Making sense of music

I was thinking recently about a particular piece of music that has been a favourite of mine for some time and what, if anything, it means.

Does it even make sense to ask the question: what does music mean? I think it does. We ask the same question of other works of art such as painting, sculpture, architecture. Just because they are executed in a non-verbal medium does not mean that their meaning (or at least part of their meaning) cannot be expressed in words. So why shouldn’t the same apply to music?

The piece of music that prompted these reflections is Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. It’s a vast work with typical Brucknerian fingerprints: a mysterious opening with shimmering strings; great blocks of sound; long, sweeping melodic lines; repetitive themes; orgasmic climaxes. It sounds like the work of a seeker, an ecstatic mystic, someone troubled by doubt. But also someone with a strong faith which eventually triumphs over doubt.

Musically it is the best use of brass outside of Wagner (Bruckner uses an instrument called the Wagner tuba which was developed by Wagner specifically for the Ring cycle) and his symphonies with their long lyrical lines have sometimes been described as ‘operas without words’.

But already as I write this, I am aware that I am in danger of giving in to the ‘biographical fallacy’. Bruckner was of Austrian peasant stock retaining his country accent all his life. He was a numeromaniac, counting things obsessively particularly when under stress. He had a strong religious faith all his life. He lacked self-confidence, studying music into his 40s before he started composing and altering his symphonies at the suggestion of friends to make them more performable, as a result most of them exist in several versions. Of course, his self-confidence wasn’t improved by the hostile critical reception of most of his symphonies by the musical establishment.

Back to his 8th Symphony. It came as a bit of a shock to read Bruckner’s own ‘programme’ for the music that he outlined in a letter in 1891 to the conductor and composer, Felix Weingartner, whom he wanted to conduct the first performance:

In the first movement, the trumpet and horn passage based on the rhythm of the [main] theme in the Todesverkündigung [the annunciation of death], which gradually grows stronger, and finally emerges very strongly. At the end: surrender.

OK, sounds reasonable.

Scherzo: Main theme – named deutscher Michel. In the second part, the fellow wants to sleep, and in his dreamy state cannot find his tune: finally, he plaintively turns back.

Seems a bit vague. No idea what he means.

Finale: At the time our Emperor received the visit of the Czars at Olmütz; thus, strings: the Cossacks; brass: military music; trumpets: fanfares, as the Majesties meet. In closing, all themes … thus as deutscher Michel arrives home from his journey, everything is already gloriously brilliant. In the Finale there is also the death march and then (brass) transfiguration.

Completely bonkers now – apart from the reference to the death march and transfiguration.

How can the composer’s programme differ so much from my understanding? Well, I think that Bruckner may have made some of this stuff up, as the letter to Weingartner was written in 1891 and the symphony was composed between 1884-87. So in the intervening period, he may have been trying to justify what the symphony was about to a reluctant conductor. In fact in the end Weingartner did not conduct the first performance, which was left to Hans Richter.

Or maybe Bruckner was right in describing the inspiration for the genesis of the work and at some point in the composition process the actual symphony transcended those initial limited and topical ideas. Artists don’t have the copyright on the meaning of their works and often don’t see the full meaning of them. And for us modern listeners hearing the symphony over 120 years after it was composed and living in a different culture, we can’t help hearing it differently. In the same way that listening to plainchant or polyphony, we often don’t share the religious faith that inspired it but admire the music now for completely different reasons, such as its beauty, the complex sound structure, the interplay between the parts.

Of course musicologists shun programmatic interpretation: the music as to stand on its own terms. This causes a problem in the case of a composer such as Shostakovich and his 5th Symphony is a classic case in point. It is evident from the music itself and from things that Shostakovich is reported as saying about it that it is not to be taken at face value. The finale includes a shadowed reference to an Orthodox funeral service chant. There is a direct quote from a setting by Shostakovich of a Pushkin poem called Vozrozhdenie (Renaissance) which describes the work of a master painter being daubed over by barbarians, only for the daubs to flake off over time and reveal the master’s work beneath it. Shostakovich was clearly saying two things at once: on the surface ‘a sincere response to justified criticism [from the Communist Party]’ that the regime demanded as the price for continued survival, and also a two-fingered salute to the same authorities, if only you knew how to listen to it.

The hardline musicologists can’t cope with this: the music must stand on its own independent of any extra-musical intentions or references. In that case, in my opinion, there must be something wrong with an analytical model which fails to take this sort of music into account.

