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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


It is misleading to talk of music as a language, for if it was in the understood sense of human communication it would be translatable into other languages and, like the discourse of birds and animals, would mean something.

Music only means what we want it to mean. If it has words, like settings of a sacred celebration, an oratorio or choral symphony, or a Schubert song, any meaning it has is borrowed from its text. Concocted or invalid meaning can be imposed on music transferred from one medium to another, as in the experiments of the remarkable early nineteenth century theorist Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny who changed the first movement of Mozart's d minor quartet into an opera seria aria by adding words without changing a note of the music.

The slow movements of several Haydn quartets could have their 'meaning' altered with an appropriate text into a vocal motet. The reverse will work too; the rescoring of much of Rossini's Stabat Mater for wind band makes it sound like an entertainment far from the impassioned lament of Christ's Mother at the foot of the cross.

Where there are no words, nor any programme, the listener's dilemma is serious. Unless we have a conjecture by a revered musicologist or psychoanalyst as to the inner meaning of late Beethoven or inflamed Mahler, we are at a loss. The symphony in the Brahms tradition is not something that has meaning, but purely an emotional sensation, and if we are of a kind to be made uneasy by passion, we are likely to seek greater ease in the explainable 'meaning' of a Bach fugue or Webern's symphony.

The need to impose some meaning on pure meaningless passion can lead to our missing the point, and leave us listening, for instance, to Beethoven's wit with closed eyes and earnestly knitted brows. If by chance it is pointed out to us that it is a brief episode of cheerfulness, however expertly done, it may be put down as meaningless and therefore second rate. Much superbly crafted light music is dismissed as meaningless, yet by what is it measured if music has no meaning anyway?

In the days when there were schools filled with girls of serene innocence, I have often imagined a hall filled with their serious faces as they listened to a magnetically handsome young pianist playing Liszt's Liebestraum, and thought of how thankful their headmistress should have been that the intended meaning of music was well clouded in meaningless sounds.

Copyright © 20 December 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: (name withheld)

'It is misleading to talk of music as a language'. Let me quote conductor Claudio Abbado: '... aber mein Wort, meine Sprache ist die Musik.' ( Claudio Abbado: Die Anderen in der Stille Hören by Von Frithjof Hager, page 135.) Abbado is known as a man of very few words. He always says 'I communicate with music, therefore I don't have to talk much.' I rest my case.

From: William Copper

One of the pithiest statements of this issue is fully contained in the title of a book of conversations with Elliott Carter: Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds.




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