Thursday, June 04, 2009

From The Music in the Music of Berlioz

The base for precise reference in music is solid enough — air waves are as material as steel, but they move fast and catching the portion that expresses takes practice. One might have thought that over the years the frequent performance of the standard operas, reviewed by the same newspaper writers, would have established some firm connections between musical effects and the words and situations they accompany. This has not happened. Operatic words tend to be inexpressive and are rarely heard beyond the first two or three by which famous arias are known. Another obstacle is that the relation of words to the sensations of life is far from clear-cut. We call anger quite a number of distinct feelings — there is hot or cold anger, vocal or suppressed, weary from sameness of the cause, touched with surprise or contempt or even with amusement (if the cause is a child's prank).23

23. Need I add that this inadequacy of literal speech is one reason for the existence of the arts? By re-presenting our experience in a variety of ways they enlarge our understanding of life.

— Jacques Barzun, The Music in the Music of Berlioz, in Peter Bloom, ed., Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work, University of Rochester Press, 2008, p. 21.

From earlier in the essay:

The number of situations that music can, if not express in detail, still be plausibly associated with, is quite large [yet] the hearing of any piece impresses so many unique musical details on our mind that it seems to mean only one thing. The English critic Edmund Gurney solved the puzzle with finality when he condemned the prosaic fallacy that the essence of music is vague namable expressiveness, instead of definite unnamable expressiveness.

— Ibid, p. 15