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Melody and Memory

A Survivor's Guide to 20th century music


<< continued from yesterday

It has an awful lot to do with memory. So much of the pleasure of music - like the pleasure of travel, or a good story, or our own histories - comes from remembering it. Left to our own devices, without the imposition of muzak, we would fill our heads with the pleasurable recollection of music, with its pleasurable associations of particular places and people, and we would subliminally match the choice of music to the mood we are in, or match the tempo and metre to the task we are engaged in. In this sense, the music is ours because we choose it and we make it.

More than that, we re-make it. We might improvise when we forget the words. We might even add a cadential flourish here and there. People who used to whistle were often virtuosi of vibrato. Aural doodling ..... but what began from the residue of memory, became the pleasure of re-making, re-membering and, crucially, re-possessing.

It follows that to be successful, a new (or old) piece of music must somehow have a life beyond the concert hall or beyond the disc. It must live on in our memory, and it won't be sufficient just for us to carry away an overall impression of something we enjoyed; we must also be able to quote, as it were: to hum, to whistle, to sing.

I don't believe the problem is a new one. Despite the manifest contempt for popular audiences by a few composers (notoriously Boulez, I suppose, but there have been others) in our time, the incidence of memorable, possessible melody in 20th century music is probably no greater or smaller than in other periods.

May I suggest that playfully you test yourself? Can you hum or whistle (more than a mere tag) anything from:

The B minor Mass

Spem in Alium

The music of Telemann


Wagner (overtures or Idyll apart)

I imagine that, on the whole, you found it difficult, and that, even if you could summon the melodies, it was tough enough for me to make my point.

Now reassure yourself that your memory is not failing by 'quoting' inside your head yards and yards of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, etc. etc.

But now try some 20th century music too. I think you may be pleasantly surprised.

I suggest perhaps .....

the opening of The Rite of Spring

the Alleluias from The Symphony of Psalms

something by Poulenc.

The Organ Concerto?

The Gloria?

One of the Motets?

Tippett's Ritual Dances or the Double Concerto

Tavener's The Lamb

Walton: Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine ......


Let us Sleep now (from the War Requiem)

any of the interludes from Peter Grimes

or Ellen Orford calling Peter

Shostakovitch: the D mi Sc H motif and its context in any piece.

Barber: the Adagio or the Violin Concerto

Gershwin: anything!

Do you see what I mean? First of all, it suggests that our canon of pleasurable music is governed enormously by memory and by what is accessible to memory, but if we allowed this criterion to rule absolutely we'd gain all of Grieg, but we'd lose all of Byrd, and so on. It also reminds us that it is not only the thematic ideas themselves but where they have come from, where they lead to, and how they change in the process that gives us pleasure - an involvement of a somewhat different order from simply flicking the triggers of memory.

So much, however briefly, for the criticism that 20th century music is tuneless. It is far from groundless, but also far from absolute, and perhaps not a very useful way of looking at music anyway.

The next article considers rhythm and timbre.

Copyright © Peter Dale, August 9th 1999

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