To me, this is what George Gershwin’s “Second Prelude” is all about. A lonely man is sitting despondent in a seedy hotel room. Outside the window, the marquee is blinking in rhythm to the bass notes, while the slightly less regular patter of light rain hits the panes. This reflects the deep feeling of isolation that Gershwin felt at the time he composed this short masterpiece. But more than that, it reflects the loneliness of modern man in general and therefore expresses a profound truth.
And if you buy that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you cheap!
The key words in that “analysis” are the first two: “To me.” I have brought to my writing all the baggage of my past life. I am seldom in a hotel room—more motels than hotels on my budget—and I never really enjoy being in one. Nothing in it is mine; it is impersonal. Usually, I am with my wife, but in the past I have spent some time alone in such rooms and feeling lonely is easy to do unless one has the resources (and personality) to find some congenial company.
So it should not be surprising that the opening notes in the bass of the “Second Prelude” (which are a homage to Chopin, by the way) should conjure up those particular images. Couple that with what I know about Gershwin being a city person, never married, loving to play in front of large crowds, but renting hotel rooms–while a party was still in progress in his brother Ira’s apartments–in order to concentrate on his work—and we have a believable scenario for the piece.
Now any honest writer should have written “might be all about” at the end of the first sentence. However, I have read and heard too many analyses where the only mode is the declarative one and the analyst presents no alternative perspectives on the piece.
I now turn ashen with rage at a certain expression that seems to crop up in musical analyses: “a profound truth.” How the dickens a piece of music can be true or false—profoundly or otherwise—is a matter for philosophers and semanticists: the former of which use words with little or no actual meaning and the latter of which point out why they have little or no meaning.
For example, the words “Empire State Building” or “Arch of Triumph” will conjure up in the mind a very specific object that occupies space and can be perceived by at least three of the five senses. The word “dog” might conjure up a specific dog or a sort of fuzzy image of a four-footed mammal with canine characteristics. Seeing a specific dog will conjure up the word “dog,” “chien,” “Hund,” or whatever, depending on the language that is wired into one’s brain.
A politician uses “country” with an even fuzzier referent. “He is serving his country” is a good example. Is the “country” the mountains and the prairies between the oceans white with foam on the east and west, and Mexico and Canada on the north and south? Does it include the animal life in those diverse ecologies? Is the “country” the people living in it? Is it the government (another fuzzy word) or the desires of the top brass in that government? Is it any or all of the above? And so on.
The next horrible example of a semantically fuzzy noun is an abstract quality like “peace” or “beauty” or (heaven help us) “truth.” When John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he not only gave “a profound truth” to millions of English majors to discuss in class and about which to write essays but a phrase that has no meaning whatsoever in any objective sense. Yes, we “sort of” know what he meant; but is that kind of knowledge enough to start a war or establish a cult or even engage in a debate about its “meaning”?
The first time I ran up against a narrator, Simon Rattle, solemnly stating that a single chord in some modern bit of music (which I found grating at best) expressed “a profound truth,” I remember groaning and nearly giving up on the entire 7-DVD series that was titled “Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century.” It was more than a groan that greeted that same phrase on a CD in which a well known personality first conducts and then analyzes a 69-minute symphony. During the analysis, he claims towards the end of the disc that the entire work has expressed “a profound truth” about man’s despair and eventual salvation.
In the meanwhile, I must admit to feeling a little better about my concept of the Gershwin work. Maybe it does express a truth, shallow or profound, that is yet to be determined.
Let us now consider a Telarc release of Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 5.” Here Benjamin Zander conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in a good reading of the work on the first CD and presents an 80-minute discussion on the second.
His analysis falls into two approaches. When he is discussing modulation and the sonata format in general, it is just fine. When he is describing what Bruckner does with his key-changes and orchestrations, so much the better. After all, how many listeners are sufficiently trained to catch these fine points by themselves? When he is talking about Bruckner’s life and character traits, it makes a good break from the technical points and does explain to a degree, a small degree, what might have (not DID, but MIGHT HAVE) been in the composer’s mind when he was creating this symphony.
However, please recall how I put Gershwin’s “Second Prelude” into a seedy hotel room and waxed poetic on that basis. In this discussion, Zander not only places the work in a Catholic church, but there is a diagram included in the jewel case to show exactly how Bruckner envisioned his work architecturally!
The first movement (we are told) takes place in the nave, the second in the north transept, the third in the south transept, and the finale in the chancel and around the altar. Towards the end, in discussing the final movement, Zander slips in the fact that there is no libretto provided by the composer along with the work. Well, that was news to me, after all of the layers of meaning that Zander had piled up before this point on the disc.
And it was around this time that the narrator sums up the “meaning” of the work as a whole. He interprets part of the opening movement as a question in search of an answer. In Zander’s mind, the finale provides that answer when it finally settles on the tonal base of the entire symphony, B-flat major.
Now before I proceed, let me draw an analogy. The so-called Da Vinci Code, made famous by the novel of the same name, seems to go like this. In the painting of “The Last Supper,” the figure to the right of Christ seems to be a woman. Therefore it is a woman. She might be Mary Magdalene. Therefore she is Mary Magdalene. By some quantum leap, the two might be married. Therefore they are married. Therefore they had children. Therefore the Holy Grail (San Grail) is really Royal Blood (Sang Real)…and no one stops to think that Da Vinci never painted the Last Supper from life and he could make any of the characters in it look like kangaroos (as in a Monty Python sketch) had he chosen to do so.
Back to Zander. Given a fairly shaky “might,” he switches gears into “is” and he is off to the races. There is a famous spoof of literary analysis in which “Thirty days hath September” is treated like an Elizabethan tragedy, with every cliché so beloved of English majors trying to sound scholarly. I am not mocking Zander—or Rattle—but trying to bring some sense into the analysis of music.
Now for some rebuttal to my own arguments (before 187 readers send in e-mails). What about tone poems? They offer a case for having an extra-musical meaning to a musical piece. Sure, I know that Liszt’s “Les Preludes” is based on a poem and I have a copy of the text someplace in my files. But had I not known this fact, I certainly could not have read any “message” into the music as it stands.
Berlioz was very careful to write descriptive titles and short scenarios for each of the movements in his “Symphonie Fantastique.” Hearing this work, some listeners unaware of these titles might still read into “The March to the Scaffold” something not far from an execution and possibly into the “Witches’ Sabbath” something not unlike a Walpurgis Night orgy. And how many critics have pointed out that anyone hearing Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” even knowing what the title means, could be excused for not having a clue how the music conjures up the tangled philosophy of Nietzsche?
No, even tone poems can have whatever meanings an auditor chooses to read into them.
Can we then conclude that non-vocal music has no meaning, expresses no truth, whatsoever? I would love to hear from some of my readers who will express their feelings about this question, and perhaps that will provide meat for a third part to this essay. Please contact me and accept my thanks in advance.