Writing About Music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

- Martin Mull, actor and comedian

Why do we write about music? No description, no matter how detailed, can substitute for the experience of hearing the music. Yet for centuries people have been writing about music (as well as many other arts). In some cases, these words about music can increase our understanding of the audible experience, and thus deepen our connection with the work or its performers. This is the category of writing that successful program notes fall into. Reading about the piece will not compensate for listening to the piece, but it may be an important part of our experience with the music.

Music criticism emerged in the early 18th century during the Enlightenment's encyclopedic concern with categorization and description. Writers about music contributed everything from reviews to discussions of style and aesthetic preferences in newspapers and scholarly publications. But it was in the 19th century that music journalism really took off. Not only was the musically literate public growing, aided by an increased amount of published music and public concerts, but new perspectives of art and art's purpose had also arisen. One of the most important figures at that time was Robert Schumann (1810-1856), himself a composer. He founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (or New Journal of Music) in 1834 in Germany. It gained a wide readership and was responsible for promoting such unknown composers as Johannes Brahms and Fryderyk Chopin. Schumann's opinions and criticism as published in the journal had an influence on not only the musical audience, but also contemporary composers. That is to say, writing about music influenced not only the way people heard that music, but also the way composers created new music.

The following is an excerpt from an article Schumann wrote about Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique when it was new. The full article is one of Schumann's longer ones, and includes many kinds of musical writing. He attempts to clarify for Berlioz's audiences the nature of the piece, and grapples with its unique form in relation to Berlioz's stated program. In addition to lengthy sections on the technical aspects of form and harmony in the piece, Schumann attempts to situate the work in its historical context by comparing it to certain works of Beethoven. Schumann deals with larger debates of his time (whether stated programs help or hinder the listener) as well as giving his judgment of the composer's talents (gifted in orchestration). Look for this range of involvement with the music as you read.

…It is true that the oft-repeated principle melody of the whole symphony has something flat about it. Berlioz praises it rather too much, when, in the program, he attributes to it "a somewhat impassioned character, but noble yet timid." However, we must remember that he did not intend to embody a great thought here, but rather a haunting persistent idea, such as one finds it hard to get rid of through an entire day. Uniformity, insanity, could hardly have been better sketched. In the review I have mentioned, we are told that the principal melody of the second part is common and trivial; but there Berlioz leads us into a dancing-hall (as Beethoven does in the last movement of the A-major symphony), nothing more and nothing less. It is just so with the first melody of the third part, which Fétis, if I remember rightly, styles gloomy and tasteless. But wander among the Alpine shepherd paths, and listen to the Alpine horns and reed pipes; this is a reproduction of such effects. Equally natural and original are all the melodies of the symphony. In some episodes they leave what is merely characteristic behind them, and attain a lofty, universal beauty. What can be said against the melody with which the symphony begins? Never exceeding – by more that one degree – the limits of an octave, it is unrivalled for melancholy. And if that painful melody of the oboe in one of the preceding examples, springs a little too much, shall we point to everything with the finger? If I were to reproach Berlioz, it would be for his neglected middle parts; but they meet with a peculiar obstacle, such as we seldom remark in any other composer. His melodies are distinguished by such intensity of almost every tone, that, like some old folk-songs, they will scarcely bear a harmonic accompaniment, and even seem to lose in fullness of tone when accompanied. On this account, Berlioz generally harmonizes them with a sustained ground bass, or with the chords of the surrounding upper and lower fifths… his melodies are not to be listened to with the ears alone, else they will pass by misunderstood by those who do not know how to sing them in their hearts; but for those who do, they possess a meaning that seems to grow deeper the more often they are heard.

We will leave it undecided as to whether there are many poetic moments in the program of Berlioz's symphony. The principal question is, does the unexplained and unaccompanied music contain any meaning in itself, and, above all, does a spirit of its own inhabit it? As to the first, I think I have already said something; the second no one can deny, even where Berlioz openly fails. And if we would combat the spirit of the day, which tolerates a burlesque "Dies Irae," we should only repeat what has been said and written for years against Crabbe, Heine, Byron, Hugo, and others. For a few moments in an eternity, Poesy has put on the mask of irony to cover her grief-worn face. Perhaps the friendly hand of Genius may also loosen it.

There is yet much of good and ill to say; but here, for today, I must break off. Could I hope that these lines would have the effect of inducing Berlioz to refrain his inclination towards eccentricity, - should they aid in obtaining complete recognition for his symphony, not as the masterpiece of a master, but as a work distinguished by its originality from all that stands beside it, - should they inspire German artists (to whom Berlioz stretches out the hand of brotherhood – a strong hand, ready to fight with them against dull, pedantic mediocrity) to new production, then the aim of their publication will have been fully attained.

Nearly a century later, composer Virgil Thomson continued this tradition of the composer-journalist. In his post with the New York Herald Tribune, Thomson had the opportunity to contribute writings that ranged from brief reviews of the previous evening's concert to lengthy discussions of new composers or current trends in the concert hall. Listen to the following piece by Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) before reading Thomson's short article on the composer, written in 1966. Notice what effect his writing has on your opinion or experience of the music.

