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Musical meanings

CaptureThe question of ‘the meaning of music’ arose in a recent discussion. I enjoy discussions in which there is an opportunity to be provocative, yet this was far less a deliberate philosophical manoeuvre than an apparent matter of fact. A related statement very frequently thrown out in discussion is that ‘music is an international language, knowing no boundaries’. Both statements give rise to deeper enquiry. The OED gives the definition of language as ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way’. The definition of meaning is vague: ‘what is meant by a word, action, idea etc.’. From those descriptions it would seem apparent that music is not a language, and therefore is incapable of conveying any specific meaning.
If it were a language, then surely translation would be possible. There would be another system in which it could be presented in order to convey a meaning just as clearly for the benefit of those unfamiliar with its initial form. Therefore it might be presumed that without words – the basic components that would allow translation – it cannot have any specific meaning.
However, sounds can convey a meaning of sorts, though I would prefer to use the word impression. That I suppose is the major problem with music. The impressions it creates are suggested generally by titles or background information. Vivaldi tried to create the impression of seasonal changes in his set of violin concertos, The Seasons, and the short poems he wrote to introduce each concerto (not particularly fine verse, but better in Italian!) steer the listeners’ consciousness in such a way that his ideas easily turn into a meaning of sorts. The birdsong celebrates the return of spring,interrupted by thunder, which again intrudes on summer’s relentless heat. Autumnal drunkenness and the chattering of teeth in mid-winter are incidents marked in the score. Had Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave (or Hebrides Overture) just been called Overture in B minor, speculation as to its inspired origin might be as far from Scotland as another composer’s Symphony in C or Concerto in F, any of which could be a geographical location, a tragic love affair or the death of a favourite uncle.
It is only that the composer suggests an interpretation, or there is already one derived from an operatic libretto or the story of a ballet or musical, that the illusion of meaning occurs. The composer Arthur Honegger created a musical impression of a huge Pacific steam locomotive, known in France by its arrangement of 2-3-1 axles rather than the number of wheels, which became hugely popular, and yet an American critic praised his ability to evoke the smells of the open sea, confusing it with the Pacific Ocean. Honegger advised young composers against providing listeners with any easy interpretation; it could always either be misinterpreted or found faulty!
To make assumptions about the motivation of musical creation based on a composer’s private life is also to build on generally unsustainable foundations. The expression of great melancholy in the music could well be a composer’s skill rather than a reflection of circumstances attributed to personal loss or illness. Elation expressed in the music could be the pleasure of obtaining the commission rather than it being ‘evidence of an especially pleasing period in the composer’s life’ as historians might say. Musical biographers are capable of inventing entertaining stories to support their interpretation of the way in which life’s vagaries might enter the creative flow. Minor keys may suggest sadness and major keys delight. But there is no reason that composers might not explore the opposites, and like Mozart in the opening of his G minor Quintet (K516) express great happiness in G minor, or devastating sadness in the Countess’s C major aria in his opera The Marriage of Figaro. A composer’s expertise in creating the music far outweighs any easy popular association attributed to the mode of a key; those skillful keyboard improvisers in church or cinema can turn emotion on or off like a tap.
While only some visual art is abstraction, challenging ‘interpretation’ – or simply there to fascinate the eye – most classical music is abstract, and has to be if it is to remain free to be interpreted in any way the listener’s personality and mood pleases to adopt. It is a pity if too much direction is given to force the listener into an interpretive corner.


Posted by author: Patric
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7 thoughts on “Musical meanings

  • The same thoughts about meaning apply also to photography. Personally, I am not a fan of the comments often attached to pictures to “explain” them. It seems to me that if the picture needs explanation, then something must be missing from the image. Perhaps the context is not clear enough, or the photographer feels unable to convey it visually. If one avoids looking at the text, then different thoughts about the image are possible. The photographer’s intentions do become clear from the caption, but it leaves me somehow feeling unsatisfied, as if photography alone is inadequate.

