Saturday, June 17, 2006

Songs without WOrds: "absolute music" and "program music"

A brief tangent on the Romantic era

The Romantic era has informed our concept of music so profoundly we take it for granted. Rock and pop music, especially, are indebted to the Romantic era both in terms of melody and harmony. Without the thirteenth chords of Wagner or Chopin it would have taken longer for the thirteenth chords of Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk to emerge. But more crucial than just the harmonic language was the philosophical language used to describe music. This philosophy is best reflected in the routine Romantic title “Song Without Words”.

This title tells us a great deal. It tells us we’re listening to a song. We’re also obviously told by the title this will be a song without words. Therein lies a crucial development in the Romantic era. The title has built into itself an argument, no, an assertion, that language isn’t needed for this “song without words”. Every “song without words” was a work for solo piano or for some instrumental arrangement. So the argument went, music is its own, autonomous language that will speak to the heart and mind. As Gloria Estefan put it, the words get in the way. All you need is music.

In certain respects this is true. Music has always been able to touch the thoughts and feelings of people even when no words were present. Certain modes and chords get associated with certain feelings or ideas. But in saying this I demonstrate a profound flaw in the assertion made by the “song without words”. There are still words. If music always relies on association with language, or bodily movement, or images to have meaning why would someone want to compose a song without words?

The truth is people had been composing music without words for a long time. The “song” part of the title is the important thing. Neither Haydn nor Mozart composed a “song without words”. If they felt a song coming on they wrote a song or a choral work. It was Beethoven who first wrote a “hymn of thanks in the Lydian mode” for string quartet. And many a Romantic composer, building on that foundation sought to compose instrumental music that had the rapture of a glad human voice. The ideal was to create absolute, pure music.

But this ideal had two contradictory notions in it. The first was that music has an autonomous meaning. It’s true that certain forms suggest certain meanings. If you write a sonata form then your musical work doesn’t have the same meaning it would have if you, say, wrote a fugue, or a rondo, or a minuet. But music had always had a strong social function. All music had a certain utility, whether it was for the church, for the public political event, for a religious or national festival, for rituals like marriage or burial or christening. Music has always been associated with the rituals of humanity. In the 19th century an “art for art’s sake” ideology gained popularity and this move divorced music both from language and from social utility.

The upshot of this was the beginning of the contradiction. Music as a pure art was above language and purer than any art that involved language. It was the ultimate expression of the feelings of the heart. Understanding musical structure, seeing as it is the least visual and tangible of all structures, was therefore a way to understand profound ideas. And yet the music itself had no meaning because there were no words. The meaning was entirely subjective. How could musical form be objective and its meaning subjective? This was the problem. In the past the solution had simply been to write choral music or assume that music was tied to the cultural, rhetorical, and social functions of its day. In this age, the Romantic age, the solution to restoring meaning to meaningless music came about in other ways.

The first, simplest attempt to solve the problem amounted to denying it. Now that music was considered separate from textual and other non-musical considerations it simply was. This was essentially the position of people who wrote “absolute” music. Musical form conveyed its own meaning. A sonata or a fugue was profound, a rondo was light and frothy, a minuet or scherzo was a jocular, even lighter piece, and a variation form was somber or silly depending on its theme. The form was assumed to dictate content. And at a very abstract level this is true. A melody fit for a fugue will not in itself fit a rondo just as a rondo tune won’t lend itself to being a fugue.

To speak by way of analogy, the whole thrust of the Incarnation as a theological concept is that God took upon Himself the form and nature of humanity so as to save humanity and redeem the world. The form of humanity God took (becoming a man) served the function of redeeming humanity by presenting Jesus as both God and man to serve as the mediator of a new covenant that reconciled humanity to God. My analogy demonstrates, however, the severe limitation of this aesthetic of absolute music. If a spiritual being incarnates as a human then the human being derives its nature from that which is not, strictly speaking, human. In other words the mere form of humanity is not enough to tell us the function or goal of what the human form is doing. Whether the person we see is a god or devil incarnate can only be demonstrated by what the person does. The meaning might appear intrinsic but it is intrinsic to the character of the spirit incarnate not the human form itself.

