Speaking of Music

Composer and conductor, LEONARD BERNSTEIN is a Bostonian in whose artistry the town takes pride. A protégé of Serge Koussevitzky, he served a brilliant apprenticeship at Tanglewood, and New Yorkers recognized his genius when — without rehearsalhe substituted for Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic in a superlative performance. Since then he has scored with the ballet FANCY FREE; his serious works are played each season by the leading symphonies; his current musical, WEST SIDE STORY, is a smash hit on Broadway.

EVER since I can remember I have talked about music, with friends, colleagues, teachers, students, and just plain simple citizens. But in the last few years I have found myself talking about it publicly, thus joining the long line of well-meaning but generally doomed folk who have tried to explain the unique phenomenon of human reaction to organized sound.

It is almost like trying to explain a freak of nature (whatever that may be); ultimately one must simply accept the loving fact that people enjoy listening to organized sound (certain organized sounds, anyway); that this enjoyment can take the form of all kinds of responses from animal excitement to spiritual exaltation; and that people who can organize sounds so as to evoke the most exalted responses are commonly called geniuses. These axioms can be neither denied nor explained. But, in the great tradition of man burrowing through the darkness with his mind, hitting his head on cave walls, and sometimes perceiving a pin point of light, we can at least try to explain; in fact, there’s no stopping us.

There have been many more words written about the Eroica Symphony than there are notes in it; in fact, I should imagine that the proportion of words to notes, if anyone could get an accurate count, would be flabbergasting. And yet, has anyone ever successfully “explained” the Eroica? Can anyone explain in mere prose the wonder of one note following or coinciding with another so that we feel that it is exactly how those notes had to be? Of course not. No matter what rationalists we may profess to be, we are stopped cold at the border of this mystic area. It is not too much to say mystic or even magic: no art lover can be an agnostic when the chips are down, if you love music, you are a believer, however dialectically you try to wriggle out of it.

The most rational minds in history have always yielded to a slight mystic haze when the subject of music has been broached, recognizing the beautiful and utterly satisfying combination of mathematics and magic that music is. Plato and Socrates knew that the study of music is one of the finest disciplines for the adolescent mind, and insisted on it as a sine qua non of education; and just for those reasons of its combined scientific and “spiritual” qualities.

Yet when Plato speaks of music —scientific as he is about almost everything else — he wanders into vague generalizations about harmony, love, rhythm, and those deities who could presumably carry a tune. But he knew that there was nothing like piped music to carry soldiers inspired into battle — and everyone else knows it too. And that certain Greek modes were better than others for love or war or wine festivals or crowning an athlete. Just as the Hindus, with their most mathematically complicated scales, rhythms, and ragas, knew that certain ones had to be for morning hours, or sunset, or Siva festivals, or marching, or windy days. And no amount of mathematics could or can explain that.

We are still, in our own day, faced with this magical block. We try to be scientific about it, in our bumbling way — to employ principles of physics, acoustics, mathematics, and formal logic. We employ philosophical devices like empiricism and teleological method. But what does it accomplish for us? The magic questions are still unanswered. For example, we can try to explain the “shape” of a theme from a Beethoven quartet by saying that it follows the formal principle of synthesis: that there is a short statement (thesis), followed by a questioning answer (antithesis), followed by a development arising out of the conflict of the two (synthesis).

The Germans call this form Stollen. Others say “syllogistic.” Words, words, words. Why is the theme beautiful? There’s the rub. We can find a hundred themes shaped in this way, or based on variants of this principle; but only one or two will be beautiful.

When I was at Harvard, Professor Birkhoff was working hard on a system of aesthetic measure — actually trying to evolve a mathematical system whereby any object of art could be awarded a beauty rating on a given continuum of aesthetic worth. It was a noble effort; but when all is said and done, it comes to a dead end. The five human senses are capable of measuring objects up to a certain point (the eye can decide that x is twice as long as y; the ear can guess that one trombone is playing twice as loud as the other), but can the senses be measured? Or can their aesthetic responses be measured? How far is the smell of pork from the smell of beans? What beans? Cooked how? Raw? In what climate? If the Eroica earns a grade of 3.2, what mark do you give Tristan? Or a one-page Bach prelude?

We bumble. We imitate scientific method in our attempts to explain magic phenomena by fact, forces, mass, energy. But we simply can’t explain human reaction to these phenomena. Science can explain thunderstorms, but can it explain the fear with which people react to them? And even if it can, somehow, how does science explain the sense of glory we feel in a thunderstorm, break down this sense of glory into its parts? Three parts electrical stimulation, one part aural excitement, one part visual excitement, four parts identification-feelings with the beyond, two parts adoration of almighty forces — an impossible cocktail.

But some people have explained the glory of a thunderstorm, and such people are called poets. Only artists can explain magic; only art can substitute for nature. By the same token, only art can substitute for art. And so the only way one can really say anything about music is to write music.

STILL we go on trying to shed some light on the mystery. There is a human urge to clarify, rationalize, justify, analyze, limit, describe. There is also a great urge to sell music, arising out of the transformation of music in the last two hundred years into an industry. Suddenly there is a mass market, a tremendous recording industry, professional careerists, civic competitiveness, musical chambers of commerce. And out of this has come something called “music appreciation”—once felicitously called by Virgil Thomson the “musicappreciation racket.”

It is, in the main, a racket, because it is in the main specious and commercial. It uses every device to sell music — cajoling, coyness, flattery, oversimplification, irrelevant entertainment, tall tales — all in order to keep the music business humming. And in so doing it has itself become a business. The next step is obviously a new parasitic development: music-appreciation appreciation.

