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Music as Language

At a concert last weekend in Toledo, Ohio, I had an opportunity to observe my own reactions to two very different kinds of music: Shostakovich and Dvorak. Iím not very sophisticated, musically, and I sometimes struggle trying to understand serious music. Some pieces, I enjoy and appreciate from my first hearing; with others I need several exposures before I begin to recognize something in them that is meaningful to me. There are others which I do not "get" at all, no matter how closely I listen. I know Iím not alone in this. Still, I have a conceit that I can learn anything if only I put my mind to it. And music in general is one of the things in this world that I am most passionate about.

The Shostakovich was his Second Cello Concerto. One of my all-time favorite symphonies is his Fifth, so itís not as though I block out everything by that composer. Iíve read that the Shostakovich Fifth was a sop to the Soviet arts people who had followed up Stalinís negative response to Shostakovich compositions with ominous grumbling about whether the great composer had the people properly in mind. A biographer wrote: "His 5th Symphony (premiered 1937), ironically subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism," was hailed by bureaucrats and audiences alike, and remains his most popular work; it was the first symphony purely "Soviet" in style."

If by "Soviet style," he means "popular," that would include many pre-Soviet Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. The cello concerto is not like those at all. It was composed in 1961, when he was seriously ill, so I suppose its darkness might have reflected his state of mind. But I struggled to catch anything in its three movements that I could identify as a theme, much less a fragment of melody. At the end of the piece, while the audience stood and applauded, I sat with this big question mark hanging over my head (no doubt obvious to everyone in the auditorium). I confess to being a musical snob at times, for example when I hear someone protesting about classical music being "boring" or "irrelevant." But I didnít understand that piece.

Immediately after the intermission, the orchestra played Dvorakís Seventh Symphony, and my mood turned around completely. While itís not one of my most familiar pieces, I recognized many passages that have been planted in my head over the years. I could follow the music and even anticipate some events in itóif not inevitable resolutions. After it was over (and another standing ovation for the orchestra), we left the hall with our heads full of music.

Music is a language, without a doubt. Actually, many languages and dialects. Itís a type of language that doesnít use symbols so directly as spoken language. Like poetry, it uses "figures of speech" to emphasize or connect various parts. The relationships among individual notes have been a fascination to me for years, even though I have almost no formal schooling in music. Like most people, I respond to music emotionally as well as intellectually. The best part of it, for me, is that I can hear a new piece and know how I feel about it without having to know why, at least for a while. If someone were to read to me from French or German, Iíd have to have them translate it before I could understand. When a musician plays something Iíve never heard before, itís seldom totally foreign to me. Even if I donít "know the words," there are almost always links to other music.

Communication, to be successful, always requires links to what the audience already knows. So new information has to be combined somehow with redundant information, or thereís nothing the audience can relate to. In music itís the same. One commentator wrote about Shostakovich, "He occupies a significant position in the 20th century as a symphonist and as a composer of chamber music, writing in a style that is sometimes spare in texture but always accessible, couched as it is in an extension of traditional tonal musical language." Somehow, I donít feel better. I must have missed more than I thought in my musical education.

Many classical pieces, when they were first performed, were criticized as "discordant" and "chaotic," even those by Beethoven and Brahms. Iíve come a long way, I think, in learning the languages of music. At first I couldnít stand Bach, but now, even those compositions of his that Iím not familiar with feel somehow "right" to me. Haydn often bores me, but thatís because he repeats himself so much, and Iíve heard his music for so long that it no longer stimulates me. Philip Glass, on the other hand, repeats endlessly as a distinct technique that I findówell, comforting. I donít know why, exactly. The first Glass music I remember hearing drove me up the wall. Now I collect him.

The other side of communication, of course, is the new information, which after all is what is intended to be communicated. If the entire message is redundant, if it doesnít say anything new at all, whatís the use of saying anything? It then becomes ritual, perhaps designed to stimulate old feelings, but not to impart anything new. True communication needs a mixture of both in order to get through the gap between speaker and listener. One thing that great artówhether visual or auralóhas is the ability to impart something new at each experience of it. I can hear Sebeliusís Fifth Symphony over and over, and each time some little thing in it tugs at my mind for the first time. Just as every time I read one of Eliotís poems, I hear something new, perhaps deeper.

People like different things. Of course. Itís a truism, like "the sky is blue." Some part of our different reactions to particular music may have something to do with how we are wired, in the same way that we react differently to different odors or tastes. Some tastes in music may be acquired, even if we arenít aware of learning anything. But itís not just that "everything is relative" and that any kind of music is no better or worse than any other kind. There are different levels of quality. Just as we can recognize great writing after weíve read a lot of different writers, we can learn to distinguish great music from the merely mediocre if we simply listen a lot and pay attention.

So Iím not prepared to insist that Dvorakís Seventh is better music than Shostakovichís Concerto, even if the first one speaks intimately to me and I donít at all understand the latter. I would like to learn what it is that Iím missing. It feels important to me, in this autumn of my life, to know that Iíve tasted it all.

 

March 3, 2005

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