21 January 2009

Listen, and Listen Again

At Musical Perceptions, Scott Spiegelberg recounts a homey instance of the value of repeat listening. Somewhere or other (Charles Rosen?) I recall running across a most apt denunciation of (I paraphrase) “The Fallacy of Instant Comprehensibility.” Scott’s post is about a Schubert sonata, which I find of especial relevance — frequently, I hear it asserted that the “obvious” inferiority of so much new music is, how The Average Listener can’t comprehend it right away.

Behind all this, there is a meaty discussion of how we understand music, the nature and mechanics of that understanding. But to the present purpose, I point out that the first time I heard almost any of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (say), I didn’t completely understand them. I knew well enough that I liked them, that I had no ‘objection’ to them — but I knew that after a single hearing, there was more in there, than I had succeeded in gleaning from a first real-time listen. (In general, one might even assert that this is a property of great artwork: that there is more fuel in it than you can burn in a single use.)

Now, some decades later, the nine Beethoven symphonies are long favorites of mine, I’ve gotten more and more out of them with successive hearings; there may not be, at this point, any great ‘mystery’ in them for me. But I have not forgotten that this is not music which (because of its inherent ‘superiority’ to, say, music being written today) was immediately and entirely transparent to me.

That notion, the plaint that if the music written today were really great, everyone would be whistling it straight off, is misguided on two or three points.

This morning, I put down on paper some thoughts on a cello ensemble piece. Cryptic, perhaps, but it does what I require of it this week:

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