This was essentially how program music composers approached the matter. For them music could not be separated from extra-musical meaning. They accepted that music would always have an extra-musical meaning of some sort. Nobody denied that music spoke beyond language but they disagreed as to how that language served music and musical interpretation. For instance, you see a title like “Night on Bald Mountain” and you start thinking of night on a mountain with no trees or grass or anything. Whether it’s raining or not you don’t know but the title tells you what to think about. Now if you have a title like “Night on Bald Mountain” and you hear Modest Mussorgsky’s music the music serves to explain what the title itself cannot. In other words, the program of the music gives you a frame of reference through which to think about the music and formulate an emotional response. The music attempts to convey the “real” meaning the text itself cannot convey.

This intellectual gap is best exemplified by the music of Brahms and Wagner. Brahms advocated absolute music, music that had no complicated literary program. You didn’t have to know who Tristan or Isolde were to understand his symphonies. You didn’t need to associate a melody with a certain action or object or person. You need only understand the basics of sonata form or variation form. Wagner, on the other hand, didn’t care so much whether you understood musical form so long as you, as a listener, could identify a melody with Siegfried or gold in the Rhine or the parry of a sword. If you could understand these musical associations he could make a huge story in which the musical cues would tell you what was going on. Brahms wanted you to supply your own meaning to his music and Wagner wanted to spell it out.

But in both cases the music had to rely on something beyond music to convey its meaning. Lawrence Kramer writes that where a musical work is concerned, “the meanings proposed for the object always exceed those proposed by it [emphasis added]”. (Musical Meaning, University of California Press, p. 45) This seems to be a fair statement. After all, where Wagner relied on a dramatic narrative and a character to suggest meaning to his music, and vice versa, Brahms relied on what he assumed were intrinsic meanings attached to forms. Problem is that no musical meaning is intrinsic. If it were we wouldn’t have to be told what words mean, let alone that we’re about to hear or play a “Song Without Words”.

But to say that meaning in music is attributed is not to deny that sometimes this attribution doesn’t work, like a quote that won’t stick to the famous person who supposedly said it. Sometimes the attribution sticks when the facts don’t back it up. Paul never wrote, “money is the root of all evil”, only that the love of money was. Sometimes the meaning attached to a musical gesture sticks and sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, how is an American moviegoer supposed to react when he hears an English horn or oboe in a soundtrack? He’s supposed to realize that some important or innocent character has died. As Tom Servo once put it in Mystery Science Theater 3000, the death of a movie character is signified by the oboe. Laugh, because it’s funny, just remember that it’s funny because it’s true. It’s true because the meaning is attributed to hundreds of soundtracks in hundreds of movies. But take the oboe out of its cinematic context and what does it mean? What happens if you’re watching Peter and the Wolf? Suddenly the oboe represents a duck. Even program music barely holds on to extramusical meaning. It becomes a matter of a listener’s shared language beyond music and the listener’s good will.

This quickly turns into a very abstract, difficult question. Does the meaning or value of music derive from the work itself or something attributed to the work? Even to ask this question is to forget altogether that someone composed the music. It is true to say that music, at least “absolute music”, has no intrinsic meaning and in this respect all the artists and philosophers in the world could learn something. “Absolute music” is an intellectual shortcut, necessary perhaps, but still a shortcut. If music, the most rarified and abstract of the arts, has no meaning in and of itself it might as well be a commentary on the human condition. If our music has no meaning in itself what does that say about us? At that point we might as well ask whether people are good because they are good or because they are credited as being good and therefore rise to the occasion. If the music we make has extrinsic rather than intrinsic meaning what does this say about us?

What do we make of this “Song Without Words”? If a song is singing, if singing is elongated speech, then can anyone really have a song without words? Only by changing the meaning of the word “song”, a telling exercise in itself. Music itself is not intrinsic either in being or even perception. Music, after all, is vibrating air. If there were no air there’d be no music. If there wasn’t a perceived pattern to these vibrations in the air, even an extrinsic rather than intrinsic pattern, nobody could write music or perceive music. The words behind the “song without words” are still what give meaning to the music, whatever those words are supposed to mean. Derived meaning is still meaning. Christians have an explanation for this and it perhaps it can be summarized in a quote attributed to J. S. Bach, “I wrote the notes but God makes the music.”

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