Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Autobiographical Fallacy

We don't know where music comes from. We speculate all the time and we keep trying to tack it down, but we never really succeed. Personally, I'm grateful for that. But one of the things that came out of the Romantic era that still seems to be with us, is the idea that music is like an autobiography of the composer. Even though Mozart wrote some of his most cheerful music at the lowest points of his life and Schumann wrote some of his most deeply melancholy music when he was at his most happy, in the fulfillment of his long-delayed marriage to Clara Wieck, we still think that the music comes from the life. In this post I put up photos of some of the places Romantic composers went to compose, in the mountains, or by beautiful lakes, and the  unconscious conclusion that many come to is that the beautiful setting led to the beautiful music. I think that they went away to these secluded places simply for the solitude and quiet. It seems odd to think of a Mahler symphony as being the musical equivalent to "what I did on my summer vacation."

In his The Romantic Generation, Charles Rosen cautions that "too firm an identification of an element in a work with an aspect of the artist's life does not further understanding but blocks it." This is in connection with Robert Schumann, who tends in his music to encourage autobiographical interpretation. Taruskin in the Oxford History talks about the 'literary' aspect of Schumann's music, how it alludes to the extra musical world with suggestive titles, some of which he later suppressed.

Musical notation has long contained text, of course. Not just the titles of pieces, but with tempo and expressive indications like 'sadly' or 'delicately'. Schumann went a lot further in adding an epigraph to the score to his Phantasie, op 17 from a poem by Friedrich Schlegel. In translation it reads:
Through all the sounds
In the motley dream of earthly life
There sounds a soft, long drawn-out sound
For the one who overhears in secret.
Taruskin suggests that the importance of things like this is to engage the mind in speculation as "A mind engaged in speculation is a mind receptive and alert." In other words, don't take this kind of thing literally, but rather literarily.

Some of our current tendency to think of music as being autobiographical probably comes from the predominance of popular songs where there is scarcely a distinction between the voice of the singer/composer and the narrator of the text. They are, after all, one and the same. But the usual cautions that apply to all literature apply here. All you need to do is look at the lyrics to a song by Bob Dylan to see the point. Here is a particularly famous song:

All Along the Watchtower

"There must be some way out of here" said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion", I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

"No reason to get excited", the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late".

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Now how could that be autobiographical? But the same caution should apply to all song lyrics, even ones where they seem to be simply the voice of the singer. When a blues singer says "if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all" we needn't assume that this is simply factual. Similarly, in her song "Part of Me", a character portrayed by Katy Perry joins the Marine Corps, but we don't think for an instant that Katy Perry has or is about to do the same.

If music can be looked at from a literary point of view, then what sort of literature is it? Most music, I feel sure, is a kind of fantasy and not just the pieces labeled "fantasia". There is a telling quote from Beethoven in a letter to a friend. Talking about his C# minor String Quartet, op 131, he says that it is "less lacking in fantasy than my other works." And this is most certainly a piece of what used to be called 'absolute' music, i.e. music without an extra-musical program. Here is the very brief sixth movement from that quartet, Adagio quasi un poco andante:

Recently we have seen some attempts to create music with elements of what in film would be called 'documentary'. One of the most interesting of these is Steve Reich's Different Trains for string quartet and tape in which he uses spoken phrases by his governess, a train conductor and Holocaust survivors as musical material. The piece contains both these phrases and their imitation by the string quartet. Here is the first recorded speech phrase as Steve Reich renders it in musical notation:

Click to enlarge
And here is the first movement where it appears. It is first heard at the 0:40 mark.

Reich says about this procedure that "The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality, and begins a new musical direction." So in this case at least, we know where the basic music material comes from: those taped speech phrases. But the original idea to use taped phrases? The concept of the piece as a whole? The way the music is structured? The dramatic flow of the score? All this still comes from where we know not. Might as well call it the fantasy of the composer's imagination...


RG said...

Very astute discussion.
It is not skepticism.
But inescapable agnosticism.

Bryan Townsend said...

For an amazingly brief comment, this is remarkably profound.