24 January 2009

More on ‘The Universal Language’

In the course of one virtual discussion of the Shostakovich symphonies, a Dutch neighbor recently wrote:

Personally I don’t really need all the political baggage some people are dumping on DSCH’s music.
When Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony was premiered in April of 1948, there were quite a few who took the symphony as a musical reaction to the war; to which the composer’s reply was, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.”

All this resonates tidily with a Stravinsky remark I quoted here:

Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.
Whatever the truth behind this, it has not prevented listeners from fixing upon certain attachments and ‘meanings’.

In Expositions and Developments, Stravinsky elaborates upon the music is powerless to express anything remark:
That overpublicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and superreal and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendent idea “expressed in terms of” music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correllatives must exist between a composer’s feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity. A composer’s work is the embodiment of his feelings and, of course, it may be considered as expressing or symbolizing them — though consciousness of this step does not concern the composer.
Setting aside the arguable disingenuousness both of his complaint about the earlier remark’s having been “overpublicized” (IIRC, the composer himself published it, after all) and of the carp about “even the stupider critics,” there is of necessity a ‘cloudiness’ about the ties between the composer’s feelings and the musical work worth reflecting on (a murk which, from this senator’s standpoint anyway, Stravinsky’s comments do not always help to dispel).

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