Christopher Churcher in the Divisions has just been specially commended in the Royal Philharmonic’s Society’s Young Classical Writers’ Prize. His essay is on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the piece which initially drew him to classical music.
You can read more about the competition here. Christopher’s essay is posted here.
Over the Easter holiday, I was thrilled to be pronounced the winner of the under-18 category of the Benslow Young Composers’ Competition for my composition Very Early Spring. With a choice of five poems centering around Spring, applicants from across the United Kingdom were tasked with writing a five-minute-long song for soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Stephen Gutman. My composition was heavily inspired by the colours and harmonies found in the French art song tradition of Fauré, Debussy and Boulanger. By contrasting floating, wintry piano arpeggios with recurring rising piano lines underpinned by warmer harmonies, I ventured to use the music to illustrate the relationship between the lingering squalls of winter and the ‘golden fingers’ of the sun in the poem by Katherine Mansfield. The final workshop of the competition was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, as the five shortlisted composers were able to hear each other’s works and receive comments and advice from the judge of the competition and Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir. To win the competition was such a pleasant surprise, and I look forward to hearing my composition performed as part of the Benslow International Concert Series in August.
For many music has always been a way to deal with adversity and now during a third national lockdown is once again an important method to help with these growing pressures. There have been several studies that show the beneficial impact of listening to music of whatever genre on mental health and in reducing stress. And we would like to share our experience of making music and how it has helped us through this difficult time.
Sung by Junias Wong
I think, especially during the national lockdowns that we have been facing and are currently in, continuing with as much music as possible has been a way that I have been able to relax but also feel like it has been productive at the same time. I have been struggling with not being able to take time away from working as there has been no clear-cut end of the school day whilst being at home and so going away from my computer to play piano and lose myself in the music has allowed me to build that structure back and take control of my time. With everything else in my life grinding to a halt music and music making, even if alone, has been one of the things that has allowed me to move through this difficult time.
Maybe the ancient Greeks were getting somewhere by making Apollo in charge of both medicine and music. It’s no secret that music affects our brain, mood and stress through the function of neural networks which slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce levels of stress hormones. Yet, these clinical observations might not glean the full extent of music’s effect. Perhaps dramatically put by the poet Robert Browning, “He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once”. In many ways this holds true, as personally music often provides a solace and respite. Small things like putting on a good tune whilst washing the dishes are exceedingly therapeutic activities! However, above all, playing and listening to music is plain fun. I’ve spent countless hours browsing through many eras of music just appreciating the little quirks and characteristics. To stop there would be a shame, so I’ve tried my hand at emulating my favourite works on the piano and even an acapella voice. So, whenever the tiring online school day gets to you, remind yourself to have a break and immerse yourself with some music!
A Holistic Analysis of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung
Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) is a symphonic poem, composed by Richard Strauss between 1888 and 1889. The work was written during Strauss’s tenure as a conductor at the Weimar Opera and, although it is one of Strauss’s early compositions, completed when he was just 25 years old. At this same time one of his most acclaimed works Don Juan was premiered and the composition of this work certainly shows the prowess of a young composer who would go on to epitomise the maximalism of opera in the 20th century1, with controversial works such as Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909). This modernist orientation was, however, not initially Strauss’s musical inclination. His father, a professional horn player, was an admirer of the Viennese, conservative style of the romantic era, rather than the more progressive ‘zukunftsmusik’ which was pioneered by composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt. The latter is considered to be the inventor of the tone poem: a genre which gave composers a symphonic vehicle for extra-musical ideas. In keeping with his musical grounding exclusively in the classics, Strauss composed at first in the style of composers such as Johannes Brahms. In 1885 he was appointed assistant conductor of the Meiningen Orchestra. It was in this post at Meiningen that, through his friendship with the Lisztian composer and violinist Alexander Ritter, who would become a central figure in the composition of Tod und Verklärung, Strauss started to become more familiar with the symphonic poems of Liszt and ultimately a convert to the later nineteenth-century, romantic ideal that music should be expressive of states of mind and has the potential to arouse similar emotions in the listener. Strauss went on to write fifteen operas and a wide variety of instrumental and vocal works, including his last completed symphonic work: the solemn Vier letzte Lieder (1948), the last movement of which, ‘im Abendrot’, contains a quotation of the transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklärung as the soprano sings the final line, ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (‘Is this perhaps death?’). Throughout Strauss’s long life, Tod und Verklärung clearly remained a very personal work for the composer. On his deathbed the composer remarked to his daughter-in-law, ‘It’s a funny thing Alice. Dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.’2
