Monday, April 6, 2015

scenes or impressions

When Robert Schumann was asked about the meaning of a particular piece he had written, he simply sat down and played it again. So the story goes. The music meant itself.

Like most slogans in a war, it is oversimplified, and admits very little variation. Or the truth.

After all, sometime either before or after the alleged incident, that same Mr. Schumann wrote several sets of pieces with titles suggesting that the music did point to something other than itself. Either the inspiration for, or the suggestion of, the music, was taken from life, and life, astonishingly, is not completely reducible to musical notes.

Take a poem. While reading it, several images, sensory perceptions, and narrative details may float through your mind, connections to other poems, which in turn conjure their own set of ideas and concepts. That doesn't mean that the words in the page make no matter, or that you should spend the entire poem daydreaming about that vacation you took to the beach in Florida whilst completely leaving the actual content of the poem itself behind in your reverie. The words themselves, the play of the sounds, the intriguing constructions, syllables, emphases, peculiar line breaks or word inversions, repetition of images, or consonants--all of that matters, just as the musical notes matter.  At the same time, they point to something else. That doesn't strike me as being unfathomable. But there was an ideological war on in 19th century Germany, so everyone had to take a side. Music-drama (as espoused by Wagner) or absolute music, with Schumann and later Brahms as hero. What a silly lot we are.

Next Friday I am including on my program Schumann's "Kinderscenen"--usually translated "Scenes from Childhood" though that isn't necessarily what the term means exactly (literally "child-scenes?"). Each of the pieces bears a title suggesting an image or activity one may have experienced in childhood "curious story," "important event," "knight of the hobby horse," "dreaming."

Our good Wikipedia says that the titles were actually put on the pieces after their composition, which is curious. It could tell us not to be too caught up in the imagery, since Schumann was apparently not thinking of the idea or image at the time of composition. On the other hand, if the pieces, when finished, suggested those ideas to the composer, then perhaps they ought to suggest those ideas to us as well. I should point out that it is just that "tyranny of ideas" that caused some people to protest against program music (Schumann included?).  Why can't I substitute my own ideas? Why do I have to imagine what the composer wants me to imagine?

But then why daydream at all? We've already experienced some of the worst of what happens when one reduces music to something else--cannon shots and trumpet calls, all impeccably labeled for those who couldn't figure it out on their own (see last week's installment). Is it better to be more subtle about it? One thinks of Debussy, who wished his printer to put the titles of the pieces after each prelude rather than at the top of the first page. Play the music, then I'll tell you what I was thinking.

Then there are the wide swaths of people who assure us that music is strongest and best at suggesting emotion. Thus, the impressions of, or emotions connected with something, rather than the thing itself. Not the story, but the way we should feel about the story. Think movie music. What is the function of the film score if not to direct you to feel a certain way about the events happening on screen, or at least to affirm them (after all, if you've been to a certain number of movies you know when to expect the heroic C major blast when the good guy finally breaks through and achieves victory).

Like Satie's pieces (a few weeks ago we discussed "Sports and Recreations") these pieces are short; little cameos with a lot to say. And they have an interesting compositional history.

Again from the almighty Wikipedia: evidently Mr. Schumann needed a couple of months to get these pieces written. This is frequently a surprise to people who think composers are somehow always operating in real time, and can't fathom how a piece 30 seconds long might take all day to write. It may also surprise persons who know Schumann's habit of sketching an entire symphony in just a few days.

What seems to have taken the longest was the ultimate order of the pieces, as well as their selection. It wasn't that Schumann had a problem with fecundity--he wrote some 30 pieces. But only 13 made the final cut. And listening to the set now, perfectly chiseled, and forming such a beautiful chain of continuity and variety, it is hard to notice any struggle at all, so well did he succeed.

Scenes from Childhood, op. 15
Of Strange Lands and People
Curious Story
Blind man's Bluff
Pleading Child
Happy Enough
Important Event
By the Fireside
Knight of the Hobbyhorse
Almost too Serious
Child Falling Asleep
The Author Speaks

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