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
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