Edgard Varèse was born in 1883, not 1885, as had been believed till the time of his death. He was part Franco-Italian and part Burgundian, part engineer and part musician (a pupil of the Ecole Polytechnique as well as of both the Schola Cantorum and the Paris Conservatoire), a conductor both of modern orchestral repertory and of Renaissance choral music, a friend of Debussy and of Busoni, and a composer the most modern of them all. A broadly-based European (ten years resident in Italy, fifteen in France, seven in Berlin, those last brilliant years before World War I), he took to America so completely in his thirty-third year that all his preserved music is American work.

Debussy's assumption that chords do not move, Busoni's advice that there was more future outside of classical harmony than within the thorough-bass convention, and America's freedom of artistic expansion (unique in 1916) made him the leader of our musical advance – and indeed of the world advance – a position which he held unchallenged during the time of his major production as a composer, or about fifteen years. During five of his last twelve years, beginning at seventy, he composed again, this time with electronic materials. And again he was the farthest out among the far-outs, partly because he had a first-class ear for sound and partly because he had long since by-passed, way back in his Berlin days, the attempt to make non-tonal music out of only tonal instruments and materials, an effort that later came to represent for him a doctrinaire, or establishment-type, modernism.

Varèse's own music, for all its awareness of acoustical theory and of sound-source technology, remains highly resistant to analysis. This fact represents no small achievement, as indeed it does also in the case of Europe's older masters from Mozart through Debussy. For the explainable loses interest. And Varèse's music, over a nigh on to fifty-year period, has not lost its interest. It is still exciting, sometimes shocking, often vastly beautiful as sound, and always the work of genius – in other words, of imagination and brains. Aspects of it are surely arcane, the result of unstated but systematic calculations; others are just as certainly irrational, spontaneous, and inspired; and the whole of it has long seemed to me, by exactly these qualities plus that of never showing fatigue, great music.

Melody, harmony, and form, in the classical sense, it seems to have shaken off completely in spite of its author's classical education. From Amériques of 1919 to the Poème électronique of 1957 he worked with timbre along with kinds of sound, chunks of it, organized these into a polyphony comparable perhaps to the intersecting polyhedrons that are the shapes of modern architecture. Nevertheless, these pieces are not static like a building, nor even like the music of Debussy; they move forward, aerodynamic, airborne. What moves them forward? Rhythms, I think, rhythms counterpointed to create tension and release energy. There are also in the timbre contrasts and loudness patterns designed for producing anxiety and relief, just as there are in tonal music. And these designs create psychological form, though the music is not overtly planned for drama.

It seems to hang together not from themes and their restatements but from tiny cells or motives which agglomerate like crystals. As Varèse himself described this phenomenon, "In spite of their limited variety of internal structure, the external forms of crystals are almost limitless." To have produced with so cool a concept of artistic creation music of such warm sonorous interest and such urgent continuity makes of Varèse, and I think there is no way round this, the most original composer of the last half century and one of the most powerfully communicative.

These examples illustrate music writing that ranges from the descriptive, through the educational, to the opinionated. They grapple with the music itself, and also with philosophical arguments more tangential to the music. But perhaps the oldest form of writing about music, and one that we are still familiar with, is music reviews. Journal entries dating back to the Renaissance describe wonderful new musicians in the king's court, or the latest composition of Mr. Bach. Not all of these had a wide readership, of course, but they show that our engagement with music through words has in some respects remained the same for hundreds of years. These websites provide examples of our modern style of review; take a look at a few.

This form of musical writing seems to have remained relatively constant. Most reviews mention the quality of the performance, describe how the music sounds, and give the author's opinion. Today, reviews are principally meant to function as marketing tools, with magazines and websites informing the consumer about this performer or that new album in largely positive ways. But they may also aid our understanding of the auditory product. Think about your experience with reviews, and whether this is a kind of writing that is useful to your musical experience, or simply superfluous. The following is a funny example of the marketing ploy gone wrong…

Writers about music have had a long role as taste-makers, whether in the formal sense of criticism and program notes, or the more casual opinions of many reviews. Critics from Boston and New York in the early 20th century were so opposed in their opinions of repertory and style of performance that a single piece played by the same orchestra in both cities often received wildly different reviews. These critics formed a relationship with their audiences that few music writers have today. The wealth of information available to us means that there are more voices to contribute their opinions, and always someone to disagree.

In our information age, the question has become even more pertinent; what good is writing about music? There is a famous anecdote about a composer who is asked upon finishing the first performance of a new piece what it means. He promptly sat down at the piano and played it again. This story nicely illustrates the idea that we cannot say or write anything about the music that can take the place of actually hearing the music itself. The meaning of the music is the music. It is rather like writing about a building; the description of size, color, style, number of windows, etc., may tell a person a good deal about the building. But such a description will not shelter anyone from rain or provide a place to walk through. The description is merely words and the building is the building.

Nonetheless, we continue to write about music. The writing sometimes helps us gain a deeper appreciation for the art, and sometimes helps us digest the experience once we've had it. However incomplete, the words still come. Keep this in mind as you write your concert reviews and listening guides. Having to put down in words elements of form and harmony may help you hear them better when you listen. Having to describe a piece aside from the auditory experience may make you listen more attentively to begin with. But ultimately, our words are only aids to a fundamentally aural experience.