Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics

By Kramer, Lawrence | Musical Times, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics


Kramer, Lawrence, Musical Times


DEBATES ABOUT THE NATURE OF MUSIC can easily get lost amid abstractions, high clouds of metaphor and metaphysics. Real music has the admirable knack of bringing such things down to earth, which is where their effects, like music's, must be felt. So I want to begin with a prelude - literally and figuratively - and dwell for a few moments on its minute particulars. The idea is to embark in medias res without too firm a sense of ultimate direction. The hope is that when speculation follows, as it will, as it must, the earthbound feelings and values on which it depends will continue to resonate, reminders that debates about the nature of music are only about what music is in so far as they are about what we want or need it to be.

In a pivotal scene from Ingmar Bergman's 1978 film Autumn sonata, an estranged mother and daughter (Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann) reenact their mutual alienation through contrasting performances of Chopin's Prelude in A minor. The piece is notoriously dissonant and conceptually elusive, but not particularly difficult to play. The daughter, Eva, chooses it when her mother asks her to play something, and turns in a heavy, emotionally charged, somewhat awkward rendition. The mother, Charlotte, a famous concert pianist, withholds her approval. Then, pressed by Eva, she responds with a lecture and an object lesson. 'Chopin,' she says,

isn't sentimental, Eva. He 's very emotional but not mawkish. There 's a huge gulf between feeling and sentimentality. The prelude you played tells of suppressed pain, not of reveries. You must be calm, clear, and harsh [...] Take the first bars now. [Plays to show what she means.] It hurts but I don't show it. Then a short relief. But it evaporates almost at once and the pain is the same, no greater, no less. Total restraint the whole time [...] This second prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. It must never become ingratiating. It should sound wrong.

Charlotte goes on to prove her point with a cool, controlled performance that matches her description: calm, clear, and harsh. From the standpoint of technical proficiency, the performance is much better than her daughter's. But from an expressive standpoint, it is much the worse, as the film suggests by showing the mother moved, as her daughter plays, by the very feelings that her own performance suppresses. As Eva's husband Victor (who has been listening) observes, 'I think Charlotte 's analysis is seductive, but Eva's interpretation is more moving.'

The scene is striking for its reversal of the conventional wisdom about musical performance. It suggests that the standard of performance is not the realisation of the formal pattern indicated by the score, by which the pianist's expressive choices should be guided. The standard, rather, is an understanding of what the piece means, what it 'tells of. The formal pattern becomes intelligible through the meaning, not the other way around. The notes that the pianist plays will, so to speak, readily agree to mean this or that within a range of reasonable possibilities. The question is which of these alternatives brings the notes most tellingly or most compellingly to life.

The result may very well be, as it is here, that the nominally worse performance is really the better, the more 'correct', because it is truer to the spirit of the music, the spirit of the occasion, or both. The film quite plausibly suggests that Charlotte 's interpretation makes the wrong things of the right ideas. Eva's understanding, the very reverse of her mother's - who is right that far, at least - is neither musically nor verbally articulate enough. Yet in this very failure it gets close to the heart of this harsh and grating music, which at bottom is about reveries, the dark kind - all-absorbing trains of pained, involuntary thoughts. What Charlotte takes for suppression, Eva reveals as the sheer impossibility of suppressing a hurt, a grievance, that fear or guilt tells her she should suppress. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.