The racket operates in two styles, depending on the audience involved, and one is duller than the other. Type A is the birds-bees-and-rivulets variety, which invokes anything at all under the sun as long as it is extramusical. It turns every note or phrase or chord into a cloud or crag or Cossack. It tells homey tales about the great composers. either spurious or irrelevant. It abounds in anecdotes, quotes from famous performers, indulges itself in bad jokes and unutterable puns, teases the hearer, and tells us nothing about music.

Type B is concerned with analysis — a laudably serious endeavor — but is as dull as Type A is coy.

It is the “now comes the theme upside down in the second oboe” variety. A guaranteed soporific. What it does, ultimately, is to supply you with a road map of themes, a kind of Baedeker to the bare geography of a composition; but again, it tells us nothing about music except those superficial geographical facts.

Luckily all talk about music is not restricted to the level of music appreciation. There are writers in the learned journals who make sense, but only to other musicians, or to the cultivated amateur. The musical layman is harder put to find intelligent talk about music. But every once in a while someone appears who strikes an illuminating spark, who can give the layman some insight into music, if only into a cadence, or a melodic contour, or a single harmonic progression.

Such people are rare, and invaluable. Plato had some moments, as did Shakespeare. Certain critics can be perceptive and at the same time intelligible to the layman — men like Sullivan and Newman and Thomson. Certain novelists, like Mann and Huxley, have turned out memorable paragraphs, or even chapters, on musical matters. But most novelists, and writers in general, tend to put their feet in their mouths whenever they part lips to speak of music. And they do it often. For some reason literary minds seem magnetized by musical terminology — probably because they are awe-struck by the abstractness of it all. Nothing can be more different from the representational literary mind, with its literal conceptuality, than the nonobjective musical mind, with its concentration on shapes, lines, and sonorous intensities. And this fascinates the writer — makes him even a little envious, I have found, so that he longs for some participation in that strange, foreign medium.

As a result, when he reaches for the elusive mot juste he often winds up with glissando or crescendo to express (usually wrongly) what he means — precisely because the musical word seems so elusive. Besides, it’s so pretty; what chic and grace those Italian words carry with them! Scherzo. Vivace. Andantino. Crescendo. We are constantly running across the word crescendo in literature, almost always used synonymously with climax. “The storm rose to a great crescendo.” “As they kissed, their hearts reached a crescendo of pounding passion.” Nonsense. Obviously crescendo can mean only “growing,” “increasing,” —specifically, getting louder. So a crescendo can mean growing to a climax of storm or passion or anything you wish; but it can’t be what you grow to.

This digression is only by way of pointing up the rarity of intelligent musical talk, even among first class writers. The Huxleys and the Manns of this world are few and far between. Huxley’s description of part of Beethoven’s Op. 132 in Point Counter Point is unforgettable. Mann has some thrilling passages on music in The Magic Mountain and in Dr. Faustus. And because of people like these — who can sometimes evoke with words the quality of a piece of music or some sense of its essential weight or thrust — because of them we musicians are encouraged to go on trying to elucidate, in the hope that, even if only here and there, we can shed a little light on that terrible bugaboo, musical meaning.

Meaning in music has preoccupied aestheticians, musicians, and philosophers for centuries. The treatises pile up and usually succeed only in adding more words to an already obscure business. In all this mass of material we can discern four levels of meaning in music: 1) Narrative-literary meanings as in Till Eulenspiegel and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; 2) Atmospheric-pictorial meanings as in La Mer and Pictures at an Exhibition; 3) Affective-reactive meanings such as triumph, pain, wistfulness, regret, cheerfulness, melancholy, apprehension — most typical of nineteenth-century romanticism; 4) Purely musical meanings.

Of these, the last is the only really important one, the one worthy of analysis. The first three don’t actually involve analysis, but rather arbitrary justification, or prettifying for the commercial reasons mentioned before. If we are to try to explain music, we must explain the music, not the whole array of extramusical notions which have grown like parasites around it.

Which makes musical analysis for the layman extremely difficult. Obviously we can’t use musical terminology exclusively, or we will simply drive the victim away. We must have intermittent recourse to certain extramusical ideas, like religion, or social factors, or historical forces, which may have influenced music. We don’t ever want to talk down; but how up can we talk without losing contact? There is a happy medium somewhere between the music-appreciation racket and purely technical discussion; it is hard to find, but it can be found.

It is with this certainty that it can be found that I have made so bold as to discuss music on television, on records, and in public lectures. Whenever I feel that I have done it successfully, it is because I may have found that happy medium. And finding it is impossible without the conviction that the public is not a great beast but an intelligent organism, more often than not longing for insight and knowledge. Wherever possible, therefore, I try to talk about music — the notes of music; and wherever extramusical concepts are needed for referential or clarifying purposes, I try to choose concepts that are musically relevant, such as nationalistic tendencies or spiritual development, which may even have been part of the composer’s own thinking.

For example, in explaining jazz I have avoided the usual pseudohistorical discussions (up the river from New Orleans) and concentrated on those aspects of melody, harmony, rhythm, which make jazz different from all other music. In talking of Bach I have had to make references to his religious and spiritual convictions, but always in terms of the notes he produced. In analyzing Dvořák’s New World Symphony for a lay audience listening to a recording, I have displayed all the thematic material, as music appreciation would demand, but in terms of Dvořák’s attempt at nationalistic results.

In other words, music appreciation doesn’t have to be a racket. The extramusical kind of reference can be useful if it is put in the service of explaining the notes; and the road-map variety can also be serviceable if it functions along with some central idea that can engage the intelligence of the listener. Therein lies the happy medium.

But, in the end, we can never really interpret music through words, or give even a shadowy equivalent. If it were possible for words to “tell” a Chopin mazurka its sad-gay quality, the abundance of its brevity, the polish of its detail — why, then, would Chopin have had to write it in the first place?