Unrequited Italics

Italics mine.

Some people will tell you that music, especially orchestral music, is an objective thing: It doesn't exist beyond the notes, which simply are to be played as the composer instructed.

Everything else [according to “some people”] - the emotions, the supposed story line of a given piece - is
your own projection onto the music.

Well, yes. Unless the writing is on the wall, it’s your interpretation, your projection. It’s difficult to work your way around it. Structural signposts or other cultural tropes may contain associations, but, then again, linking those associations is, in my opinion, hard to do, let alone justifying a correct interpretation of concrete meanings, intents, purposes, narratives. Therefore, without help, you’re doomed to project yourself onto the music.

Besides, that’s silly. It’s also about context. “Music” is a pretty broad topic. I’d like to know who said that so I can show “some people” how that statement doesn’t really say anything, especially in a vacuum. I mean it can be true and, on the other hand, it can be false depending on the context in which it is said. So, I’ll leave it to Richard Scheinin to provide us with some context.

Well, if you actually believed that while going into Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, you probably would have abandoned the theory by the time you left. Because soloist Yefim Bronfman's soul-stirring account of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was one in which he stepped into the shoes of the composer, young Brahms, grappling with his impossible love for a woman, and played that role for about 50 monumental minutes, an actor on the stage, with the San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, as his consoling Greek chorus. [*]

At least that's how
I heard it. [Italics still mine]

I just hope that the whole beginning was an attempt at humor. Otherwise, I’d have to stop laughing and strap on my Empiricus Hard-helmet™.

If we’re going to contradict ourselves by acknowledging that the performance was, at best, your interpretation (“that’s how I heard it”), you might as well give up and call it a day, go outside, sit down in the hot sun, and think, nay meditate, about your transgression of logic. Be sure to wear some sun screen and drink plenty of fluids. If, however, you can manage to better articulate your argument and show us why your interpretation was justified (by “justified” I mean: not your projection onto the music), please, go ahead. Bets, anyone?

In those years, Brahms drew close to Robert Schumann, the composer, and his wife Clara Schumann, the pianist and composer, adopting them as mentors and surrogate parents, but also wildly falling for Clara, 15 years his senior, fighting his passions for her (as she did for him), even while grieving for Robert, who descended through madness and institutionalization to his death.

That's the story line, [...]

(securely fastens the strap on the Empiricus Hard-helmet™)

Oh boy. That is not the “story line” of Brahms’ piano concerto. There’s no way. What proof is there? Am I crazy?

Just to show that I’m not entirely off my rocker, I will acknowledge a few things. There is some truth to the story. Brahms probably loved Clara; though no one knows whether or not the relationship was ever physically consummated. Also, the slow, middle movement of the concerto may even be a musical portrait of Clara (where I found this tidbit of information is now lost; and Wikipedia is no help nor is it exactly reliable).

So there may be an element of truth to Richard’s impressions. However, to quote a famous thinker:

I think it clearly indicates the composer's deep seed estrangement from [his] 1st cousin (once removed) on [his] mother's (older) sister's side, most-likely over a dispute during a game of pinochle in which [Brahms] originally claimed a trick with [his] Trump Marriage, but then decided to replay [his] cards as part of a double run. Calamity ensued. Anybody who knows anything about music would know that...it's made perfectly clear in the manner in which the crotales double the clarinet obligato (which can only occur after the presentation of invertible counterpoint in the upper strings, otherwise it would suggest the game of Chutes and Ladders) and resolve using a Landini cadence in augmentation while foreshadowing a crab canon. And the high B in the piccolo...how could you hear anything but [Brahms’] cousin telling [him] that her mother makes terrible oatmeal raisin cookies and the whole family has been lying to protect her feelings. I think it's pretty easy to make that out. -Gustav

Unless there is proof, i.e., if Brahms had, in Mahlerian fashion, scribbled clues in the margins of the score (or the title), written program notes, letters, email or text-messaged the story to us, informing us that the concerto’s “story line” was, in fact, definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, concrete—unless there is that kind of proof, the sounds that reach your ear, from the performers’ instruments, played by performers with brains, led by black dots on a page and a conductor to help keep everyone together, written by a composer who was, “experimenting and feeling [his] way,” then those sounds must be, must be interpreted by the listener.

Do you now see how it’s your fanciful story projecting itself onto the music? Yes? Good.

Also, this is why we often butt heads with critics. When they say things that are only vaguely true, or simply false, we can’t help but think of the poor layman reading this stuff, what effect it might have on their musical perceptions, their tastes, their knowledge. And, as a composer, I worry a lot about having to explain my work to the audience in these terms, terms that may not apply or dumb down the conversation. “Uh...the narrative of my piece is...uh, butterflies.” I mean, the audience is intelligent, but the information they receive is often...well, backwards, at best.

And this is why we exist, to repeat myself for the billion-googleth time, to help close the gaps in our dialog.

Speaking of dialog, here’s a delicious writing assignment: Yummy Fun!

And the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

*Winner of the coveted “Most prepositional phrases in a sentence fragment” prize.


Sator Arepo said...

Worst. Writing. Assignment. Ever.

Gustav said...

I am amused.