For me, music does have meaning. I may not always be able to articulate what that meaning is, but that’s why I continue to listen to works that were written so long ago.

Where’s my holiday reading?

My long anticipated holiday, which once seemed months off, is now fast approaching and I am very much looking forward to leaving these rain-drenched, grey cloud shrouded shores for southern sun. We are off to Greece in two weeks time and I can’t wait. After the non-appearance of this English summer it will be a relief to be somewhere that can virtually guarantee sun, clear blue skies and heat.

The only problem is, I haven’t a clue what to take for holiday reading.

Normally I don’t find this a problem. I take a mixture of novels and travel books and that sees me through, but this year it’s different. I can’t find anything that takes my fancy.

I’ve read all the weekend holiday reading supplements over the summer. I’ve been on and Nothing.

The fact is my reading palate feels jaded. and it has felt like that for a while now. I can’t seem to settle down to reading anything for very long. There are rare exceptions. For example, at the moment I am slowly re-reading Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, one of my favourite Buddhist books, full of great advice and encouragement grounded in her years of practice. But apart from that it feels like a bit of a reading desert.

Time was when I sought out new books as the keys to the meaning of my life: perhaps the next one would tell me how to live my life. Inevitably it didn’t, but it still did not stop me freighting books with expectations that they couldn’t possibly fulfil. Now I read for information (history, biography, travel) and for entertainment (good quality fiction, mysteries, thrillers).

Old favourite authors such as David Mitchell and William Boyd don’t really excite me this year. I want to read something new and challenging, but what?

When I first went to Greece three years ago I took two of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. But as soon as I opened the first one in Greece I realised what a big mistake that was. I just could not face reading a novel set in a cold and wet Scotland whilst I was in such an idyllic place. So for the following two years I took a mixture of William Boyd novels and Greek travel books.

Now I have just about exhausted the Greek travel book genre and Boyd’s oeuvre. So what next?

I have just started to get interested in Ancient Greek religion after conversation with my Greek tutor: surely Greek temples weren’t just a cross between an abattoir and a barbecue, with a few libations of wine thrown in? There must have been more going on than that. And how did the Eleusyinian Mysteries manage to keep their rites secret? So I’ve been looking for a readable (ie not academic, this is my holiday after all) book on Greek religion. Simplifying grossly there are two key books: Walter Burkert’s Greek religion: archaic and classical and Jon D Mikalson’s Ancient Greek Religion. The latter seems to be much more up to date, but is described as ‘a textbook’. But now I’m wondering whether I really want to read a textbook on holiday.

Perhaps I shouldn’t take anything and should concentrate on writing about my travels. It sounds like a plan, but there are bound to be times when I want to read something. Anything. I wonder how interesting Greek sauce bottles are?

With about ten days to go I’ll keep looking. If you have any suggestions for holiday (or any other) reading, I’d love to hear from you.

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 3

A ramp takes you from the ground floor of Haghia Sophia to the west gallery on the upper floor. I find this part of the building very atmospheric and it’s easy to imagine the conquerors of Constantinople in 1453 swarming up the ramp to explore the upper reaches of the church.

The galleries were for the use of the Empress and women of the court: the west gallery is spacious and light after the dim light of the lower floor and ramp.

Looking down from the gallery into the body of the church I am reminded of the view from the upper floor of St Mark’s in Venice, one of the most Byzantine of western churches. From up here it is easier to get a sense of the scale of the church and the great space of the nave.

The huge wooden roundels were only added in 1821 by the Fossati brothers and display in Arabic calligraphy the names of Allah, Mohammed, the first four caliphs and the prophet’s martyred grandsons, Hasan and Hussein.

Originally the church had a silver iconostasis which would have stood in front of the apse. It is sad to think that it was in this great space in 1054 that Cardinal Humbert excommunicated the Emperor Michael I Cerularius and was in turn excommunicated. This marked the beginning of the Great Schism between the eastern and western wings of the churches that has lasted to this day.

Islamic windows in the apse:

You also get a closer view up here of the extraordinary mosaic of the Mother of God in the apse. This mosaic was inaugurated in 867 by Patriarch Photius and Emperors Michael III and Basil I. The gold background of the mosaic dates back to the sixth century.

The entrance to the south gallery through a marble doorway called the Gates of Heaven and Hell, though exactly what function they served is not known.

