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"Truth" & Other Nonsense in Musical Analysis - 1

ART TIMES May 2009

TO ME THIS iis what George Gershwin’s “Second Prelude” is all about. A lonely man is sitting despondent in a seedy hotel room. Outside the window, the marquee is blinking in rhythm to the bass notes, while the slightly less regular patter of light rain hits the panes. This reflects the deep feeling of isolation that Gershwin felt at the time he composed this short masterpiece. But more than that, it reflects the loneliness of modern man in general and therefore expresses a profound truth.

And if you buy that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you cheap!

The key words in that “analysis” are the first two: “To me.” I have brought to my writing all the baggage of my past life. I am seldom in a hotel room—more motels than hotels on my budget—and I never really enjoy being in one. Nothing in it is mine; it is impersonal. Usually, I am with my wife, but in the past I have spent some time alone in such rooms and feeling lonely is easy to do unless one has the resources (and personality) to find some congenial company.

So it should not be surprising that the opening notes in the bass of the “Second Prelude” (which are a homage to Chopin, by the way) should conjure up those particular images. Couple that with what I know about Gershwin being a city person, never married, loving to play in front of large crowds, but renting hotel rooms--while a party was still in progress in his brother Ira’s apartments--in order to concentrate on his work—and we have a believable scenario for the piece.

Now any honest writer should have written “might be all about” at the end of the first sentence. However, I have read and heard too many analyses where the only mode is the declarative one and the analyst presents no alternative perspectives on the piece.

I now turn ashen with rage at a certain expression that seems to crop up in musical analyses: “a profound truth.” How the dickens a piece of music can be true or false—profoundly or otherwise—is a matter for philosophers and  semanticists: the former of which use words with little or no actual meaning and the latter of which point out why they have little or no meaning.

For example, the words “Empire State Building” or “Arch of Triumph” will conjure up in the mind a very specific object that occupies space and can be perceived by at least three of the five senses. The word “dog” might conjure up a specific dog or a sort of fuzzy image of a four-footed mammal with canine characteristics. Seeing a specific dog will conjure up the word “dog,” “chien,” “Hund,” or whatever, depending on the language that is wired into one’s brain.

A politician uses “country” with an even fuzzier referent. “He is serving his country” is a good example. Is the “country” the mountains and the prairies between the oceans white with foam on the east and west, and Mexico and Canada on the north and south? Does it include the animal life in those diverse ecologies? Is the “country” the people living in it? Is it the government (another fuzzy word) or the desires of the top brass in that government? Is it any or all of the above? And so on.

The next horrible example of a semantically fuzzy noun is an abstract quality like “peace” or “beauty” or (heaven help us) “truth.” When John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he not only gave “a profound truth” to millions of English majors to discuss in class and about which to write essays but a phrase that has no meaning whatsoever in any objective sense. Yes, we “sort of” know what he meant; but is that kind of knowledge enough to start a war or establish a cult or even engage in a debate about its “meaning”?

The first time I ran up against a narrator solemnly stating that a single chord in some modern bit of music (which I found grating at best) expressed “a profound truth,” I remember groaning and nearly giving up on the entire 7-DVD series that was titled “Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century.”* It was more than a groan that greeted that same phrase on a CD in which a well known personality first conducts and then analyzes a 69-minute symphony. During the analysis, he claims towards the end of the disc that the entire work has expressed “a profound truth” about man’s despair and eventual salvation.

I will go into more detail about this recording in my next essay. In the meanwhile, I must admit to feeling a little better about my concept of the Gershwin work. Maybe it does express a truth, shallow or profound, that is yet to be determined.

No matter what, it should be a lot of fun de-punditing the pundits in these
essays about musical analysis.

* The narrator is conductor Simon Rattle. The set is on ArtHaus DVDs.

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