens’ poems are simultaneously accessible and obtuse, and are quite popular with composers, thanks to his concise lines of text and pithy imagery. I will admit that as an undergraduate I joined the legion of composers who have set Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird to music (how can you resist setting these lines: “It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs.” Guess what? YOU CAN’T RESIST), and frequently find inspiration for titles in his lines: “downward to darkness, on extended wings” or “a green evening, clear and warm” just cried out to be pieces of music.

But back to the matter at hand — Stevens is exactly right when he writes “the score with its markings contains any meaning that imaginative and sensitive listeners find in it.” Music does not have to mean anything, because by simply being music that is enough. But you know what? You are allowed to add meaning to a piece of music if it will make you understand and embrace it more fully. You can do what you need to do, and there is no right vs. wrong way to “read” a piece of music or a poem or a painting. Programmatic music is a different matter (oh, Till Eulenspiegel and your very specific pranks!), as is anything with text, but works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony do not come with a predetermined meaning, so let your imagination run wild!

Part of being human is trying to explain what you see/hear/feel/taste/smell, but like the variously attributed quote says, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a futile pursuit, but we are compelled to try. From cave paintings onwards, humans have felt the need to name things around us to understand them, to possess them, to “get” them, even if the nebulous thing being named resists it. Yes, you can say that Debussy’s Clair de lune “describes moonlight on the water and then the wind comes up or something and there’s a swan floating nearby and everything is mysterious and the water is warm.” That’s a very nice run-on idea of what you felt while listening to the piece, but you could also say that the experience of listening to it made you think of “eating a popsicle and carving a pumpkin while wearing a sweater made of leaves and then a unicorn appeared.” While far less universally understandable (at what bar exactly do you think the unicorn appears? There’s a dissertation in there somewhere: Early 20th Century Depictions of Mythical Creatures through Non-functional Extended Tertian Harmony, perhaps?), the second “reading” of the work is equally valid as the first. Because at the end of the day, your enjoyment of/engagement with the music is what matters.

This is what makes a piece of art a great and lasting work. Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano always has the same number of measures, but there are an infinite number of ways to describe or understand the work. Or take Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. It is a supremely well-crafted piece of music, so you can take it apart in your mind and reassemble it however you want and it’s still a great work. This blank slate of meaning is one of the many reasons I love hearing the premieres of new pieces of music. You get to play with the new work fresh out of the box—it’s intact, unsullied and completely new. You have to base your thoughts off your initial reaction since you’ve never heard it before and have no recordings to retroactively compare it to. You have to respond to a single, fleeting impression of the music, and process it as it is happening in front of you. And how fun is that?! You come away with a hazy and semi-formed yet persuasive view of what you experienced. I couldn’t tell you much of anything about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto I heard premiered by the New York Philharmonic with Yefim Bronfman at Lincoln Center four or five years ago. I just know I loved it, and that I felt a strong emotional connection to it. I still remember liking it…I just don’t remember what it sounded like.

In terms of hearing something new, our last Orchestral Series concert, mozart’s prague, features the premiere of Derek Bermel’s Sound Investment commissioned work Mar de Setembro. (Yes, it has text, so it should be disqualified…but the poetry is in Portugese, so I won’t understand a word of it and can thus listen to it purely as music. Loophole!) I am excited to discover the piece and take the aural journey for the first time. Who knows what I’ll find in the piece — unicorns? Never say never.

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