Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Music and Life

The Guardian has a very odd essay up titled "Six Songs of Me: Just why music matters so much to us ..."  I say odd because it seems to promise a lot, "just why music matters so much to us" but really doesn't deliver much at all. For example, this is from the conclusion to the article:
There's nothing secret about music's power in our lives, even if we are still a long way from having a proper understanding of it, but there is something astonishing and transformative about music's grip on consciousness – and the sheer variety of musics, from every age and every part of the globe that can do that. 
I have no idea what the author, Eric Clarke, is trying to say here. I mean, I agree that there is something potentially astonishing and transformative about music's grip on consciousness--or I would if I knew what he meant by "grip on consciousness", but reading this is like eating meringue, all fluff and no substance. The article is combined with a survey, "Six Songs of Me" that I did not care to participate in. Perhaps the main reason for the article was to get people participating, upping page views, that sort of thing.

This kind of exercise falls in the general category of what musicologists call 'reception history' or how people respond to music. There were a couple of times in the 19th century when an opera sparked an actual revolution. Indeed, people's responses to music in the Romantic period were very strong and aligned with the powerful emotional texture of the music. An outstanding example of this is the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869). The piece is a colorful narrative of the progress of an artist's obsessive love for an unobtainable woman. It was certainly inspired by an obsession Berlioz developed for an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson. Berlioz describes the music in this way:
The composer’s intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression.
I'm not sure whether much work has been done on the reception history of this particular piece, but I wonder if it did not lead to a lot of others becoming obsessively fixated on a distant love object. When Goethe wrote his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, it became an important influence on the Romantic movement and led to a flurry of "copycat suicides".

The Symphonie fantastique is a very powerful piece of music for a lot of reasons. One is its astonishing orchestral palette. It became a model of how to write colorfully for orchestra for all subsequent composers. It also was innovative in other ways such as the detailed way the music follows the narrative of the program (which Berlioz wrote out and included in the score--see the Wikipedia article on the symphony I linked above for more on the program notes). Berlioz took a number of techniques used in opera and adapted them to symphonic narrative such as adding unusual wind and percussion instruments to the orchestra, using new instrumental techniques such as having the violins play col legno striking the strings with the wood of the bow, and most uniquely, the use of a musical motif, that Berlioz calls an idée fixe. Here is that long and rather operatic melody, which is heard throughout the symphony transformed in various ways:

Click to enlarge
Now let's hear the music:

I suppose what bothered me the most about the Guardian article was the sheer pollyannaishness of it: music is always a swell thing to accompany your life, which puts music a bit on the same level as a new sweater or perhaps a tranquilizer prescription. Yes, music can be powerful, but the corollary to that is that music can be dangerous as well. The author says:
for many people music is the source of some of the most powerful and significant experiences in their lives. In the 100 years or so since recorded music has been widely available, our lives have become suffused by it...
Now that I think about it, the mistake here is the same one I was talking about in this post about The Autobiographical Fallacy. Music is not the source of significant experiences in your life so much as it is a reflection on them. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is about as autobiographical in its inspiration as a piece of music can be. And even then, as Taruskin notes in the Oxford History "the degree to which this program was truly autobiographical is of course unknowable and (many would say) irrelevant."

Music and life are different things.

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