The Corner

Lieder ohne Worte

In Impromptus today, I have a little discussion about music — occasioned by a case called Nurre v. Whitehead. What happened was this: At a high school out in Washington State, the wind ensemble wanted to play an Ave Maria at graduation — instrumental version, mind you, no words. The school superintendent said no — theocracy, etc. A student sued, hence the case.

Anyway, I touch on the question of whether music without words can mean anything. This has already provoked a good amount of mail from readers. Let me say a little bit more here. In my column, I quote an interview I had with Ned Rorem, years ago. (Rorem is a well-known American composer, particularly of songs.) He said, “A piece without a text, without a vocal line, can’t mean detailed things like Tuesday, butter, or yellow, and it can’t even mean general things like death or love or the weather, although a timpani roll can sound like thunder, and certain conventions about love come out of Wagner.”

Can composers try at specific meanings? Sure. If you put “Happy Birthday” into a score, you are saying something. Same with national anthems. (Think of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) Does Beethoven suggest nature in his “Pastoral” Symphony? Yeah — but it helps to be told that the symphony is “pastoral.” There are “storms” in many scores, but what if someone told you they were chases, or intergalactic warfare? About five years ago, I reviewed a new string quartet by Peter Maxwell Davies, the British composer. He meant this quartet to be a depiction of, and cry against, the Iraq War. No dice — not if you ignore what the composer says he wants his quartet to be. This is a commendable string quartet, by the way.

Music-and-meaning is an interesting subject, which I’ve written about many times, and no doubt will again — sounds like a threat, I know.

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