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.

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3 thoughts on “Making sense of music

  1. I agree: music has meaning.
    Thanks for posting this. I haven’t listened to Bruckner in years: I’ll have to become reacquainted. Is there a recording of the 8th Symphony you would recommend?

    • Hi Bruce,
      My current favourite is the Karajan recording on You Tube which was recorded at St Florian’s Church where Bruckner is actual buried. Karajan seems to “get” Bruckner: he has a mastery of those great long melodic lines and how they fit into the overall architecture of the music whilst also mastering the tiny details. It must be a nightmare to conduct! I also like Gunther Wand’s performances and have a treasured cassette tape recording taken from the radio of a performance at the BBC Proms several years ago. Happy re-discovery!

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