Sunday, February 8, 2009

Please explain!

It seems to me that to understand the impact of classical music, we must arrive first at what it means to us.

That is a tough one! Ask people to verbalize their response to great music and you have phrases such as “truly uplifting music”, “music that transported me”, “a deeply moving experience”, “intoxicating beautiful”, “indescribably powerful”, “amazing”. But what do all these expressions imply? Perhaps the only conclusion you could draw from all these responses is that music is ineffable, inexplicable in its impact and meaning!

But that gets us nowhere. I agree that a piece of music does not mean the same to two different people. But having said that, it is impossible to ignore the fact that a good number of listeners will see the nobility of some themes in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor Concerto’ or the heroism of his ‘Eroica Symphony’ or the lyrical beauty of his Violin Concerto or the raw power of his ‘Grosse Fugue’. The implication is that specific characteristics of music elicit specific responses, but it is possible that there could be shared experiences in that several listeners “see” or “grasp” the same general essence in a particular piece. That is why you tend to find broad consensus on the general nature of virtually any piece, even if different listeners have not heard it before or know little about the background or context of the piece. That is why we tend to call one piece “boisterous”, another “melancholy”, another “ecstatic” and yet another “unsettling”.

Meaning in music is obviously easier to arrive at and share in a common manner when the music we are listening to is programmatic in nature (or music that evokes extra-musical perceptions such as a mood or a scene). Most of opera or ballet falls into this category, for the obvious reason that it “tells” a story. But famous examples of instrumental music that is programmatic abound. Beethoven's ‘Pastorale Symphony’ (No: 6) has descriptions for each movement that Beethoven himself penned. Clearly, reading these descriptions provides the listener with that much more imagery or mood-setting than he would have fashioned without it. The descriptions are:
Movement 1: Pleasant feelings on arriving in the country
Movement 2: Scene by the brook
Movement 3: Peasants merrymaking
Movement 4: The storm
Movement 5: Shepherd’s hymn of thanksgiving after the storm

Similarly, Vivaldi's enduring chartbuster the ‘Four Seasons’ has four concertos – one each for the four seasons in the year. Saint Saens’ ‘Carnival of Animals’ is a rich tone painting of various animals, Elgar's ‘Enigma Variations’ was the composer’s way of profiling some of his closest friends, Mussorgsky's ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ or ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’, Liszt’s or Richard Strauss' Tone Poems are all examples of programme music that, while not always being representational in nature, do evoke extra-musical associations.

But Tchaikovsky’s colossal passage ‘Fir Trees in Winter’ from his ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ can evoke the impression of mighty pillars, or soaring vaults in a cathedral, or giant canyons just as much as they would evoke the impression of fir trees in winter. That is why even in programme music, the specific meaning attributed to a passage or a movement depends on the listener and can vary significantly from one listener to the next.

It actually goes to show that there are layers to meaning.

Music, like all art, can be read on different levels.

There is the literal level; much like Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’: a simple, but invigorating simulation of the whrrr and buzz of the bee, using music. No layer to peel off. What you hear is what you get.

The second level of reading music is on a figurative level involving some attributed or associated meanings. We know that when Beethoven was asked the meaning of the rapid hammer blow opening chords of his Fifth symphony, he remarked, "Thus fate knocks on the door." This metaphor provides that opening passage and indeed the whole movement (and the whole symphony) an extra-musical association that is not immediately obvious, but when considered, can be seen as actually quite emblematic of the music.

And finally, there is the peak experience of immersing oneself in the music; no reading or commentary or analysis of the music. Here we are talking of a transcendental state that only peak music listening experiences can induce.

1 comment:

  1. Watch Murray Abraham's incredible portrayal of Master Salieri in the movie "Amadeus". He talks, feels, thinks and breathes music. Indeed to him it is much more than experience; almost akin to his very existence, his very being. I'm not sure if the actor won an Oscar for his portrayal, but he more than deserved it. For those relatively unmoved my Classical Music, it is a must-see film; Abraham's Salieri is the crown in that jewel.