Monday, May 16, 2011


Almost as old as the debate about which comes first, the words or the music, is the question of what music means. Otherwise put, is the music saying something specific that the listener can apprehend?

Obviously, a sonata or a string quartet is pure, nonspeaking form. But can’t a tone poem that calls itself Death and Transfiguration say something verbal about death and whatever transfiguration means to the composer, Richard Strauss? Or can another of his tone poems, Thus Spake Zarathustra, convey in music, word for word, what Nietzsche wrote?

The evident answer is No. I recall reading long ago about an experiment conducted with a tone poem played to an audience unacquainted with it, then being asked to write down what it said to them. No two listeners heard the same thing, and no one got from it what the composer thought he had said with it.

We may, of course, ask why a piece of music should “say” anything. Why it should do the work of another art, poetry or drama. But are there perhaps things felt and meant to be expressed in words, which prove, however, ineffable? Can you, for instance, put an orgasm into spoken words? But then again, can you say it in notes?

Or consider “pride”? Can you put into precise words your pride in something your children have accomplished, or in a novel you have written? Can that pride be specifically conveyed to someone else by a certain number of tones in a specified order? You can suggest that it makes you feel good, but then how to convey the quiddity of a good feeling? It makes you happy, but what exactly is “happy”? And how does it differ between having a loved someone return your love and enjoying a rich serving of delicious ice cream?

A piece of music may, granted, be cheerful or mournful, induce a certain mood in you, captivate or repel you, even have you exclaim, “It speaks to me”; but what does it really mean, i.e., say?

It is largely opined that Wagner’s love music in Tristan is erotic. It is said, perhaps accurately, that it arouses erotic feelings, especially in young people, and even provokes masturbation. But surely it does not say, “Go masturbate!” Even that once celebrated pop song, “Gloomy Sunday,” supposedly inducing an international wave of suicides, did not say, “Go kill yourself!” At the utmost, it may have been adopted as a sort of anthem of farewell by those about to die by their own hand. Music may perhaps suggest something, but that is not tantamount to saying it in so many words. Eliciting is not the same as verbalizing.

Certainly music may, somehow, convey or corroborate something. If a character in an opera sings of his love in eloquent words, the music may well confirm his affirmation, make it incomparably more powerful. But would the music say the same thing without being attached to those particular words? Let us assume it could somehow convey the wonder of love. But love of what? A person? A sport? Broccoli?

Still, a stunning edifice by a major architect would seem to say, “Wouldn’t you like to live inside me?” An exquisite painting of a beautiful woman may seem to say, “Don’t you want to make love to me?” Those are meanings of sorts. Then why shouldn’t music have them too? Well, even if a piece of music is called “serenade,” does it necessarily say “I am being played at night by a lover under the beloved’s window”?  It doesn’t. It could just as easily be titled “impromptu” or “intermezzo” or ”meditation.” It is the word “serenade” that can convey the situation, not the same music without that name. A hymn in praise of Bacchus may sound just like the music for a saint’s feast; a dirge may just as easily evoke yearning for a dead lover as an exile’s longing for his homeland. Wedding-procession music may serve as well at halftime in a World Cup soccer match.

A string quartet, however, without a title, is about three or four contrasting movements; beyond that it says nothing in words. The march from The Love for Three Oranges could just as easily be for four oranges or two grapefruits. If we heard it at a time when we were happy, it can remind us of the occasion, wordlessly. That, however, is association, not assertion. You can compare the pleasure it gives to winning a game of tennis. Fun without meaning.

Music, to be sure, can imitate—thunder, a cannonade, funeral bells, or hammering in a smithy. But that is not saying anything about how hard work in a smithy is, or the danger of a hammer blow to your thumb. The music for Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” affects your senses, but bypasses your mind and, by itself, says nothing. It merely simulates and stimulates the emotions. It is the words to it that speak.

We would like it to say things, though, because speech is a noble utterance when it is not inane babble, wherefore we would wish beloved music to have similarly specific, verbalizable effect. In other words, to mean inarguable things. Yet we have it on no lesser authority than Stravinsky’s declaration that his music, in and of itself, has no meaning whatsoever.

Then again, why should music really mean? It enormously collaborates, indeed stars, in song of every kind, from an operatic aria to a pop song, from a lied to a musical comedy number. That easily absolves it from speaking in any other kind of music. Wordless classical music does, however, speak after a fashion to music critics and scholars who write intricate analytical essays, even books, about it, some of them actually quite readable. As for us laymen, to quote the title of Alex Ross’s valuable book, the rest is noise. But music, to all of us is not mere noise, but wonderful communication without verbal meaning. Or, if you will, meaningless magnificence.


  1. Now there's the John Simon I remember!

    Bravo!, sir. First-rate piece.


  2. Mr. Simon,

    I was pleased to read from your profile that Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande is one of your top favorite works...

    Hear, hear!


    I've just added your blog to my RSS.


    The Unrepentant Pelleastrian

  3. Before we know words we know sounds. Understand them in a way we never will again. But they do not suffice. Babies prattle because they no longer want to be simply heard but complexly understood. Want their sounds to mean something. Well and good. But gaining the paradise of language, we lose (science tells us) the semi-paradise of sound, or much of it.

    Musicians lose less than the rest of us. Then develop it in highly sophisticated ways. We retain enough to enjoy music, and console ourselves by acquiring "taste." How paltry a thing taste is compared to musical talent! That said musicians often talk as much rot about music as we do but then sit down, play, and give lie to their own words by performing wonderfully. Worse, they get the girls, which isn't meaningless at all.

  4. Funny. As I began to read Simon's latest piece here I was listening to Mozart's Sonata in A major, a particular favorite of mine; and though I may like to articulate in words at length its meaning to me, I could never convey it to others as well as Mozart and his musicians do to me.

  5. P.S.: I guess, in other words (pun intended), I meant to say (pun intended) that "meaning" need not be conveyed in words. Isn't that the point of Pseudo-Dyonisian transcendence; or of Augustine's God whose "center is everywhere and circumference nowhere"; or of Goethe's dictum that "As a naturalist, I am a pantheist; as an artist, I am a polytheist; as a moralist, I am a monotheist"...? And perhaps that was why the quite traditionalist and otherwise severe Lutheran theologian Karl Barth insisted that the angels in Heaven play Mozart for their own enjoyment (when they are not praising God!).

    (Note: At this point, I am drinking red wine and listening to the jazz flute of Herbie Mann.)

  6. Simon must be right about words not being able to convey certain meanings because I've no idea what he's yammering about.

  7. Music is about musing, not meaning. It expresses than explains. It explores than explicates.
    Same is true of painting.

    The problem with later Godard is he tried to turn images into essays. If he has something to say, he should use words. Cinema is for those who have something to SHOW.

  8. If one truly understands and loves music, one would not be asking such a question. It's like a foodie wondering, 'what is the meaning of food and wine, etc? What do they say?' Time to get out of the kitchen. The problem with Simon is words came first to him, and so his view of art is essentially lingo-centric. This explains why he's so blind to the film art of Dreyer, Tarkovsky, and Kubrick. He looks for clarity of meaning that could be exprssed in words.