Instrumental Music

I just finished reading Mark Evan Bonds’ Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration (1991). He gives us a delicious 1799 quote from a fellow named Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, who apparently is one of the founders of German romanticism. (Who knew?)

The context of the discussion: Bonds is describing people who would retroactively write programs for instrumental music. That is, they would listen to a Mozart quartet, ask themselves what it reminded them of–Lush, rolling hillsides! Deep, powerful oceans!–and then write essays telling people that these are the meanings of the works. This, says Bonds, “represents the antithesis of all the German Romantics stood for,” since they valued individual genius and indefinable, untranslatable beauty.

On that, here’s Wackenroder:

What do they want, these timorous and doubting sophists, who ask to have hundreds and hundreds of musical works elucidated in words and yet who cannot acknowledge that not every one of these works has a nameable meaning like a painting? Do they strive to measure the richer language by means of the weaker and solve with words that which disdains words? Or have they never felt without words? Have they stuffed their hollow hearts with only descriptions of emotions? Have they never perceived in their souls the mute singing, the mummer’s dance of unseen spirits? or do they not believe in fairy-tales?

Ouch! I think Herr Wackenroder is taking things too far, but his heart is in the right place: it seems important to me to embrace the undefinable as something worthwhile, though ineffable, transient, and so on.

But I still feel perfectly fine “programming” music in my own mind, imagining stories and settings that it could be representing, like scoring a film in reverse, where the score already exists but I need to invent the story. This is one reason why Explosions in the Sky is one of my favorite bands, and why this is my favorite song. We only get into trouble when we start claiming that our individual interpretation is the interpretation, right?

Side note: this book was due yesterday via interlibrary loan, so there were no renewals, so I spent much of yesterday rapidly typing my notes into Evernote so I could return the book. And then today I paste in this quote, which I think Bonds translated himself, and all I recorded was that it was from Wackenroder in 1799. Normally Google Books or Amazon previews would save the day: I could look up the book online and find the page and grab the exact citation that I stupidly didn’t record yesterday. But nope: even though this 1991 book is long out of print, Google Books only gives snippet view, and the page I need isn’t available at all. And by now, my ILL copy is being trucked back to wherever it came from. Bleah.

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