Music against Gravity

Article excerpt

We all derive different, private meanings from the music that delights us, but the recurrence of certain musical patterns in the works of great composers hints at meanings of a more universal character.

"Madame X installed a piano in the Alps."--Rimbaud, 1886

An old man not far from death lies in his bed in a nursing home in New England. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas enters the room with a tape recorder. He places earphones on the gaunt head and turns the machine on. "Great! DAMN FINE WORK!" the old man declares, coming alive as he sings along with the music. He is Carl Ruggles, American composer (1876-1971), in the last of his 95 years. He is hearing his own composition, Sun-Treader, whose title was inspired by the epithet that Robert Browning bestowed upon Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The work begins with jagged leaps across large dissonant intervals. In about 30 seconds, led by the brass, the music surges, to the accompaniment of pounding timpani, upward across nearly four octaves. Truly a giant is bestriding the planets. Ruggles, bedridden, is taking a journey across vast spaces. Thomas recalls what Ruggles said at the end of the visit: "I'm composing, you know, right now. But my body ... it is totally diseased. But I'm composing. Every day. First there are horns ... here flutes! And strings--molto rubato, rubato!... Now don't go feeling sorry. I don't hang around this place, you know. Hell, each day I go out and make the universe anew--all over!"

Each piece of music is a journey. The idea is not simply a metaphor. The essence of music is motion. As a piece begins, you are in one place. As it comes to an end, some time later, you are in another. You have been somewhere and you have had an experience along the way, perhaps illuminating or even glorious, like Sun-Treader bestriding the heavens, or perhaps routine and tedious--but an experience, nonetheless. A journey.

Sun-Treader is a journey of liberation, a surmounting of forces that pull human beings down. Our ability to respond to such forces is of absorbing interest to us from infancy to old age. The first unaided steps of a-child from one loving set of arms to another is an event of unreasoning exhilaration. We are inspired by those who haul themselves. up by rope to a pinnacle--and even more by those who remain upright when tyranny beats down. The dream of staying aloft despite everything that would pull us down remains with us until no more dreams are possible.

Composers over the centuries have repeatedly written music evoking the great theme of mankind's struggle against gravity. They have done so in a variety of ways, but perhaps no more strikingly than in their deployment of four distinctive patterns: climbing, descending, rise-to-fall, and floating. Of course, there are many possible ways of using rhythm and meter to move a composition forward, but these patterns illustrate most dramatically how music suggests possible responses to the forces of gravity. Looking at these four patterns, as employed by some of the greater Western composers, may help us draw closer to an understanding of how music communicates meaning.

Climbing. In the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) there are themes that explode with volcanic energy. In the first movement of one of his early works, the Piano Sonata in D Major, op. 10, no. 3, a version of the main theme, after taking four steps down, surges rapidly upward in 16 steps across nearly three octaves. The steps are syncopated octaves until the last three, which are unison double-octave blows, fortissimo. That this sort of eruption is not solely the product of youthful exuberance is evident when we look at much later music, such as the opening of the "Ghost" Trio, op. 70, where piano, violin, and cello ascend rapidly and violently in a very similar fashion. Nor is the phenomenon of Beethoven's themes straining upward limited to rapid and furious movements. The slow opening of the familiar Piano Sonata, op. …