Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What does music mean?

And, the next question, what does it matter? These are questions that I have been grappling with since I started taking the study of music seriously, in the last 10 or so years.

As for what music means, I think the answer is: it means a lot less than it did 200 years ago. I think that at at least until the middle of the 19th century, many musical messages that were integral to many works were immediately obvious to every listener. There is the storm:

and the muffled drums of a funeral:

and a drinking song:

and a shepherd's pipe:

These semiotic messages, which mostly have to be explained to modern listeners, were, I believe self-evident to those who heard these works when they were composed. Today, when we hear Haydn's quartet Opus 33 number 3, nicknamed "The Bird", we may well associate what we hear with a bird. But Haydn's listeners probably also knew which bird was being quoted. For example, is this

a  willow warbler?

And this

a  partridge clucking in the hedge?

One of my future projects for this blog is to sit with an ornithologist and identify the exact birds that Haydn is quoting in this quartet.

How did we come to forget that music was trying to tell us something? It was, perhaps, the work of Brahms, Edward Hanslick, and others of the second half of the 19th century, who emphatically rejected the idea of programmatic music in favor of "pure music". Music, wrote Hanslick, by its nature "is specifically musical. By this we mean that the beautiful is not contingent upon nor in need of any subject introduced from without, but that it consists wholly of sounds artistically combined." This was a reaction against the Wagnerians, who claimed that the day of pure music ended with Beethoven, and that the art needed the crutch of a program to advance.

Is it true? Is pure music dead? Do we need theatrics to prop up out music?

But even "pure music" is programmatic, in the sense that it is the expression of the composer's inner thoughts and feelings. "Is not all music program-music?" asks Charles Ives in "Essays before a Sonata". "Is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power, or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion?"  In the case of Ives, of course, much of the external referents of his music is explicit. His first string quartet, for example, quotes from six American hymns, and is a conscious attempt to create an American music. And it really sounds American, whatever that means.

I am a believer in the return of meaning to music. And for this reason I want to recommend  New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's series of videos on his top 10 list of great composers. His seat-of-the-pants method of analyzing music ties the technical structure of pieces - the harmonic structure, the rhythmic changes, all the things we studied in high school and wondered why - to their musical meaning. This is the way music should be understood. 

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