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The nature of music as a meaningful language …… Arthur Butterworth

One of the more enlightening books on musical philosophy, the meaning of music itself, was published around forty years ago: Deryck Cooke’s "The Language of Music". This has often been referred to. It points out that music is a language quite capable in its own fashion of communicating to those attuned to what it has to say. Bertrand Russell once commented that: "the telephone directory communicates information without emotion while music communicates emotion without information". This is probably for most purposes as neat a way as possible of putting it. While we all realise that words can be poetic or have a hidden meaning, their basic usage is straightforward enough; they mean precisely what they say.

On the other hand music, unless it be vocal music which is called upon to enhance the poet’s or the dramatist’s very specific and meaningful words, is not capable of being absolutely specific in meaning. Music can – if the composer or the listener chooses – mean just about anything that the fancy of the moment suggests. All this has been commented on before in these columns. Perhaps it follows from this that, notwithstanding Deryck Cooke’s quite precise thesis about the language of music, the listener can if he or she chooses, read into the sound of a piece of abstract instrumental music anything that seems to be at that moment suggested. Sometimes the mental or visual images could, for the same piece of music, from time to time be different. Everyone is likely to have a personal opinion as to whether this happens or not. Closely bound up with this notion is the matter of taste. Hearing a piece of music for the first time might make no particular impression: take it or leave it, one might say. Some music heard for the first time might not be thought much of; only subsequent hearings as it were finalise one’s favourable or unfavourable impression. It can be rather like meeting someone for the first time; some we take an instant, and perhaps inexplicable dislike to; others perhaps romantically, we even fall in love with at first sight. But perhaps the majority of first acquaintances we cannot later remember whether we liked them or not. Probably a lot of music we hear is like this, so that it is unfortunate that much new music only ever gets once chance to be heard. This is not a new situation; probably it was almost always so.

Apart from a great deal of background music, merely intended as a fairly bland "uncommunicative" style meant as no more than a pleasant aural accompaniment to whatever other activity we are pursuing, the purpose of serious music - and his does not exclude light music - is that it should be heard with attention; some "meaning" heard in it. Music of this nature then, as with meeting people, can lead either to a positive dislike or to a pleasant, and maybe lasting acquaintance, or even love. With people it is more often than not a fairly easy matter to give reasons why we like or dislike another person: they possess some quality that we recognise positively or negatively. Perhaps music can suggest such qualities too: ultimately we can recognise, when we get to know a piece, that we do or do not like it. If with people it is fairly easy to say why we like or dislike them, with music it is often less so; perhaps no truly rational explanation is forthcoming that we can give to others, since, after all music is so abstract.

Most people who claim to respond to music either say that they particularly like one kind or another, or that they don’t like this or that style. If they are fortunate perhaps they can claim to like many different kinds of music. Among practising musicians I have often wondered if tastes – compared with those who merely like music as listeners – are more restricted in their preferences depending on the branch of music they themselves are involved in. Do some cathedral organists, perhaps a shade improbably like jazz. Improbably? – only because the two cultures seem so wide apart. Do string quartet devotees like opera? Do guitarists like symphonic music, or the brass band? These could be ridiculous questions to the majority of people, who have a wide – even at times apparently undiscriminating taste. It was always a matter of bemusement to know that Leonard Bernstein could be so passionate about the great classics and yet be capable of writing so effectively and convincingly a popular stage-work such as "West Side Story". I don’t know how other composers regard music in general; do we have wide tastes? Perhaps because we have a distinctive purpose and message of our own to promote are we inclined to be somewhat narrow in our liking for other music?

I certainly do not know how I compare with others – perhaps my preferences are more limited than most other people, both musicians and those who only listen to music. There are certain styles and periods of music that I admit to always having been attracted to. Some of these were certainly a case of "love at first hearing" – such, as my friends know only too well – my affinity for the music of Sibelius which I believe can be explained not only by the particular quality of the sound world he invokes, but by something far deeper in my own psychic response.

Some days ago I was approached by a total stranger who wanted to persuade me to buy a book on a very celebrated composer, a world-renowned figure who has become a veritable ikon of the concert hall the world over; a composer who stirs in perhaps a great majority of listeners the very depths of ecstatic emotional response. To me this composer is the very antithesis of everything in my own nature: From the very first occasion, more than fifty years ago, when I had to take part in a performance of this composer’s music, I took an immediate and violent dislike to it, and this antagonism has remained with me over the years. Why? Perhaps were I to lie on a psychiatrist’s couch, he could extract from the unconscious depths of my mind some reasons for this. All I can say is that, while I know that I myself am not capable of finding words to tell you why I feel this way, deep down inside I think I do know; but I cannot find the words to express it. After all I am primarily a composer, and we are generally better at telling what we have to communicate through music rather than words; as Deryck Cooke pointed out, the "language of music" needs no literary explanation.

Arthur Butterworth

© August 2006


 



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