On the north side in the space between the ground floor arches and the clerestory are mosaics of saints, including St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ignatios Theoforos, Patriarch of Constantinople. I find it surprising that these apparently survived intact – perhaps they have been restored or perhaps they were sufficiently out of sight not to be an offence to the Ottomans at worship.

One curious feature in the north gallery is a piece of Viking rune graffiti from the ninth century scratched into the balustrade (apologies in advance for the quality of the photograph). It would be interesting to know what the graffiti says and I wonder what these visitors from distant Scandinavia (possibly part of the emperor’s Varangian guard) made of Haghia Sophia and the religious services they witnessed here.

After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans covered over many of the mosaics in Haghia Sophia with plaster. Just past the Gates of Heaven and Hell you come across the first of three mosaics, the Deesis (Entreaty) mosaic depicting the Theotokos and John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) interceding with a powerful Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) for mercy for humanity on the Day of Judgement. So much of this mosaic has been lost that it is fortunate that these three beautifully realised figures survive, though to my eye the colours have been over-restored. The mosaic dates from 1267 and probably marks the end of the Frankish occupation of Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and its return to use as an Orthodox church after being used as a Roman Catholic cathedral.

The lower part of the mosaic is badly damaged, but a picture to the side gives an idea of what the original mosaic would have looked like.

Opposite this wonderful mosaic is a marker on the floor indicating the location of the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the Fourth Crusade in 1204 that was responsible for the sacking of Byzantium.

From an open window there is suddenly a clear view across the domes of the church towards the Blue Mosque.

At the end of the south gallery are two further mosaics. The first shows the Mother of God holding Christ, with Emperor John II Comnenus on the left and Empress Irene on the right:

On an adjacent column, as if extending the mosaic round the corner, is their son, Alexius Comnenus:

The second is a mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe:

In the baptistery there is a huge stone basin with steps for total immersion baptism and several interesting pottery containers, including this one;

Leaving the church through south-west exit and just before the Vestibule of the Warriors,  where the emperor’s guard waited for him when he went to services, there is a mosaic (probably tenth century) which was only discovered in the middle on the nineteenth century. On the left Emperor Justinian I presents a model of Haghia Sophia to the Theotokos and Christ and on the right Emperor Constantine presents a model of Constantinople.

My favourite mosaic is the Deesis and particularly the powerful image of Christ.

The asymmetry of the eyes reminds me of the sixth century panel icon on Christ Pantocrator at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 2

The Imperial Doors are massive and must have required a lot of effort to open and close. They also must have been difficult to break through. I would like to think they are original, but I don’t think they can possibly be 6th century. Looking through the Doors in this picture you can also see the marble panels, particularly the pink striated ones, which are also a feature of the inside of the church.

As I step through the Imperial Doors I am immediately struck by the sheer size of the building and its spaciousness which the pictures don’t really convey very well.

Walking into the middle of the I look up at the huge dome which is simply staggeringly beautiful. It stands at 184 feet high and it’s a marvel to see how such a structure hangs in the air without any internal supporting columns, creating such a huge open space.

The figures in the squinches are interesting: to me they look like representations of the Holy Spirit but according to my guidebook they depict the Seraphim.


There are further examples of the simple cross used to cover over depictions of sacred figures during the periods of Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, such as this one:

There are also numerous examples where these Iconoclast crosses have been altered to incorporate them into a more geometric pattern.

I assume these changes were made after the Ottoman capture of Byzantium, perhaps because the image of the cross was perceived as more offensive to Islamic sensibilities. All the same it is curious that not all such crosses in Haghia Sophia have been altered in this way.

In the apse is a magnificent mosaic of the Mother of God with Christ.

In the apse is also a fragment of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel:

There is an unbelievable richness in the detail of the decoration:

Curiously reminiscent of the depiction of Christ through the image of an empty throne in the very earliest icons, there are two empty spaces on the ground floor of Haghia Sophia. The site where the Emperors were crowned:

And finally on this floor the site of the Patriarch’s Chair:

Sic transit gloria mundi…

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 1

Haghia Sophia is one of those places, like Russia, that I had long known about, often dreamt of visiting and was afraid might ultimately disappoint. I should not have worried: the reality is better than I had expected.

The first thing that strikes you from the outside is the size of the building, its height and bulk, the sheer size of its dome. If it hits you today, what must it have been like in the sixth century when it was first built? Overpowering, awe-inspiring, a fitting place to worship a god. It was the largest church in Christendom until the Renaissance.

