I have a vivid memory of sitting in my Music History class as a college junior. Dr. Parker had just played a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2, and was asking what we thought of it. I had just studied the very same piece in Music Theory class and could have told her all sorts of things about the form, the harmonic structure, and about Brahms’s use of the number three. I knew that wasn’t what Dr. Parker wanted, and when she called on me (no one else offered anything because we were scared to speak in that class), I blurted out that the piece was “beautiful.” That was a mistake, of course, and I got scolded for not using musical terms. What I really meant was that the composer created that lush soundscape to evoke such a reaction from the listener, sophisticated or not. Words failed me that day and I probably just uttered a remorseful “okay.”
Composers attempt to evoke emotions, don’t you agree? The Brahms Intermezzo is obvious. He wants the listener to have such an emotional reaction. Beethoven specifically composed his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” to create a country scene and deliberately included a babbling brook and bird calls in the second movement and a storm in the fourth featuring thunderous tympani to set the scene for the listener. It feels like a relaxing day in the country, and the score reveals instructions for the conductor and musicians to make it so.
Berlioz told a whole semi-autobiographical story with his Symphonie Fantastique. He was obsessed with an actress named Harriet Smithson, and concocted a story about an Artist who experiences not only unrequited love from an Actress character, but scorn and ridicule, too. The fifth movement of this work, “Dreams of a Witches Sabbath,” is intended to represent the Artist’s funeral. The beautiful motif that had been associated with the actress in earlier movements is now heard in a grotesque variation representing the Actress’s scorn. We know this because Berlioz told us so. This is called programmatic music.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (Bernstein)
What about more subtle messages in musical works when we don’t have descriptions and labels from the composer? I was thinking about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; you know, the one with the gigantic choral ending featuring Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” I have always reflected on each movement individually, but it wasn’t until I listened to it on a hundred-mile car trip that I realized Beethoven and I had been on a journey together. I wrote about that revelation in my other blog. That’s the thing about really good music: you hear something different each time you listen, whether it is the third or the 350th time.
This week, while preparing a lecture that includes Richard Wagner operas, I remembered an instance back in fourth or fifth grade when Mrs. Harney played a recording and told the class to draw what we thought the composer was thinking. Just about every kid, me included, drew something flying. The music was (did you guess?) the overture to The Flying Dutchman. That experience made a big impression on me. How did Wagner draw such a convincing picture with just music? I probably won’t have my students draw pictures this week, but I will play the overture and tell them the story!
Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Toscanini)