Picture Goethe’s Gretchen, seduced and abandoned by Faust, dolefully alone at her spinning wheel. Her foot automatically operates the treadle that keeps the wheel spinning, but her mind is adrift amid painful memories. “My peace is gone,” she laments, “my heart is heavy.” Here is how Franz Schubert, all of 17 years old, pictured her when he set Goethe’s text to music.
This is already quite extraordinary musical scene-painting. The restless accompaniment, with its obsessive, unbroken rhythm, evokes the spinning wheel, and the plangent melody, Gretchen’s broken heart. But now listen to the masterstroke that proclaims Schubert’s genius, at the moment Gretchen recalls “the pressure of his hands, and ah, his kiss.” This first specifically sexual memory has an overwhelming effect on her. Pay attention to the piano accompaniment on the word “kiss” (“Kuss” in the German).
The wheel stops spinning. Lost in reverie, Gretchen has let her foot leave the treadle. And then, after a pause, the wheel stutters into motion again, haltingly at first as she forces herself out of her lassitude, and then back to full speed. It’s a dazzling moment, psychologically and dramatically astute, of surpassing subtlety, absolutely true to the meaning of the text while unsupported by anything to be found there. It transforms a beautiful song into something more, something that can literally make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
I’ve spent most of my music-listening life resisting this sort of narrative interpretation of music. Perhaps as a reaction to the simple-minded way music appreciation is often taught in schools, by way of explanatory stories that vulgarly distort the listening experience. But I’ve resisted it also, I think, out of respect for the way composers think. Musical ideas exist as music, and their manipulation occurs within a self-contained system. They are not, generally, a coded way of conveying other kinds of information. At a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Toscanini is reputed to have told the orchestral players, “Some people say it is Napoleon, some say it is a philosophical struggle. To me, it is Allegro con brio.”
But there are exceptions. Sometimes a composer does have a non-musical point in mind (in text-based vocal music, virtually always), and sometimes he finds musical means to convey that point. When they’re conceived and executed with sufficient ingenuity, the musical and non-musical meanings work together in a truly magical synergy. To ignore the non-musical aspect of these moments is to miss a large part of the point and a large part of the delight they offer.
Take the following very familiar example, from Mendelssohn’s overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (also the work of a 17-year-old, quite an astonishing coincidence; what did German adolescents eat for breakfast in those days?). After a few sustained, enchanted introductory chords, the music begins an agitated, gossamer-light scurrying, intended to suggest the quarreling fairies. But a few minutes later, it turns earthier, more rustic, and then we hear this. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’d listened to this music before I recognized Bottom’s braying heehaw. Once I noticed it, though, there was no un-noticing it. If you doubt me, play the link a second time.
Schumann makes a rather more abstract point—a political point, in fact—in his piano piece “Faschingsschwank aus Wien.” In 1839, when he composed the music, performance of “La Marseillaise” was illegal in Vienna, Austria. The authorities considered this revolutionary anthem dangerously seditious. Schumann, politically liberal, registered his protest this way, confident that those in charge of the state’s enforcement power would be too thick-headed to notice. He was right.
Mahler’s Third Symphony is a massive composition whose seven movements seek to portray the entirety of creation, beginning with insensate rocks and ending with God. (I know, I know, it sounds nuts, but it’s a masterpiece, so get over it.) The third movement, a pastoral affair, is meant to evoke animals in the forest. Here’s how they sound when they’re undisturbed in their natural habitat. Midway through the movement, a foreign element is introduced, humanity, symbolized by a haunting, wistful post-horn solo. After the solo fades away, the animals emerge out of hiding. But listen to what they sound like. A miraculous effect, achieved through melodic fragmentation and canny changes in the orchestration. Their forest sanctuary has been violated by an alien presence. They’re now anxious, threatened, spooked, and the music tells us so.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion” is a purely instrumental piece but was inspired by Plato’s dialogue The Symposium. Its separate movements are meant to correspond to the contributions of various participants in the dialogue. In Plato’s work, Socrates offers a long, uncharacteristically lyrical account of various aspects of love but is suddenly interrupted by the raucous appearance of Alcibiades, drunk, disorderly, and full of unruly high spirits. Listen here to the end of Socrates’ speech and the disruptive arrival of Alcibiades, the whole scene portrayed in tones alone.
And finally, consider this glorious example from Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne for Tenor, Seven Obligato Instruments, and Strings.” The song cycle, a setting of eight separate texts on nocturnal subjects, is meant to be understood as a series of dreams occurring in the course of one long troubled night. It begins with the following music, a gently rocking susurration evoking the heavy breathing of slumber. Pay special attention to the way the music is voiced—to the general sound—as well as its specific harmonic language. This music recurs, in slightly different guises, between all the songs in the cycle. Here’s another example, just to give some idea of the range. The penultimate song in the set is John Keats’ “Sleep and Poetry,” and it begins as a series of questions: What is more gentle than this, what is more soothing than that, more tranquil, more healthful, more secret, more serene, etc.? The music accompanying the words is, appropriately enough, gentle, soothing, tranquil, serene. But then, after repeatedly asking, “What but thee?” (Keats asks the question only once), Britten announces the answer: “Sleep.” Now listen to the chord accompanying that crucial word, “sleep.” Ring any bells?
“Music,” Stravinsky once insisted, in a much-quoted ukase, “can express nothing but itself.” But as he himself later conceded, this was a considerable overstatement. A Mozart piano concerto, a Beethoven quartet—these need tell us nothing beyond their own notes, they are sufficient unto themselves. But there is other music, including other music by Mozart, by Beethoven, and yes, by Stravinsky too, that deliberately carries extra-musical meanings in its wake. And it would be as mistaken to deny such effects when they occur as to insist on them when they’re absent. Noticing them, after all, is part of the fun.