The meaning of music?


“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

This seems to be a quite expressive indication of the meaning of music…. which is not in the notes, but hints at the background against which they obtain their meaning. And this background is not meant to be the cultural framework of music – although that also plays a role in the formation of meaning, but on a more concrete, stylistic and technical level – but something of a psychic, transcendent nature.

Wittgenstein’s formulation explains, to some extent, why the performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at the fall of the Berlin wall under Bernstein (with one slight modification of the text, substituting ‘Freiheit’ in the hymn for ‘Freude’) was an appropriate gesture, confirming the importance of classical music as a genre, and so much more powerful than any speech by any politician at the time could possibly convey. But the background against which this performance obtained meaning, was still a rather realistic one, a real, concrete event; Wittgenstein hinted at something more mystical, at a possible reality ‘behind’ reality, across a boundary where language and the type of consciousness created by it, no longer are appropriate instruments of understanding.

In 1977, the musicologist Maynard Solomon wrote: “If we lose awareness of the transcendent realm of performance, beauty, and brotherhood afforded us by the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the ‘dream’ of the Ninth Symphony, we will have nothing left to set against Auschwitz and the Vietnam War as a paradigm of human potentialities.’ Here, we come closer to the realm as hinted at by the Viennese philosopher. But are human potentialities, as symbolized by the great affirmative works of our culture, not more than a reaching-out into the ineffable? And how easy to abuse the works’ resonances in the human soul.

And then, what exactly are these ‘great affirmative works of our culture’? How to draw-up a list of them? Would such list include Titian’s Danae, where she is paid cash for her physical services to Jupiter? Or Goya’s The Shootings of May Third 1808 ? Or the bloody dramas by Sophocles, or Mahler’s pulverizing ninth symphony? In which way would they be ‘greatly affirmative’?

“The important thing is not in the notes”, Mahler is quoted saying, and: “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Awareness of the transcendent nature of music quickly eroded after 1918, when Stravinsky said that music is not capable of expressing anything at all – though he modified this notorious saying a bit later-on in life, realizing that very much of his music was, in fact, and underneath a quasi-hard surface, quite expressive and communicative. What is the ultimate test? There is the story of a concentration camp inmate who, while tolling during a summer night at some absurd physical task, designed to torture him, suddenly heard a recording of a Brandenburg Concerto being played, through the open window of one of the staff quarters. And suddenly he got the very distinct inner experience that life was meaningful, that creation was there with a purpose, and that his own misery was merely an evanescent horror he, unfortunately, had to endure. In his condition of despair, a transcendent reality was opening-up to him, a reality from which the record owner was excluded for life – otherwise he would not be there – but for which he inadvertently acted as an instrument, and which gave the victim the strength to endure the absurdity of his torture.

It is in this vague and inexpressible territory that, in the 19th century, the idea was born that when religion was losing its spiritual content and seemed to gradually petrify into empty convention, it was music that could save the essence of religion, doing away with ritual, theology and ordained organisation. With music, religion has in common the notion that meaning is not literally in the gestures of symbolic ritual, but in the background against which they obtain meaning, a background insufficiently and sometimes clumsily ‘explained’ by theology and the ‘holy books’, having to rely on language and concrete imagery. This explains the mystery that the literal materials of, say, even the best works of Mozart, are quite simple and rather trivial. But they acquire their expressive meaning through their superb artistic treatment and taste, and the context of the whole work which gives the fragments their eloquence. (The ability to create such contexts is, again, a mysterious matter and as ineffible as any religious experience because it cannot be codified.) That is why the human condition is related to (art-) music, because, just like a musical work, it cannot be codified, fixed in its meaning, and cannot be fully understood on the basis of its material presence and appearances. Music is not material at all, but uses ‘material’, physical sounds, to bring us closer to the background against which our life obtains its meaning.


© John Borstlap / 2014

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