  • Patric has got us scratching our heads again. As he has indicated the word ‘meaning’ used in different contexts can itself take on different meanings. I am always puzzled by discussions about ‘the meaning of life’ – but let us leave that to one side and confine ourself to the discussion in hand.
    Is the set of conventions known as music capable of being universally understood? Well yes and no. Bach spatters his compositions with musical versions of his surname making use of the fact that”H” in German notation stands for our”B”. (I once in a light hearted moment wrote a little piece for my A level tutor which I prefaced ” Listening to too much Wagner will give you this” -It was ‘A bad headache’ again using German notation. My grades weren’t too badly affected.) I believe that Messiaen carried this much further by assigning notes to every letter of the alphabet. ‘Morse’ code can also be brought in as the tv show of the same name made use of.
    Then there is the whole subject of ‘affects’ (for instance the dropping sevenths beloved of Elgar and used by Bach in his chorale prelude ‘Durch Adams Fall’ and the moods that various keys are supposed to engender. I know little about this but a quick search of Wikipedia shows that there was no real consensus amongst musicians. (With equal tempered instruments how can there be?) Then what about the diabolus in musica – the tritone eschewed by early composers but the basis of much of `Britten’s War Requiem – used to shattering effect. This is generally felt to give a feeling of menace.
    Patric indicates that minor keys are often associated with sadness (at least in West European music) but as he says it is not always the case. An example I often quote is William Byrd’s ‘Civitas sancta tui’ which is entirely in the major key and contains the words “Jerusalem desolata est’ – “Jerusalem is laid waste” with the’ laid waste’ on a rising major scale (For those who don’t know it I do recommend it. To sing it is an enormous privilege.) This anthem is about the destruction of Jerusalem as a metaphor for Christ’s death and probably as a side swipe against the Protestants for suppressing the Catholic Church. Serious stuff. – but major key.
    As interpreters of music we do look for meaning. However so much of this is inevitably a personal feeling. I am struggling with conducting the Bach St John Passion at the moment and I spent a lot of time looking at the orchestral introduction and wondering what Bach was trying to convey. It is tempting to think that the three long held extreme dissonances (diminished seconds) that Bach uses represent the three nails of the Cross; that the the series of quavers on a pedal G in the bass convey inevitability; the quartets of semi quavers unrelenting struggle; rising phrases from bar 15 Jesus’s Ascension and triumph over death and the first three ‘Lord’s an allusion to the Trinity (I apologise to readers who may be unfamiliar with the Christian story.) But how much of this was intended by Bach and how much is just my interpretation of this wonderful piece of music? I suppose that this is the problem when looking at any great work of art.
    That we can look at things in different ways was brought home to me when I was talking recently to a composer about the War Requiem which for me overwhelmingly conveys the devastation and pointlessness of war and lays bare Britten’s passionate pacifism. Whilst not denying this he said that for him the Requiem was just too contrived, a feeling which grew on him in rehearsals (for which he was the excellent accompanist). I echo this in my lack of attraction to the Monteverdi Vespers which to me sounds like a glitzy show piece which has rather boring harmonies and some contrived rhythmical tricks. And don’t get me started on Beethoven’s Ninth – the bete noire of choral singers.
    This leads me on to general feelings about composers’ music. I always find Bach life affirming, even in such solemn moments as the Crucifixus from the B Minor Mass, whilst I find Herbert Howells profoundly morbid and Elgar melancholic. Victoria is Catholic through and through, Gibbons is sensuous, Beethoven evokes titanic struggle and so on. No doubt many people would disagree and point to light hearted pieces by Howells and Elgar and lyrical pieces by Beethoven. You won’t however find any profane Victoria.
    Perhaps we should replace the word ‘meaning’ by impression or feeling as Patric suggests. Unlike the sciences there are no single answers in the arts, which is why I find them more interesting.