For modern ears, and in contrast with the near-atonality of his later works, this tone poem is fairly harmonically conventional. However the premiere of the work divided listeners, with the conservative critic Eduard Hanslick writing that the work received ‘stormy applause from one portion of the room and hisses from others.’ He denounced it as a ‘dreadful battle of dissonances’ and also criticised what he saw as Strauss’s degenerate tendency for ‘poetic rather than musical elements.’3 This view was not shared by all at the time.Romain Rolland, a French music critic, considered the composition ‘the summit of Strauss’s work.’4 This speaks to the heart of the division between different schools of musical thought in the nineteenth century. On one hand the so-called progressive musical view, championing chromaticism and programmatic music and modelled on the image of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt; on the other hand the view of absolute music, taking its cues from Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. This view was also supported by Eduard Hanslick, who wrote that ‘sounding forms in motion are the one and only content of music.’ Although the general consensus amongst twentieth century critics and biographers is that Tod und Verklärung is not amongst Strauss’s greatest compositions, eclipsed by works such as Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, it still has streaks of brilliance. Norman del Mar comments in his 1962 biography of Strauss that the work is one of ‘Strauss’s imperfect masterpieces’,5 whilst another biographer, Ernest Newman praises Strauss’s reconciliation of musical form and extra-musical programmatic elements.
Tod und Verklärung is a one-movement tone-poem, with a typical performance lasting around 25 minutes. The work’s subject is the depiction of the death of an artist and is divided thematically into four parts, each part being described in a poem by Alexander Ritter. This poem, written at Strauss’s request, acts as a programme note for the listener and was later prepended to scores of the composition. The four sections are arranged thus:
Largo. The sick man near death.
Allegro molto agitato. The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man.
Meno mosso. The dying man’s life passes before him, recalling his youth and his unfulfilled idealism.
Moderato. The sought-after transfiguration of the soul. The heavens open to show the artist what the world denied him: redemption, transfiguration.
Throughout the work, Strauss uses a series of themes to represent these ideas which the tone-poem expresses – death, transfiguration, and childhood.
Tod und Verklärung begins sombrely on the key of C minor with pianissimo, muted strings playing a slow, irregular rhythm which consistsof syncopated triplets. This theme is often labelled as the ‘heartbeat motif’ as the rhythmic quality imitates the irregular heartbeat of a man on his deathbed. After a series of hushed entries in the horns and clarinets, sighing dominant sevenths in the strings and an entry of the heartbeat motif in the timpani, a dream-like triplet motif is heard in the flute, answered by an ascending, chromatic reply by the oboe. This flute theme is developed throughout the piece and is thought to represent the man’s dreams and childhood memories. After several further statements of this triplet theme in other instruments, there are entries of a conjunct, descending theme in the oboe and violin, soaring wistfully over harp arpeggios. This theme returns in the long third section and represents the man’s childhood innocence. there is a brief period of tension at un poco agitato, introduced by a low divisi tremolo in the double basses and the triplet theme appears in the cor anglais and is answered by syncopated strings in thirds, although the theme is altered to outline a diminished chord on C minor. The tension decreases with a long diminuendo and ritardando.
This decrease in tension only lasts briefly, as the second section marked Allegro molto agitato starts. This section is very chromatic, and represents the dying man’s frantic battle for life and against death. The section begins abruptly on an upbeat with an accented, fortissimo timpani stroke and accented pizzicatos in the low strings, whilst a more agitated instance of the heartbeat motif is heard as a D-flat minor chord in the flutes and oboes. A rising chromatic figure builds the music to the introduction of the ‘death struggle’ theme, which appears first as a homorhythmic accented statement, followed by a descending chromatic figure in the winds. This figure has thematic significance as both here, and as part of a wider trope, descending chromatic scales are often associated with pessimistic notions such as death in the Western classical tradition. These descending chromatic entries build an impassioned moment in the music when the woodwinds, horns, strings and timpani play the heartbeat motif whilst the trombones and trumpets play an imitative entry of the death struggle theme. This is followed by the entry of a new, rising theme in the winds, representing ‘life’, before another tutti entrance of the death struggle theme, whilst at the same time the trombones play the clashing disparate heartbeat motif, introduced by four accented timpani notes. The vigour of the music seems to dwindle after this tutti statement, as the descending chromatic motif is heard in a descending sequence, but in fact the music is building to the real climax of the second section, when the descending chromatic gesture representing ‘death’ and the ascending ‘life’ motif are pitted against each other contrapuntally, culminating in a fervent tutti chord, with rapid string tremolos, introducing a fragment of the ascending transfiguration theme in the brass. After the overwhelming introduction of the transfiguration theme there is a gradual transition to the third section of the piece, consisting of a stunning modulation in which a high A-flat in the oboe (comprising the seventh of a dominant seventh chord on E-flat major) is re-spelled as a G-sharp and the music resolves onto D-major, making the G-sharp a dissonant, non-chord tone which resolves upwards by semitone onto an A.
