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A Talk About Nothing
Without mentioning anything, music say everything
We are not apt either to overall cognition or absolute ignorance.
Looking through the message archive, sent to our discussion list, I have encountered a most exciting discussion between Mikhail Lidsky and me in last April. We spoke about the essence of musical criticism and its tasks to be performed by journalists engaged in this activity.
Having reread these messages I wanted to raise this problem again and to express my opinion on the problem. On contemplating a bit I arrived at the conclusion that, perhaps, it would be of more interest to look upon it in broader sense and speak about music and any genre involving word expression, that is a lecture, an article, a book.
As much I remember myself, I constantly spoke about music: with parents, teachers, friends. But lately, I’ve tried to speak about it in public, this way having joined those who, armed with good intentions but fated to failure, try to explain one of the most mysterious phenomena in the world – man’s reaction to organized sounds.
To some extent it is, perhaps, similar to attempts to explain, for instance, Newton’s law of attraction: it is a common knowledge that large objects attract smaller ones, but the question why still remains unanswered. Physical laws are of descriptive nature, saying nothing about the reasons of phenomena. It seems exactly the same we can say about almost all word variations on musical theme.
Ultimately there is nothing left but to agree to the fact that people just get pleasure from listening to the organized sounds and this pleasure with it can have different character, up to the deepest spiritual upheaval. Those, who are able to organize sounds so as to bring about this spiritual upheaval, are considered to be “geniuses”. These are indisputable facts, which are, however, impossible to explain (as well as to refute).
Name any piece that first comes to your mind. Say, Mozart’s 40th symphony. Literature materials of all sorts dedicated to this piece would comprise several heavy volumes, I am sure. And, nevertheless, is there a single person able to explain to us the Fortieth? Is it generally possible to explain in which way this or that sequence of notes makes us feel that each of them sounds exactly when needed and otherwise is impossible?
Here all the attempts to think rationally encounter the insurmountable obstacle. No matter how heavily to resist it, in this case we can preferably (and apparently have to) use such notions as “mystery”, “magic” or “spell” than use any logical chains.
One can explain as long as he wishes that the first part of this very symphony, Mozart’s 40th is written in the form of the sonata allegro. That it has the main and secondary themes as well as elaboration and reprise. But after such an explanation it won’t be much clearer, why this music is really genius. We can find without any difficulty thousands of pieces, following the pattern of the sonata allegro, but among them there hardly will be the Fortieth.
As far as I know, there have been made different attempts to measure the aesthetic pleasure, obtained by different people from different kinds of art. Eventually, they turned out to be a failure for one simple reason: it is at least senseless to try to apply scientific methods to studying a magic phenomenon! It entails turmoil, mixed notions and terminology, etc. which contribute to the feeling of some mysterious unexplainable nature of everything there is to it.
But human aspiration to contemplate about the origin of phenomena and unravel mysteries makes us turn to the problem again and again.
To crown it all, development has led us to the situation when music turned into industry, what entailed the increasing desire to sell it. At the present time almost everyone who deals with this industry is involved into it: musicians themselves, concert agencies, recording companies, etc.
It goes without saying, that such a situation requires usage of any means, enabling to sell the “goods” as quick as possible. A variety of gimmicks are being made use of: factual aberration, flatter, all sorts of entertaining methods, simplifying...
Want of information on classical music, experienced by considerable part of its lovers, is immense and it is made use of here and there in order to make them pay the money. Besides, it gave rise to another industry, doubtlessly depending on musical one but still having relative independence.
I mean here all sorts of musical publications, addressed to unprofessional audience. Here also belong different articles in “mass” newspapers and magazines as well as some brochures meant for “increasing the culture level” of the listeners, some TV and radio programs.These publications can be roughly divided into two categories. The ones from the first group have something to do with musical analysis, but being addressed to unprofessional audience, will likely contribute to people’s yawns rather than increase in their knowledge. “The bassoon develops the theme originating to the conceptual grain, which emerged for the first time with the first violins in introduction”. Ultimately, we obtain an ample collection of musical themes and no really useful information about the music (if closing our eyes to geographical details).
The authors of publications within the second group are a bit more imaginative. They fill their “masterpieces” with heaps of unnecessary details, musical anecdotes, endless quotes of notorious performers, joke dubiously – and say actually nothing about music.
The means from the second category are inevitably to be used by anyone, who is trying to speak about music. But not to be accused of profanation and lack of taste, it should be done when the quote is really makes music more accessible. Usually, these means are used for entertainment, or what is much worse, for distraction.
What is written or spoken about music doesn’t certainly strictly fall into these groups. There are quite a few specialized editions with professional writers making sense of music. But! Such editions are read mainly by professionals or considerably prepared laymen (the point what these editions are has already been discussed in one of my previous columns). The usual classical music amateur finds it of difficulty to hear or read something worthy.
But from time to time there appear people, combining professionalism, taste and acute skills of an observer with the ability to be clear to the amateur. Such, for instance, were Ivan Sollertinsky, Irakliy Andronnikov... Without lowering to playing with the public they were able to grant the audience with ample useful information, in a most accessible form with it. Among professional musicians there excels Leonard Bernstein with his wonderful, unique talent of a populizer! A set of his musical TV programs “Omnibus” remains up today one of the highest tops in this field.
Among writers there are also very shrewd music connoisseurs, for instance, Thomas Mann or Auldos Huxley. The latter, for example, most wonderfully described Beethoven’s quartet no. 15 in “Point Counterpoint”. As far as Mann is concerned, his “Doctor Faustus” comprises completely impressive pages about music. Perhaps, it is generally the best what has been written about music...
Any attempts to express musical experience with the help of words are aimed at only one goal: to find the sense of music, to express verbally what is obviously not intended for it (otherwise we’d deal with writers, not musicians). These attempts were made by both musicians and all those who considered themselves to have the right to speculate on such topics.
As a result they try to spot in music either the plot or portrayal of something (often – of natural phenomena) or reflection of some emotional outbursts. Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”, Debussy’s “The Sea” and, say one of Chopin’s mazurkas may clearly exemplify it.
With it, purely musical sense of the piece often remains out of sight, whereas it is the most correct starting point for musical analysis. All the rest can take place only as additional associations – if the composer implied their emergence. Otherwise – it is an excellent example of a simplifying approach to music. Since if we want to speak about music and try to explain it, we must explain the music and not jump to discussing notions which are not directly connected with it and ultimately having nothing to do with it.
Owing to everything discussed above it is of difficulty for unprepared amateurs to write or speak about music. The usage of professional terminology and slang is almost excluded, otherwise the audience will need to be treated with milk. So, it is inevitable to turn to different phenomena having no direct relation to music, but having effect on it: to historical events, for example.
Furthermore, there is a great temptation to look down upon the audience - but this can be fatal. Academic music as no other art causes some inner awe with the amateurs mainly because they are unable to explain it, relate it completely on the account of own non-professionality.
So, if you don’t wish to look down upon the audience, how can you find that level, to which you can rise without shocking the audience?
Somewhere between profanation and professional discussion there doubtlessly exists such a level. It can be difficult to find it, but it is by no means possible.
More than that, it is essential to spot it. One should reconsider his attitude to the audience as a stupid unmanageable crowd and believe that people really want to learn and understand.
Otherwise, in a while, we’ll remain with a handful of highly intellectual professionals and the majority not wishing to know anything about academic music because it is boring and difficult. How rotten must feel those, who will realize in it a piece of their own fault...