Imagine a magic mirror in which out of your peripheral vision you can see beautiful pictures but when once you look into it straight on, all the fair scenes disappear.
The other day I went to a cello recital where we all were given a paper with the text of a poem Schubert had based one of the pieces on. Reading it while the piece was played gave me greater awareness of the music, even if often I didn’t know if that particular rise in the music was intended to corresponded with that line about flying, or if that phrase was supposed to match that particular stanza or not.
As a university student I’m supposed to go to these weekly recitals and fill out a form about the music: “What did you think of the performers?” “Describe the repertoire being performed. Be specific.” “What were the highlights of the performance and how were they achieved?” And so I’m very used to to trying to listen so that I can be specific about the repertoire being performed. But just staring straight at the music (with your ear that is) often yields less emotional definition in what I hear than just this reading a poem while the music plays. Of course on these forms when being specific about the repertoire, I write something more like: “A lot of thematic transfer between the violin and cello” instead of “Two friends are delighted to meet after a long time apart, but they fall to arguing.”
I don’t think Berlioz, who provided a dramatic program to explain what the music was about, is the best composer, but I do like the idea of the program. I think in the last movement of Symphonie Fantastique, when the theme that represents his beloved, his ideal, his obsession, shows up at the Witches Sabbath and is played in a tawdry manner, it is very effective. Who is not familiar with the experience of seeing the one you idealized in an unideal moment? I remember being at a rodeo one time and sitting next to a girl I knew whom I thought of as a little transcendent, and feeling just like that last movement of Symphonie Fantastique as she laughed at the dumb jokes of the rodeo clown. Not jokes that I was having to suppress laughing at, jokes that didn’t even tempt me to laugh. It’s not fair to do that to people. I don’t mean it’s not fair to let down those who make you their ideal, I mean it’s not fair to set people up on a pedestal. Yet it is always this way; if you go to a Witches’ Sabbath and there is someone you know from a better world there, you will be more than twice as grieved for that ONE, than for all the other faces in the crowd put together.
Aside from a program, I can think of some other ways music is very beautiful when heard peripherally:
1. Of course when singing a song you can focus your mind on the meaning or the story of the lyrics and let music conquer your emotions with an effective ambush.
2. As incidental music to movies and plays not only do we have the story, but also the picture. Suddenly the countryside seems lovelier, or the hero nobler and maybe at first we don’t even realize it’s the music what’s done it. But it’s not just the music that bolsters up the picture. The picture or story gives a focus to the music. I definitely think there are sad pieces and happy pieces and pieces of lots of other emotions, but I don’t think in a way that sadness or happiness are intrinsically in the music; the sadness is in us, and insofar as the music resonates with that sadness in us, it is sad. (Does that make sense?) How much sadder the music can then be if tied to something we specifically find sad in a story, say the hero’s’ death, and maybe that reminds you of one you knew who’s gone.
Incidental music by Sibelius. Canzonetta from Kuolema (Death).
3.Dancing. Do you remember the Frog and Toad story in which Toad has a dream where he and Frog are in a dark, mysterious theatre and Toad is showing off his monumental skills while Frog sits and watches? As Toad performs his acts (including playing the Piano “very well”) Frog shrinks and Toad swells. At last Frog disappears altogether, and Toad finds himself totally alone. This disaster could have been averted if Frog had been dancing! It’s always so fun to be included! How thrilling it is to feel the Irish folk music in harmony with your body as you move – as you with the band weave together one beautiful plaid; the the old jigs and reel tunes the warp, and the moves, patterns and forms of the Ceili dances the weft! I also love that feeling of fiddling for dancers and not worrying about if they are engaged or not. They are engaged through the dance, and if they don’t want to think about the music for a while they can just dance, and come back when they list. (The dark theatre compels you more to “listen or be bored” than the ballroom.)
Children Dancing at the Crossroads, from the National Gallery of Ireland
Every time I tell opinions like this to my fellow classical musicians, I am not met with understanding smiles and hugs. I do agree with the classical musicians that there is a place for no specific program, no specific picture, no specific story, and no specific dance move, but just to experience the music in its mysterious imprecision.
Actually as I write this I’m becoming confused, because I’m listening to the Sibelius Canzonetta that I linked to, and am being emotionally swept off my feet without thinking of anything specific – without any focus point. Still I think the sadness in the music couldn’t make a rock feel this way. What is it in me that it resonates with? I thinks it’s both resonating with me just as I’m a living soul, and also because of the experiences of my life.
You know how old people are more likely to cry at music than young people? The other night I was singing for Grandma “Steal Away to Jesus” and “There Will Be Peace In The Valley” and she was crying, and I knew it was because one of her oldest living friends is dying. That morning her friend’s daughter had called and put her mother on the line though she could not speak, but just to hear my Grandma say she loved her and that she would pray she would feel better.
But even if you’re not thinking of a particular friend, as you get older you have known more people, and borne more of life’s joys and pains, and so the older person is more likely to cry because, even unconsciously, the music is incidental music to what has taken place in the story of your life.
We all know a song to someone is better than an ode to music itself. We all know this. Music cannot be the primary thing, the thing which our relationship with defines our relationships with everything else. Many people cry because an old song reminds them of an old friend. Who cries because an old friend reminds them of an old song? If music could really take the place of the principal relationship to which all others are secondary, Toad could have borne Frog’s disappearance. He could have just gone on playing the Piano.