Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Leonard Bernstein and Meaning in Music

Leonard Bernstein has several pop culture faces. To some, including myself, who grew up in the 1980s, he was first off a name shouted out in an R.E.M. song, perhaps followed by the question, “Who the hell is Leonard Bernstein?” (I wonder how much of my liking of Bernstein’s music might be attributable to positive associations with the R.E.M. song.) To some (not mutually exclusive with the first group), he was an important mid-20th century American composer who bridged a gap between popular music and entertainment and the Western “high” art music tradition. To some, he was one of the greatest and/or most important conductors of the 20th century. He was also an important mid-century music educator, especially through the public television series of “Young People’s Concerts” he conducted with the New York Philharmonic.

I recently watched one of these “Young People’s Concerts” on DVD that focused on the theme of meaning in music, with Bernstein talking to the children in attendance at Carnegie Hall in between musical examples.

The issue of meaning in music is difficult. Music is capable of meaning – it affects us, which is the result of a semiotic experience, but what is communicated and what the effect of music is is not directly translateable into linguistic meaning. (Food and taste generally, as well as smells, present similar situations. Foods and smells are meaningful not just because of symbolic associations we might have with them, e.g. the Thanksgiving Turkey or the smell of a rose, but also because of the associations with the direct physical experiences of eating or smelling.)

Bernstein’s basic argument is something I agree with – the meaning of music, however hard it may be to define (precisely because it is non-linguistic) is intrinsic to the music and does not derive from anything extrinsic to it, such as a story or title associated with a piece. He argues that while we might associate stories or titles with music, such associations are essentially arbitrary.

He uses the example of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, specifically the movement titled “By the Brook.” Bernstein agrees that the music is capable of evoking a mental image of a gently babbling brook, but argues that the music could equally evoke “Swaying in a hammock” if differently titled. I agree, even if I find Beethoven’s “Backyard” symphony with its “Swaying in a Hammock” movement amusing but difficult to imagine having been written, but also immediately reacted that the music could not evoke “Riding on a train” or “Falling off a cliff.” Those titles and mental images just wouldn’t fit the music.

He gives another example using the “Great Gate of Kiev” movement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” He argues that the “strong chords” of the music fit that image, but could equally fit the flowing of the Mississippi river. In saying so, he’s almost making an argument that there is a necessary iconicity between musical elements and any non-musical elements potentially evoked by the music, but then undermines this by insisting that there’s no real connection between music and image. I agree that the “Great Gate of Kiev” music could evoke the Mississippi River, but I can’t imagine it evoking “By the Brook,” much less something like “Mowing the Lawn.”

The association between music and extra-musical meaning (if any) is arbitrary in the sense that any given piece of music could potentially be associated with a variety of images. “By the Brook” could evoke “Swaying in a hammock.” But association of music and extra-musical meaning is not purely arbitrary – the range of potential associations is defined in part by the range of phenomena that share some iconic relationship with one another, that is that have some clear and systematic relationship of similarity with one another.


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