Magazine article The Spectator

Words Are Not Enough

Magazine article The Spectator

Words Are Not Enough

Article excerpt

Stravinsky once said that music was powerless to express anything at all.

Leaving aside the niceties of whether a rising scale can at least represent something hopeful or aspiring, his music, like so much music, does nonetheless have the capacity to express the spirit of an age. Since this is a much vaguer undertaking than trying to depict a concrete verbal image in sound - like bird song, or a drunken man, or climbing a ladder - it is surprising how successful composers have been at it.

Unwittingly successful, I guess, since how would you deliberately set about writing a piece to capture 2009?

I became aware of this while watching some of my favourite television soaps - like The Tudors - or Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. Such programmes seem to need music to reinforce the world they depict. It is not enough to have costumes and user-friendly history; or Bruno emoting in front of Boltzmann's statue. Words are not enough, there has to be music. And, if this music is well chosen, it can be immensely powerful, arguably more powerful than the whole of the rest of the set put together.

Sibelius would not have known that when his Seventh Symphony is played alongside images of heavy hydrogen colliding and fusing to make a nucleus of helium - images which first became available at about the time he was writing it - the match is a perfect one. Nor would Prokofiev have guessed that his The Love for Three Oranges goes brilliantly with talk about unlikely molecules being found in interstellar spaces.

Better still are the opening bars of Walton's First Symphony underpinning a sequence showing the skyline of 1960s New York in the final programme of Clark's Civilisation.

To have spotted this match was sheer genius: the ticker-tape kinetic energy of Walton's music tells you in a split second all you need to know about modern life in that modern city - telexes, typewriters and stockexchange computer read-outs coded in.

Again, I'm not sure Walton quite intended this passage to be so graphic, though with him it is more likely that there was a concrete thought behind his writing than with less worldly composers. I've noticed elsewhere how electric rhythms were the vogue in music of all sorts during the 1960s and 70s - Kenneth Leighton's church music exemplifies it, as does Walton's own. This is obviously not a complete coincidence, and yet I doubt it was fully conscious. …

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