“Truth” and Other Nonsense in Musical Analysis—2 (Music)

ART TIMES June 2009

Picking up from where we left off last issue, let us consider a recent Telarc release of Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 5.” Here Benjamin Zander conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a good reading of the work on the first CD and presents an 80-minute discussion on the second.

His analysis falls into two approaches. When he is discussing modulation and the sonata format in general, it is just fine. When he is describing what Bruckner does with his key-changes and orchestrations, so much the better. After all, how many listeners are sufficiently trained to catch these fine points by themselves? When he is talking about Bruckner’s life and character traits, it makes a good break from the technical points and does explain to a degree, a small degree, what might have (not DID, but MIGHT HAVE) been in the composer’s mind when he was creating this symphony.

However, please recall how I put Gershwin’s “Second Prelude” into a seedy hotel room and waxed poetic on that basis. In this discussion, Zander not only places the work in a Catholic church, but there is a diagram included in the jewel case to show exactly how Bruckner envisioned his work architecturally!

The first movement (we are told) takes place in the nave, the second in the north transept, the third in the south transept, and the finale in the chancel and around the altar. Towards the end, in discussing the final movement, Zander slips in the fact that there is no libretto provided by the composer along with the work. Well, that was news to me, after all of the layers of meaning that Zander had piled up before this point on the disc.

And it was around this time that the narrator sums up the “meaning” of the work as a whole. He interprets part of the opening movement as a question in search of an answer. In Zander’s mind, the finale provides that answer when it finally settles on the tonal base of the entire symphony, B-flat major.

Now before I proceed, let me draw an analogy. The so-called Da Vinci Code, made famous by the novel of the same name, seems to go like this. In the painting of “The Last Supper,” the figure to the right of Christ seems to be a woman. Therefore it is a woman. She might be Mary Magdalene. Therefore she is Mary Magdalene. By some quantum leap, the two might be married. Therefore they are married. Therefore they had children. Therefore the Holy Grail (San Grail) is really Royal Blood (Sang Real)…and no one stops to think that Da Vinci never painted the Last Supper from life and he could make any of the characters in it look like kangaroos (as in a Monty Python sketch) had he chosen to do so.

Back to Zander. Given a fairly shaky “might,” he switches gears into “is” and he is off to the races. There is a famous spoof of literary analysis in which “Thirty days hath September” is treated like an Elizabethan tragedy, with every cliché so beloved of English majors trying to sound scholarly. I am not mocking Zander—or Rattle (see last issue)—but trying to bring some sense into the analysis of music.

Now for some rebuttal to my own arguments (before 87 readers send in e-mails). What about tone poems? They offer a case for having an extra-musical meaning to a musical piece. Sure, I know that Liszt’s “Les Preludes” is based on a poem and I have a copy of the text someplace in my files. But had I not known this fact, I certainly could not have read any “message” into the music as it stands.

Berlioz was very careful to write descriptive titles and short scenarios for each of the movements in his “Symphonie Fantastique.” Hearing this work, some listeners unaware of these titles might still read into “The March to the Scaffold” something not far from an execution and possibly into the “Witches’ Sabbath” something not unlike a Walpurgis Night orgy.  And how many critics have pointed out that anyone hearing Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” even knowing what the title means, could be excused for not having a clue how the music conjures up the tangled philosophy of Nietzsche.

No, even tone poems can have whatever meanings an auditor chooses to read into them.

Can we then conclude that non-vocal music has no meaning, expresses no truth, whatsoever? I would love to hear from some of my readers who will express their feelings about this question, and perhaps that will provide meat for a third part to this essay. Please contact me directly at fbehrens@ne.rr.com—and accept my thanks in advance.