Blessay 54: Words Towards Music


In Schoenberg’s great dialectical opera, Moses and Aaron, a despairing Moses cries out for a sign, a symbol or word to reveal the presence of God. “O word, word, word, that I lack.” This need for a hidden key – some proof to explain what’s stubbornly ineffable exacerbates the Jewish leader’s frustration. An image, shaped by Aaron into a golden calf, has been made – materialism is the immediately available god now worshipped by the children of Israel. The word made God turned into flesh and fashioned as a thing of gold. Then Aaron points to a burning bush as a signal not showing God but the way to God. And Moses denounces what he perceives as a Godless image.

Instead of calling on a supernatural agency to be manifest perhaps Moses should have asked for words to describe music, as some creative music of the spheres radiating from God’s invisible presence. Desiring such a Pythagorean force might have proved difficult but not impossible. Many classical music lovers often refer to J.S.Bach as God, for if God exists then this is the transcendental music he would write: an angelic counterpoint, composed in Bach’s Lutheran age, which mathematically and musically constructs a spiritual world. So why ask for a word to describe God? Moses, transported to our time could listen to a performance or recording of the B minor Mass and feel the presence of God.

But which 21st century mortal is most capable of describing the effect of music in words? Is it the written statement of the composer, the musicologist, the performer, or listener? Yet wouldn’t that be a redundant exercise? For does music have any intrinsic meaning other than being its own glorious abstract self?  Humans are self-conscious creatures. After listening to say Bruckner’s 9th symphony, John Coltrane’s Ascension or an Indian classical music raga then the flow, the turbulence or river of notes disappear and on reflection we want to interpret the experience. Words either fall away, or attempt to enter our brains to ‘explain’ the meaning to ourselves or other music loving friends, though this might be an irrational and absurd act.

“As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing notes are faculties of the least use to man…they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed” That’s what Darwin said in The Descent of Man.

Mysterious certainly. But is music of the least use to man and woman? Society can certainly function without music but not without words (Yet again if we follow the argument of a Levi-Strauss then before we constructed language our primal sounds made music. That our brains and tongues imitated the sounds of apes and birdsong leaving their phonetic musical fingerprint.)

Is there not an uneasy relationship between words and music twinned in performance? Certainly in popular song or poetry words can be harmoniously companionable. However the tensions dramatised in Sprechgesang (prefiguring the aural battery of rap) with its contrast of spiky speech and song is interesting to consider here. But still employing words, out of a musical context, as some sophisticated after-thought, to describe musical notation can be problematic.

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never those themselves.”

For Schopenhauer “quintessence” is the pivotal word: a word that for me brings poetry into the discussion. Good poems, working well, contain, within their imagery, sensibility and music, a move towards being essentialist  as well as quintessential. The less said the more conveyed. Art is often a supremely difficult process of editing. It’s no surprise to learn that Samuel Beckett, a master of the pared-down text, loved both his involvement in cricket and playing the piano. As he tensely waited for more action during a long match or played a Schubert impromptu perhaps these activities both strained and relaxed him. Yet afterwards, when writing, did Beckett think his words mattered? He once famously declared he was here to make “a stain upon the silence.” Perhaps music is the biggest creative stain on the silence. And the silence of pauses, written into music, and to be respected after its performance, might be the loudest stain of all. For Beckett creativity was a bleak, but also very amusing operation in the void. For readers and listeners, bringing their everything and nothing responses, art becomes a distraction, an entertainment, a summing up of experience until it reverts back to a challenge. And then unlike Beckett we crave for aesthetic fulfilment over emptiness.

I own many recordings containing booklets where writers explain the technicalities of a musical composition, what the composer was experiencing at the time of writing the work and attempt to describe, in perhaps literary, often poetic terms, just what the music is trying to say. Actually very few music commentators have a strong literary background (An Edward Said on opera, Stephen Johnson on the symphony or a Bryce Morrison on piano music are an eloquent rare breed.)

“Music, as has often been said, is meaningful without having a paraphrasable meaning, is expressive without necessarily communicating something denoted by any linguistic expression…Leaving the concert hall after a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, one is unlikely to say that the music is without content. One may be inwardly shattered, having understood the music very well and precisely for that reason refusing the clichés by which program-note writers struggle to articulate its link to a verbal discourse.”

That’s an extract from Julian Johnson’s 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? I agree that to understand a work like the Mahler 9th you need go away in silence, overwhelmed if it’s been a good live performance, realising that you’ve been through a journey (Each time I hear Bernard Haitink, live and on record, conduct this piece I discover and reclaim its mysterious power.)  But I disagree about any attempt to write about the music; once you have ‘understood’ it will always result in a cliché response. I think that the musical journey is like travelling on a long trip in a foreign country where hours or days, after returning home, you need to reflect on what you’ve heard and jot down a few travellers’ notes.

For some people it’s not just the absorption of feelings, emotions and ideas of music which matters but a search for words to convey how your perception of the world has been subtly altered or changed. Having a musical epiphany does not necessarily mean describing it with a hackneyed phrase – for the act of listening deeply to music can raise your desire, then your expectations, hope, and skill with words to write as well as possible. We may have had a transcendent moment but paradoxically feel the urge to ground it on earth.

I’ve deliberately not included any examples of words attempting to describe, or even philosophise, about the string quartet, concerto or symphony. I didn’t want to contrast and compare writers’ examples. For behind all the metaphors that listeners employ is something so very difficult to capture – the pulse of music. This is a living, breathing concept that great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwangler instinctively knew you had to grasp.

Every time I hear that moment, when the flute enters, in the first movement of Bruckner’s 5th symphony (As highlighted on the live performance by Jascha Horenstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra) its hidden pulse is revealed. Each note, repeating the pizzicato effect of the strings, is not just the work’s musical core but what makes Bruckner’s composition live – a simple yet profound equivalent of a human heart-beat. This heart, neither sentimental nor indifferent, beats on, adopting different guises in other instruments, particularly the brass, right through to the magnificent chorale and fugue that concludes the symphony. As you listen to Bruckner your heart beats a little faster to accompany this mysterious life-pumping energy that is called music: a force appearing to be beyond language but strangely asking us to provide a verbal or written response: a memorable phrase.

“We had the experience but missed the meaning.

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.”

Working on his 4 Quartets T.S.Eliot was greatly moved by listening to the late string quartets of Beethoven. Writing about listening to music we remain caught in that creative flux wanting our own very different and individual forms to try to convey its inexpressible power. Or maybe what only seems to be inexpressible. I think the gap’s to be filled. And often.

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