Music and Meaning

Before starting any reviews this month, I must exercise (or is it exorcise?) my ire. The Economist magazine offered a December cover story, "Why Music?" that requires comment. The piece asks, "What exactly is it for?" Given the article’s art work — drawings of half-naked women emanating from the brain of a rock guitarist — I could safely guess before reading that it must be about sex. The author tries to use evolution to answer the question of music’s purpose (attracting mates), thereby indulging in the modernist propensity of understanding the high in terms of the low. How low does it go? In one of the most impoverished pieces of reductionist tripe I have encountered, the author tells us that "singing is auditory masturbation" and that "playing musical instruments is auditory pornography." This is because "both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need."
Of course, all art is beyond strict biological need; its source is spiritual need. Yes, we have souls, too. The attempt to understand music only in terms of evolutionary biology is what leads to such nonsensical statements; they are pornographic. The best rebuttal to this bilge comes from St. Augustine, who said, "Cantare amantis est." "To sing is characteristic of the one who loves," or in Josef Pieper’s translation, "Only the lover sings."
In the March issue of the Gramophone magazine, a panel of three highly literate experts tackles a slightly different take on the question. They ask: can music mean anything? In other words, does music mean anything outside of itself, or are we hermetically closed in with, and by, the notes? What are its expressive possibilities? Since I write about music and am always searching for words to describe what a composer might mean to express, I was keen to read this piece.
Alas, the only stab at describing meaning in music came from a reference to critic Deryck Cooke’s work. David Owen Norris, a music professor and pianist, said, "the serial music of Schoenberg, shall we say, purports to convey a number of quite complicated meanings, but Cooke makes the point that its primary meaning is what extremely chromatic music has always meant, which is to say extreme stress and grief." I agree with that completely.
But guess which word is missing from the panel’s discussion? Transcendence. The panelists are not biological reductionists like their fellow countrymen at the Economist, but they fail to put the question of what music, at its highest, aims to express. As I have said in this column before, the goal of great music — of any great art — is to make the transcendent perceptible.
You need not take this from me. Composers are literate and often tell us why they compose. In the February 21-22 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, American composer Morten Lauridsen explained what he was trying to achieve in his sublime choral work, O Magnum Mysterium. "In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary," he said, "I sought to impart . . . a transforming spiritual experience within what I call ‘a quiet song of profound inner joy.’ I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound." As St. Augustine said, only the lover sings such songs. If you want to hear what St. Augustine meant, you might also listen to Lauridsen’s Ave Maria, one of the most moving love songs to our Lady of our time.
By the way, there is also good news from Fair Albion, and I do not mean only that the dollar has risen substantially against the pound, though that helps with what I am about to tell you. You may recall my frequent mentions of the brilliant British music critic Martin Anderson. Martin grew frustrated by the neglect of "forgotten music by great composers and great music by forgotten composers," as it is stated on the Web site of his Therefore, he began his own Toccata Classics CD label to remedy the situation.
Now, Martin has launched the Discovery Club, which makes indulging in his catalog of fascinating works much more economical. I quote: "Membership of the Discovery Club brings you huge savings on all Toccata Classics recordings and all Toccata Press music books — with the added advantage that you can enjoy the new releases and publications well before they reach the rest of the world. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to rewrite musical history and right some historical wrongs!" The 20 pound membership fee brings you your first two CDs, plus discounts on everything else in the catalog. I have already joined, and I encourage you to visit the site (just click on "Discovery Club" at the top of his page).
Speaking of Cooke’s characterization of serial music, one of the principal American proponents of it died on January 23. George Perle, 93, was a devotee of Schoenberg’s system, about which he wrote a book, Serial Composition and Atonality. Not surprisingly, Perle was one of the knottiest American composers of the 20th century. He was unrepentant till the end. "This so-called revival of tonality," he said, "is a big joke, as far as I’m concerned." I am relieved to say that he did not have the last laugh. How far the reputation of Schoenberg and his system has fallen was indicated in another February Gramophone piece, a book review of Richard Taruskin’s The Danger of Music, from which this acid quote was taken: "And let the kitsch component be recognized as such, especially the pretentious Variations for Orchestra op 31, with its screaming references to the musical cipher B-A-C-H proclaiming Germanic hegemony . . . . Above all let us drop the pretense that the history of Schoenberg’s stylistic evolution represented in nuce that of the whole twentieth century . . . ." Amen to that.
However, the whole of the 20th century has only slowly come into view after the demise of 12-tone hegemony allowed it to. The extent of the damage from the domination of serial music in the mid-20th century keeps popping up in the form of recently revived, heretofore neglected music from that era. Otherwise, how can one account for the fact that Vittorio Giannini’s full-blown, romantic Piano Concerto and his Symphony No. 4 are each receiving only their second performances for the purposes of a new Naxos recording (8.559352)? They were debuted in, respectively, 1937 and 1960. Anyone who loves Rachmaninoff will be swept away by the big-boned, gorgeously melodic Piano Concerto, dashingly played by Gabriela Imreh, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestral, under Daniel Spalding.
Giannini’s Fourth Symphony leaves youthful romanticism aside for music that is more tautly and closely argued, though just as, if not even more, compelling than the piano work. Giannini said that he was motivated by "an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners." He certainly achieved more than "one precious moment" in the second movement, Sostenuto e calmo; it has to be one of the most beautiful, stirring movements in the American symphonic repertoire. How could this possibly be only the second performance of something this wonderful?
Conductor Daniel Spalding gets the British Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to play as if to the American manner born. The first chair players in oboe, clarinet, horn, and violin all deserve huzzahs. Booklet notes are by the finest critic of American music, Walter Simmons. This release is a huge gift, at budget price. Please Naxos, give us the other four Giannini symphonies with these same forces.
I leave you with one last quote: "If you want to be an artist you must realize that you must build and live in an interior world of Beauty and dedication to your art and service to God." No, it is not St. Augustine; it is Giannini, who understood why we sing.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at [email protected].


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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