Magazine article Musical Times

Decoding Bach 1: Emotion or Meaning?

Magazine article Musical Times

Decoding Bach 1: Emotion or Meaning?

Article excerpt

In this anniversary year, MICHAEL GRAUBART continues the debate about recent exegeses of the composer's music

PETER WILLIAMS'S article `Sui generis'1 is no doubt a salutary warning against excessive subjectivity, in teaching music students as much as in criticism and aesthetics. What it says is in essence what Hanslick - and Hindemith and Stravinsky - have said. But Professor Williams's version embodies a fundamental confusion.

The confusion to which I refer goes back some way It is exemplified, for instance, by Mendelssohn's famous statement, contained in his letter to Marc-Andre Souchay of 15 October 1842: `The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.' Thoughts? Did he not mean feelings? The music of the Arioso dolente in Beethoven's piano sonata in A6, op.110, expresses an absolutely unique emotion - sui generis, indeed! The word 'dolente', on the other hand, is a blunt and generalising instrument. In no way, however, does the music specify what event the emotion refers to. The sadness that I feel when I discover that my bank account is overdrawn is quite different from the sadness that I feel on the death of a friend; and both are doubtless different from what my neighbour feels in similar circumstances. The number of 'colours' of sadness is limitless and the Arioso dolente expresses precisely one of these, though it would require words or a fuller title to tell us what factual situation the sadness is about. And to a greater or lesser extent this specificity of emotion lies in the very nature of any piece of music -'sad', 'happy' or whatever else.

In qualifying the absoluteness of this specificity with the phrase `to a greater or lesser extent', we approach, I suspect, one definition of quality in the arts: second-rate works tend to express more general emotions. But this begs so many questions of definition (can an emotion be more or less general, for instance?) that it lies beyond the scope of the present analysis.

I am in danger of falling into another confusion, or into the intentional fallacy By 'express', 'expression' and so on, I mean, and shall continue to mean throughout this article, 'evokes', `evocation': the calling forth in the listener - a particular listener - of the latter's response. There is no way of comparing the inner responses of two listeners, so my claim that these responses to the Arioso dolente are not replicated when either of these listeners attends to any other piece of music can neither be verified nor falsified. But this is a familiar problem with virtually every non-trivial statement in aesthetics.

By contrast, meaning - in the sense of referential signification2 - can only be achieved in some kind of language, and that, in turn, depends on an explicitly or implicitly agreed vocabulary. Schweitzer3, out of fashion as he currently is, developed a whole hermeneutic lexicon of motifs that he identified in Bach's church cantatas. These motifs are meaning-bearing 'linguistic' units (words) and must not be confused with the evocation ('expression') of emotion. Just like real words in natural languages, they can be given different emotional connotations by their contexts; the way the music is performed can give them a further layer of expression. Lest this be thought to be merely a rephrasing of Professor Williams's thesis, let me illustrate my point by the comparison of a motif associated with the motion of waves in the first chorus of the secular cantata or `dramma per musica' Schleicht, spielende Wellen BVW 206 with virtually the same motif in the tenor aria `Bache von gesalznen Zahren' from the church cantata Ich hatte viel Bekummernis BWV 21. (In mainly restricting myself to examples from the wellknown Cantatas 21, 105 and 106 and the St John and St Matthew Passions, I lay myself wide open to Professor Williams's barbs aimed at pundits who do not know every single Bach cantata intimately. …

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