The third section details a series of vignettes of the man’s dreams of his innocent, joyful youth as he slowly passes away. These vignettes culminate in a battle between life and death, which eventually sees death victorious. The section begins with the first of these vignettes on G major with a wistful dotted theme in the flute: a paraphrase of the theme heard in the solo violin during the opening slow section and is regarded as the ‘childhood theme’. This theme is accompanied by undulating triplets in the second violin that contain the first four notes of the transfiguration theme. This dreamy, lightly orchestrated material is briefly interrupted by a waltz-like section, before this fleeting dance returns to the dotted childhood theme from before, this time heard as a series of imitative entries between the first and second violins. There is then a hasty musical ‘scene change’, similar to those often utilised by Wagner in his operas in order to signify such scene changes. The short transition, consisting of material representing death from the second section, reminds the listener of the imminence and unavoidable nature of death. This scene change leads the music into a joyful second vignette marked ‘Etwas Breiter’ (‘somewhat broader’), consisting of a more vigorous youthful theme. This scene is brief, however, and the music soon moves onto a third vignette with a transition in the form of a challenging tutti violin outburst. The third vignette is deliriously joyful, containing a rhythmically augmented version of the childhood theme which is combined with a more rhythmically complex transformation of the ‘life’ theme from the second section. This final vignette concludes with increasingly dissonant instances of the heartbeat theme in the brass, signifying a return of the battle between life and death. The regularity of the meter is interrupted by several unexpected bars with a ½ (one bar of one minim) meter. Instances of the heartbeat motif, the life motif and the childhood theme form a crescendo leading to a set of compressed, frantic rising triplets in the ‘cellos, double basses and bassoons, outlining a dominant seventh chord in the key of E-flat. This leads to the second entry of the ascending ‘transfiguration’ motif on A-flat major. The last two notes of the motif, similar to the sighing string gestures of the opening, are repeated several times, whilst the raised fourth in the harmony creates a lydian quality to the sound. The remainder of the long third section consists of a battle between the ‘death’ themes and the ‘life’ theme, over which death eventually triumphs. This battle consists of instances of the transfiguration theme, fragments of the chromatic descending death theme and metrically shifted instances of the childhood theme, whilst the accented death struggle theme enters the mix in the trombones. The third and most triumphant entry of the transfiguration is heard on D-flat major, after which the tension dwindles out in a long diminuendo. Aided by the murmuring heartbeat motif in the timpani, the music fades to nothing, representing the petering out of the man’s heartbeat. The third section finally reaches its conclusion with one last boisterous Allegro molto agitato statement of the death struggle theme and a final battle between the life and death themes, culminating in the dominance of the death theme. The transition into the final section is led by a transcendent, ascending chromatic scale in the strings and winds, representing the soul leaving the body and ascending to the heavens.
The fourth and final section represents the sublime transfiguration of the soul as the ideals which the protagonist failed to achieve in life are perfected in the most glorious form in death. The section is in the tonic key of C, although unlike the beginning, the tonality is on C major, symbolising the perfection of heaven compared to the anguish of the man on his deathbed. The transfiguration begins with a long tonic pedal in the timpani and contrabassoon, whilst the reverberant sonority of a tam-tam is audible in the distance as a series of brass and wind entries form a drawn-out dominant seventh chord over the tonic pedal. This pedal lasts for 35 bars until the long-awaited resolution to the tonic with the transfiguration theme heard for the first time in its complete form. The music is initially quiet and tentative, but the theme gradually climbs ever higher, dazzlingly, into the empyrean. This sublime C-major statement of the theme feels like a re-birth of the soul as it enters the heavens, manifested by high sustained flute notes and shimmering harp arpeggios. A series of modulating entries finally returns the music to the tonic key for the final climax of the piece: the transfiguration theme returns over a dominant pedal in its most tumultuous and poignant statement, rendered more emphatic by rhythmically augmented entries of the theme in the brass. The piece finishes with seven separate overlapping entries of the first part of the transfiguration theme staggered at an interval of one crotchet and a held tutti C-major chord marked Lento. The soul has achieved transfiguration.
