13. Serioso

The Meaning of Music

What are composers trying to say to us? One tradition of music analysis insists on finding a narrative among the notes. It argues that, in his symphonic structures, Beethoven was presenting philosophical ideas. Needless to say, there is often no agreement about what these ideas are: Wagner and Berlioz read quite different interpretations into his Third Symphony, while one notorious interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth as a rapist’s fantasy is an extreme example of the kind of fanciful and dogmatic meaning that might be imposed on the music. Beethoven himself may have had a clearer view of what music can mean: when asked to explain his Third Symphony, he allegedly just sat down at the piano and started to play it. That’s certainly the position attributed to Gustav Mahler, who is said to have claimed that “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.” For Felix Mendelssohn, the meaning in music was much more precise than it is in words—but that is precisely why it is pointless trying to articulate it with language.

Of course, music can carry meaning in a coded way, where a culture decides that certain sequences or combinations of notes have specific implications. But that’s simply a question of convention, opaque to an outsider. Whether music can tell stories or convey ideas that will be apparent to any listener is far from obvious. Perhaps we’re simply encouraged to think that it can because of the superficial similarities between music and language. Even if it were possible, there’s every reason to think that these narratives will be so banal, lacking any characters or setting or plot details, that our appreciation of the music won’t be enhanced one bit by knowing about them. Any answer to the question of what a piece of music means is probably always going to be less informative and interesting than the fact that we ask the question in the first place.


Podcast 13

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