The Meaning of Music
by Leo Samama
241 pages Published 2016
ISBN 978 90 8964 979 9 AMSTERDAM UNIVERSITY PRESS
This book was first published as De zin van muziek in 2014 and translated by me from Dutch to English not long after. It may seem a bit egotistical for the translator to be writing his own review but nobody else seems to have picked it up, and either way there are no royalties for translators. An intriguing side-effect of having once been so very close to the text means being made aware of the difference in perspective you gain in approaching it again in more relaxed circumstances as a reader. I remember learning plenty of things about music at the time, but also find that I needed quite a refresher on the contents of this book – clearly not having remembered the whole thing since working on it for all of those weeks and months.
The title itself is worth commenting on. ‘Zin’ in Dutch can have numerous meanings. It can indicate enthusiasm: “Ik heb er zin in,” or have a connection with ‘sense’ in regard to context: “in de zin van…” ‘Meaning’ in its narrower definition has its own Dutch word: ‘betekenis’ so, this having been consciously avoided, it needs to be read here in its widest sense – ‘meaning’ in terms of significance, implication, even usefulness. These are all themes that are explored in the book.
The content is divided into five parts with numerous chapters in each. I won’t go into each one, but it’s worth knowing that this is more a collection of individual talks in written form rather than a through-composed narrative. You can easily read a chapter or two and put the book aside to reflect on what has been discussed and what the implications might be for your own conceptions of how you perceive music. You can pick it up again later when you are ready for fresh insights. Composers are used as examples for the investigation of certain aspects of music, rather than as historical figureheads. Franz Schubert working at his desk in that famous painting by Cesare Bacchi is our entry to this world, and in ‘Looking over Franz Schubert’s shoulder’, we invited to think about “composing: how is it done?” Schubert’s creativity is put into context, and we are confronted with the fact that in our perceptions of his and others’ music are missing a significant portion of the messages that would have been clear to listeners of their time. We can and clearly do still identify with Schubert’s musical reflections of human psychology and emotion, but also have to be aware that these responses are subject to our own experience, and inevitably different from the experience of someone in the 18th century.
This in many ways is the core of this book. An awareness of the individual and unique perception of music; coloured and influenced by our personal baggage in life or even just by the sort of day one has had before going to a concert, is essential to any kind of objective view on music. In ‘Music as imitation’ we are invited to imagine being a hermitically sealed ‘monad’. Would music exist anywhere in us if we were entirely without our senses? Or is it somehow written into our DNA? Further into the book there is an examination of conditioning – why some will respond emotionally to a piece of music where others may be left cold.
Objective analysis can also yield surprises. Samama takes on J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C major, the opening of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, and looks at choices of instruments on which it can be performed, how different editions of the score reflect the times in which they were published, the link between Bach’s work and Pythagorean examination of harmonious intervals and string resonance, tuning, Joseph Sauveur’s theory of harmonics – in short, looking with a close lens at a miniature gem of a piece that consists of just a few bars that carry “an entire world with them, a world which led to their creation, and a subsequent world in which these 35 bars became unavoidable.”
Again, missing out swathes of intriguing and useful text, I’ll illustrate out one or two more points that provide clues to the weight of the whole. The brief chapter ‘Hearing, listening and remembering’ takes a quote from Rudolf Escher at its heart: “On music rests the doom of transience. While sounding it goes by and is over.” The implication of this is that “a musical experience cannot be had without memory.” Highlighting this aspect of music further implies that “what we all too frequently recall is not the music itself in all its details, but the experience we had at the moment of listening, the feelings we underwent, the emotions and a multitude of environmental factors…” This is one of the great strengths of this book – getting us to take a step back and making us more aware of things we perhaps instinctively knew already, but putting them in terms that take us on our own individual and thoughtful journeys.
There are valuable chapters that deal with attitudes to music and its documentation and preservation, or lack of these things, down the ages. Then there is the political power of art and its usefulness to canny patrons, why there is a disconnect between the rarefied world of new music today and its ubiquitousness in concert halls of the past, the place of recorded music, the importance of doubt and uncertainty when looking at music history, ‘authenticity’ in historical performance, music notation, education… Covering all these arguments and more would make any review almost as long as The Meaning of Music itself, but in its cornucopia of ideas and erudition the conclusion has to be that this compact book is something of a bargain. Out of all the fascinating uncertainties and rug-pulling from under the reader’s feet one thing does remain certain – once read you’ll never experience music in quite the same way thereafter – and, of course, in the best of all possible ways.