Friday, May 2, 2014

Musical words and verbal music

I am late to the party for Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). But, hey, only seven years late!

Kramer is the author of Interpreting Music, which factors into my thesis. I knew about Why Classical Music Still Matters, which—as it turns out—is sort of the accessible edition of Interpreting Music. (OK, that may be a gross misrepresentation.) Kramer’s contribution to my thesis is a philosophical/musicological argument that music may be subject to interpretation under certain carefully bounded conditions. In short, music is on its own terms; but sometimes music cannot be understood solely on the basis of a technical analysis . . . something non-musical may also be going on. The music might just mean something.

In Why Classical Music Still Matters, the author addresses specifically music written since the mid-eighteenth century, our “Classical” music (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) and “classical” music (art/concert music in the wake of those eighteenth-century masters). From this period on, he asserts, music was written primarily to be listened to. And (again, all too briefly stated in this post) “classical music still matters,” in no small part, because it helps us develop the skill of sustained listening.

But today I want to highlight a specific comment Kramer makes about “song,” specifically the nineteenth century art song. Franz Schubert set the standard for the Romantic art song (the Lied), effectively pairing poetic lyrics sung with piano accompaniments that serve as equal partners: equal in musical importance, equal in story-telling, equal in suggesting meaning.

“The result is neither a dialogue nor a synthesis, although it may have elements of both; perhaps it is best called a concurrence. In the vocabulary favored by Kierkegaard—Schubert’s younger contemporary—the song simultaneously makes words more musical and music more verbal. Words, which belong to the sphere of reflection, take on the quality of sensuous and emotional immediacy proper to music, while music assumes the free intelligibility of thought.” (Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters, 116. Emphasis added)

Here is another way to think through what I’m trying to say about why the music matters in what we sing in church. If music can be more (or less) verbal, then I want to be attentive to what music is doing in its concurrence with the words we sing. I want to give adequate credit to what may be an equal partnership between words and notes. Does this or that tune, one or the other accompaniment, sell its partner short, or lead it into a fuller depth of meaning?