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. …