115-year-old news

I read this 115-year-old article over a year ago, which makes this very old news; but there’s a passage in it I want to talk about.  Here’s the citation:

“Brahms.”  Ernest Walker.  Proceedings of the Musical Association , 25th Sess., (1898 – 1899), pp. 115-138.  Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Royal Musical Association.  Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/765156

And here’s the passage:

“Herr Weingartner, though he very justly acknowledges that music cannot portray external events, but only moods… yet speaks of all great music betraying the mental influence which affected the composer when he wrote it.  I really do not know what this means.  If it means that works in the minor key have been written when the composer was in a sad mood, and vice versa, that may be true in some cases, but it is demonstrably untrue in others.  If he means that no great music was ever written without something that we call inspiration—some impulse of some kind—that is obviously the case; but if he means that this impulse can always been definitely formulated by us in universally intelligible language, or indeed in language of any kind, I can only deny the statement point blank…” (122)

Italics original.

Anyway.  I suspect Walker doesn’t get it because his interpretation of Weingartner’s statement is too literal, too superficial.

I think Weingartner meant that art, in its highest form, is a manifestation of the self, an immediate and raw communication of truth.  The “mental influence” is not a surface level emotion, but a deeper, more Jungian level of feeling.  A composer may not consciously choose to communicate everything that ends up in the score–the way the truth leaks out of the fidgety hands and feet, and the overly blank eyes of a liar.  Not that a composer tries to conceal anything, but there can be more in music than he intended.  And that’a  good thing.

One of my conducting teachers, Peter Bagley, once told me a story of an analysis class where Julius Herford was analysing a piece by Paul Hindemith with Hindemith in the room.  Herford made a point about something and Hindemith said, “that’s not what I meant,” to which Herford replied, “but it’s in the score.”  The next time Hindemith talked about Herford, he described him as “the man who knows more about my music than I do.”

The betrayal of the mental influence is not in the language of the music, not in some formula we can translate word for word, but in the connection between the composer’s  intention and the performer’s intuition.  It’s not objective.  It may not even be real.  The experience of being alive in the world is subjective, and that’s the experience of art; the recognition of truth.  Whether the composer meant it or not.

I wish I could explain this better.  But when I read this, I thought, “I agree with Herr Weingartner.”

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