Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Listening to the Moonlight

This won't be a long post as I have a concert to play tonight. But I would like to just put a couple of ideas out there sparked by some passages in Beardsley's excellent book Aesthetics.

As I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago, Beardsley discusses all the major theories of meaning, expression and signification in music and finds them wanting. He points out that, for example, the Expression Theory offers us the interesting truth that music has what he calls "human regional qualities". By this he means that music can be cheerful, dolorous, energetic, dancelike and so on. A near-infinity of qualities that we hear as human. Oh, and music can also sound inhuman and mechanical, but no-one seems to talk about that as much. But Beardsley's succinct conclusion is that, once the Expression Theory has pointed this out, it renders itself of no more use. We are better off without it because saying that music is joyous is a plain and simple truth, but saying that music expresses joy adds nothing but unanswerable questions.

He also disposes of the Signification Theory that holds that music is an iconic sign of psychological processes and by virtue of this iconicity, music is a sign of the psychological process. Something can only be a sign of something else in one of two ways: either there is a conventional stipulation as to the meaning of a sign (not usually the case in music, of course) or there is a cause and effect connection. There can be conventional musical signs, of course, but they are a fairly rare phenomenon: when Bach "signs" his name in the Art of Fugue with the corresponding musical notes (B flat, A, C, B natural), this is a conventional sign based on the German words for those notes. Shostakovich does the same with his musical motto: DSCH. So the argument for music as conventional signs is very weak, indeed because of the extreme rarity of them. What about as natural signs? While music, as we said, has human-like qualities, can be joyous or dolorous, these are non-specific moods, rather than signs or messages. Music cannot be a "language of the emotions". As once was asked, if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary in which I can look up their meaning?

But despite the shortcomings of these theories of musical meaning, they are the bread and butter of much writing about music. People who write about music are constantly offering their "interpretation" of the "meaning" of specific passages or pieces. Listeners who can't hear this in the music may feel inadequate or, if they aren't familiar with the interpretations may feel inadequate because of that! Perhaps we should call this, in honor of the "Moonlight" Sonata, the "not hearing the moonlight" syndrome. You ain't never going to hear the moonlight!

As Beardsley concludes,
Music, then, is no symbol of time or process, mental or physical, Newtonian or Bergsonian; it is process. And perhaps we can say it is the closest thing to pure process, to happening as such, to change abstracted from anything that changes, so that it is something whose course and destiny we can follow with the most exact and scrupulous and concentric attention, undistracted by reflections of our normal joys or woes, or by clues and implications for our safety or success.
As I have said before, music is a universe all its own.

The point to take away is that true listening to music is simply about listening to the music, not trying to hear the unhearable or inflict some program note writer's wacky "interpretation" on the music.

What about much of the music of Messiaen, then, full as it is of exactly the kinds of things that Beardsley just said were not possible? Ah, that brings up the interesting and complex question of the relationship between words and music, because we only know the kinds of meaning Messiaen incorporated into his music because of the words he wrote about them. Also, there is a rare kind of iconicity that suffuses nearly all his music: birdsong. We will talk about the philosophic issues raised by Messiaen's music on another occasion.

For now, let's end with that infamous "Moonlight" Sonata that has nothing whatsoever to do with moonlight. To reassure you as to the absence of the notion of moonlight from Beethoven's mind regarding this sonata, here is the original title page:

And here is a performance of the "Sonata quasi una Fantasia, op. 27, no. 2":

(Despite the credits at the beginning of the clip, it was NOT dedicated to Joseph Haydn, but to Giulietta Guicciardi, his pupil and romantic interest.)


Christine Lacroix said...

Interesting post and lovely music. Thanks Bryan.

Ken Fasano said...

Messiaen is trying to "express" in music the ineffable, the unspeakable, the Biblical God whose name is "I am" and whose voice is best heard in silence. So what, then does Messiaen's music "express"? (I think there's a koan in there!) As for the Moonlight Sonata, "Moonlight" is the publisher's title. Beethoven was probably not thinking of moonlight - he was thinking of... oops, there's the danger. Let's psychoanalyze Beethoven, look at his biography, his romances, his deafness, perhaps he was having a bad time with some prostitutes (to mock one of his lousy biographies). No, it's MUSIC, after all. It isn't processed by the brain the same way words are, so it isn't going to signify the same things in the same ways words do. It is a different universe, as you say...

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, that is a really wonderful sonata!

Thanks to you both. When I get comments like these I know that this blog is NOT a voice crying out in the wilderness!