How do non-musicians hear music? Second movement

Arnold Schoenberg by Florence Homolka

Arnold Schoenberg by Florence Homolka

In his 1939 essay Eartraining through Composition, the composer Arnold Schönberg raps me firmly on the knuckles for the unconventional description of the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that I gave earlier:

“…one cannot do justice to a work of art while allowing one’s imagination to wander to other subjects, related or not. In the face of works of art one must not dream, but one must try hard to grasp the meaning.”

He also takes me to task for my statement about there being too much talk and writing about music which delves into technical terms:

“How can one enjoy a game without understanding its fine points, without knowing when the ball is sliced or curved, without an idea of strategy or tactics?”

Does this apply equally to music? Clearly Schönberg thought so. Perhaps this should be the goal in teaching the listener to appreciate music fully; but the first steps are surely to be found elsewhere.

What is it that people find most likeable about a piece? With songs and other vocal works, it is often the words themselves. I notice that most people who refer to the songs of Bob Dylan are really more taken by the lyrics than the music. Clearly this is the message of his works, and the music is merely the medium that conveys it — just as the chanting of a priest enables the words to carry better in the acoustics of the church. But if there are no words, something else must engage the listener — but what?

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Felix Mendelssohn

One possibility is to attach moods to music. Marc-André Souchay did this, and wrote to the composer Felix Mendelssohn about the latter’s Songs without Words:

“Admittedly, with my unreal ideas, I am often laughed at, even by people whom I recognise and must revere as competent musicians, for instance, by my current teacher … who will hear of no other thought than of bare notes. But it cannot be; I cannot imagine that no thought should lie behind these magnificent paintings…”

(“Oft freilich werde ich ausgelacht mit meinen phantastischen Ideen, selbst von Leuten, die ich als tüchtige Musiker anerkennen und ehren muß, z.B. von meinem jetzigen Lehrer … der von gar keinen Gedanken, sondern nur von Bloßen Tönen wissen will. — Aber es kann nicht sein; ich kann es mir nicht vorstellen, das diesen herrlichen Gemälden kein Gedanke zu Grunde liegen sollte…”)

Souchay goes on to suggest some meanings: Resignation (op. 19b no.1), Melancholy (op. 19b no.2), Contentment (op. 38 no.3), and even “Boundless but unrequited love, which therefore often turns into longing, pain, rage, and despair, but always becomes peaceful once again” for op. 38 no.1.

(If you have javaScript on your computer, you can listen to some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words here.)

Mendelssohn gave no descriptive titles to any of these pieces, and wrote back — kindly but frankly — to Souchay, rejecting the descriptions:

“There is so much spoken about music, and yet so little is said. I believe the words do not convey anything about it, and if I were to find that they did, then in the end I would write no more music.”

(“Es wird so viel über Musik gesprochen, und so wenig gesagt – ich glaube, die Worte überhaupt reichen nicht hin dazu, und fände ich, daß sie hinreichten, so würde ich am Ende keine Musik mehr machen.” — Letter from Mendelssohn to Marc-André Souchay, 15 October 1842.)

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood (Kinderszenen, op. 15) are better candidates for the Souchay treatment. The composer gave descriptive titles that really aid the imagination:

1. Of Foreign Lands And Peoples (Von fremden Ländern und Menschen)
2. A Curious Story (Kuriose Geschichte)
3. Blind Man’s Buff (Hasche-Mann)
4. Pleading Child (Bittendes Kind)
5. Happiness (Glückes genug)
6. An Important Event (Wichtige Begebenheit)
7. Dreaming (Träumerei)
8. At The Fireside (Am Kamin)
9. Knight Of The Hobbyhorse (Ritter vom Steckenpferd)
10. Almost Too Serious (Fast zu ernst)
11. Frightening (Fürchtenmachen)
12. Child Falling Asleep (Kind im Einschlummern)
13. The Poet Speaks (Der Dichter spricht)

No. 7 — Dreaming (Träumerei) — is a good example:

Schumann here neatly disposes with Schönberg’s argument quoted above (“…one cannot do justice to a work of art while allowing one’s imagination to wander to other subjects, related or not. In the face of works of art one must not dream, but one must try hard to grasp the meaning…”).

Perhaps there is more to this than meets the ear!

Third movement…

Images, quotations and recorded extracts are included here as “fair use”, for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only.

© David Pickett and davidpickett, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pickett and davidpickett with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for this post. I knew Mendelssohn’s letter to Souchay (it’s included in “The Musician’s World: Letters of the Great Composers,” ed. Hans Gal; Thames and Hudson, 1965), but I didn’t know what it was in response to.
    By the way, you may be interested in a letter Schumann wrote to someone named H. Dorn, in 1839:
    “But I have seldom come across anything more clunsy and shortsighted than what Rellstab wrote about my “Scenes from Childhood.” He supposes I took some screaming child as my model and then tried to find the right notes. It was the other way round. Though I do not deny that I saw a few children’s faces in my mind’s eye while I was composing; but the titles were added later, of course, and are really no more than slight pointers to the way of interpreting and playing the pieces…”

    Kind regards,
    Miles Hoffman

  2. Thanks for this, Miles. Composers often like to cover their tracks, as for instance Mahler who denied the personal programmes associated by him at one time with his music. But I do not see any conflict here. It is as if one would claim that a composer is a genius simply because he “discovers” at a late point in his piece that all four themes go together in counterpoint. The reality is that they were written from the beginning to do just that. We are contemplating here the “art that conceals art”, and how a composer arrives at his final result, while interesting, is irrelevant to that final result.


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