    • On the whole I would agree Howard, even where formalistic music is concerned. For instance I find some of the Bach Preludes and Fugues in the Well Tempered Clavier very moving, e.g. the sadness(at least to me) of Prelude 22 Bk 1 in Bb minor,the grandeur of Fugue 7 Bk 2 in Eb major). Most of the other preludes and fugues however I just enjoy for their patterns.
      But what does the interpreter of such music feel when they play? I remember Paul Tortellier, the cellist, saying that his music had lacked depth until his teacher had suggested that he make up a story which fitted the music which he had to have in mind whilst playing the piece. From then on his music took on a new dimension. This worked for him: he was very emotional. When I am playing just getting the notes down in the right order is enough.
      On another matter has anyone heard heard the radio 4 programme by Prokoviev’s grandson about why few people listen to classical music nowadays? He mentions the serialists and the Darmstadt School where Boulez seemed to hold an unhealthy sway and to gather around him group of acolytes who were to scared to countermand him. He obviously had enormous influence and seemed to encourage composers to conform to a very rigid set of conventions without thought for the affect they might have on the listener. He was openly contemptuous of Britten and one can only say that a quick look at Spotify shows very few hits for Le Marteau sans maitre and a very large number for Britten with three times the number of followers and I think Boulez’s followers are mainly for him as a conductor. I am reminded of the folk club I used to sing in which got taken over by members of the EFDSS who wanted to insist that we only sang unaccompanied British folk songs.: 24 verses of some obscure Robin Hood ballad was typical. I sang Irish and American songs to a guitar accompaniment (very badly) and told them to take a running jump.
      Sometimes these restrictions can energise composers. One only has to think of Shostakovich under the Stalinist regime or Byrd under Protestant England.

      • I would be careful to use the number of followers on Spotify as a criterium – Benjamin Britten truly has 6,980 while Pierre Boulez only around 2,500, but Britney Spears has more than 680,000!! Jokes apart, I think popularity is not a good criterium for the quality of music. And there would come the question – how can one combine popularity and quality, when the audiences seem to enjoy music that is more and more simple (and I dare to say, empty too often)?

        • Jorge, perhaps another way is to look at how long music lasts. Will Britney Spears songs still be sung in 400 years time? Would the Beatles? Cole Porter? Gershwin?
          On the other hand longevity isn’t the whole story. I don’t think any of us would regard the tune Winchester Old normally used nowadays for While shepherd watched their flocks by night as being a wonderful piece of music. But it is deeply engrained in our consciousness (though for how long this will continue is open to debate).
          Perhaps another test to add might be does it inspire or raise emotions in a way which “lesser’ music does not? Mozart versus Corelli might be an example.

  • I don’t consider music as a language, same as poetry is not a language, but an art within a language. It may be that music is just another part of the language – a part more focused on different aspects of language than poetry does, or than literature does. That would explain why it is possible to identify the music of a certain culture, because it reflects the melody and rhythmical patterns of the composer’s spoken language, usually his/her mother tongue. As an example, and using Leonard Bernstein’s words, Dvořák’s New World Symphony was supposed to sound American, but it sounds Czech because a Czech wrote it.
    I agree on the part that music is abstract. And probably also on the idea of the “impressions”, which can be at times quite intense and concrete. In fact, it always surprises me when people “read” in the music. A friend of mine claims that she can see clear images when listening to the Four Seasons. Also, on one occasion I was doing a first reading of a piano piece by Martinů. A teacher came in, listened to me (and I repeat, it was a first reading… plenty of mistakes and the rhythm wasn’t the best either). He asked me “What is that beautiful music?”. I thought he was kidding (I really couldn’t play it properly). “It reminds me of some dance, or some puppets”. The title was “Colombine dances” from the cycle “Puppets”. I told him “Well, you are really good to recognize it”. His answer was “No, the merit is on the composer’s side”. No words transmitted, no message transmitted, yet it seems impressions can be transmitted. In this sense, music is a means of communication, an abstract way of telling things.
    So music could be seen as “part of a language” and “a way of transmitting impressions”. Having said that, sometimes I try to say things with it. And sometimes I fail: I intend to write something sad, and there comes a funny song – or the other way round. And yes, not all minor melodies are sad or not all major are bright. To that, a final question on conventions: can music become a language? If there were enough conventions, probably it would be rather a code, something like “a diminished fifth means…” like the Morse Code or the Braille alphabet.
    Anyway, those are just some thoughts to contribute to the discussion. Hope they are worth reading.

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