The massive buttressing over the main entrance shows how the walls have had to be reinforced to support the weight of the huge dome.

Scattered around what was the churchyard are old tombs and stone pillars from the Byzantine period, a sad reminder of its imperial past.

The current Haghia Sophia is the third church built on this site. The first one dates from the 4th century.  A second one, dedicated in 415 AD, was destroyed by fire in 532 AD and is represented by a fragment of a frieze in front of the main entrance to the church. The current Haghia Sophia was dedicated by Justinian in 537 AD.

The main entrance door with its high and wide frame, and the thickness of the outer walls give an indication of the vast scale of the building.

Just inside the main entrance is the outer narthex, an entrance or lobby area. Today it is a museum of items from the Byzantine era, a porphyry stand, the tomb of an express, a huge stone bowl, Greek inscriptions, as well as explanatory boards about the church.

From the outer narthex you get a view through the Imperial Gates through into the body of the church itself.

Originally the Imperial Gates were only allowed to be used by the Emperor and his entourage and were guarded 24 hours a day. In the tympanum over the Imperial Gates is a mosaic from the late 9th / early 10th century showing an emperor (possibly Leo VI (the Wise)) kneeling beside Christ

Interestingly in another tympanum in the inner narthex is a reminder of the Iconoclast periods of Byzantine history. For reasons still the subject of scholarly debate in the periods 730-787 and 814-842 the Emperor and the Orthodox Church turned against  the use of icons and the depiction of Christ and the saints. Perhaps it was due to Byzantine military failures against Islam, a culture that also forbade the making of images of the divine. Perhaps it was due to the church trying to assert its authority and gain control over the popular veneration of holy images. During these periods, many old images were destroyed and frequently covered over with a simple cross, as in this tympanum.

Linguistic refractions

When a language is first encountered it can often be marked by the characteristics of the language through which it is first translated.

Take the example of Russian. French was probably the main language through which it was introduced to western Europe and it still bears some of the marks of that initial transcription from Cyrillic. We still conventionally spell Chaikovsky as Tchaikovsky: the initial T is not there in the Russian. It is there in our transliterated version because it makes the ch, which in French would make a sh sound, into a Russian (and English) ch sound.

Similarly with Chekhov. I have a copy of a history of Russian literature by the Anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, which spells the great playwright’s name, Tchekhov. Whilst we conventionally pronounce his name Chekov, the kh sound is in Russian pronounced like the ch sound in loch.

Greek has some more unusual examples. Transcriptions / adaptations of Greek words are refracted through Latin, since this was the first western European to come into contact with it. According to Wikipedia, Latin developed some specific conventions for transliterating Greek sounds into another language. For example, Greek υ (Ipsilon) was written as ‘y’, αι as ‘æ’, οι as ‘œ’, φ as ‘ph’, etc.

There are numerous words in Greek that include the letter combination au which in the original has the sound av or af (aftosafthentikos, etc.) and these have come through to other western European languages as an au sound (eg automatic, authentic, etc.). Similarly with the eu letter combination which in Greek has the sound ef or ev: thus names familiar to us from the Greek myths, such as Zeus or Odysseus, in Greek are pronounced Zevs and Odyssevs respectively.

Why should this be the case? My theory (happy to be shot down in flames on this one!) is that in its written form Latin did not distinguish between u and v and so both sounds were written as a v. Thus as the names moved into other languages the distinction between what was a v and what was a u got lost. Also perhaps because names like Zeus and Odysseus sound like Latin and the original Greek ev sound was an odd combination for western European ears, the Latinised forms prevailed.

Another oddity is the way that the Greek letter Veta is treated. This is the Greek name for the second letter of the Greek alphabet which, conventionally in English and other languages, we call Beta. So, for example, the Greek word vivlio (book) gets transliterated into biblio in compounds in western European languages. The Greeks called Byzantium ‘Vizantion’. Our word botany comes from the Greek word for a herb, votano. I don’t know how this v/b exchange comes about.

English had no direct contact with Greek until the 16th century when ancient classical texts became more widely known and translated. It was at that point, which coincides with the beginning of an explosion of interest in science, that English went to Greek root words to coin new technical terms. I have heard that there are 80,000 words of Greek origin in English, but so far I have not been able to validate this figure.