A remarkable aspect of Tod und Verklärung is Strauss’s reconciliation between the thematic demands of narrative-based programmatic music and the requirement of a coherent musical structure which can act as a vessel for these extra-musical ideas. The design of the tone-poem is that of a modified sonata form: a slow introduction, an exposition without repeat, a development section followed by a short recapitulation and finally, an epilogue. In terms of the relationship between sonata form and the narrative of the four-part programme, the introduction forms the first section, whilst the second section, containing the death struggle motif, is the first subject of the exposition in the tonic key. The beginning of the third section on the dominant key of G major, containing the childhood theme, is the second subject of the exposition, which is shorter than the first. The development begins on E-flat major with the second vignette of the third section at ‘Etwas Breiter’ (b. 235), and there is a brief recapitulation at b. 377. In the recapitulation there is no return of the second subject, an unusual omission in sonata form; however, some material from the second subject is heard during the coda (or epilogue), which corresponds to the fourth section: the ‘transfiguration’ at b. 395. The brevity of this recapitulation could be perceived as a defect in the sonata form structure of the piece, which requires a balancing return to the tonic key in the recapitulation after the harmonic instability of the development. This lack of tonal balance in the return is mitigated by the lengthy coda in the tonic key of C major, resolving the tonal drama of the work.
A further way in which Strauss uses the structure of sonata form to call attention to the narrative of the music is found in the polarity between the first and second subjects of the exposition. This contrast is characteristic of sonata form, in which the first subject is in the tonic and the second subject is usually on the dominant (or on the relative major in the case of a minor-key sonata form). The character of these two subjects should also be contrasting. This effect is achieved by Strauss here both musically and thematically. The two subjects are contrasting in character whilst also representing two conflicting ideas: those of death and anguish; and childhood and innocence respectively. This creates a musical and thematic dual-polarity between the first and second subject, the synthesis of which occurs, as required, in the development section.
A common feature of programmatic music is the attachment of musical ideas to semantic concepts in order to aid the narrative element. This is achieved through the temporal placement, the temperament, and the development or transformation of motifs throughout a work. In Tod und Verklärung, motifs are fashioned to fulfil all of these possibilities. These possibilities range from the symbolic development of the transfiguration theme throughout the work, to more prosaic thematic characteristics. These latter elements include the construction of the themes relating to death (which are presented in minor keys and accompanied by more dissonant harmony). In contrast, the childhood theme is diatonic, more conjunct and has a major tonality.
A significant thematic idea within Tod und Verklärung is expressed through the thematic transformation of the transfiguration theme. This is elaborated and increased in length throughout the work, finally appearing as a fully-developed, expansive melody in the coda. The fully-expanded melody represents the moment when the soul undertakes its final sublime transfiguration. This consequently makes the transfiguration theme a metaphor in itself for the glorious perfection of the ideals in death which the protagonist failed to achieve in life.
As shown in ex.1, the transfiguration theme is first heard as a 6-note fragment, whilst at b.319 the final two notes are repeated. At the transfiguration at b.429, the theme is extrapolated into an expansive melody on the key of C major. The arrival on this key is also hermeneutically noteworthy, given the associations drawn in the Viennese classical tradition between C major and notions such as purity and perfection. Whilst this interpretation may not have been a specific intention of Strauss, there is thematic significance in the ideas of redemption which are easily drawn from the transformation of the brooding C minor at the opening into the bright and dazzling tonality of C major.
Other themes are also transformed throughout the work. For example, the flute’s dream-like triplet motif in the opening section:
This theme is transformed in the development section and comes to represent the protagonist’s vigorous youth:
The ‘life’ theme (ex.4 – b.124) is also significant throughout Tod und Verklärung. It is often used in counterpoint with the themes representing death, in order to constitute the fervent struggle between life and death within the music. In ex.4, the chromatic rising oboe motif (b.19) from the opening section appears as the progenitor of the life theme. (b.124)
The life theme is also further developed with this wild elaboration in the development section, narrating the third vignette from the protagonist’s youth.
To constitute the ostensible victory of death over life musically, the final instance of the life theme is transformed into the chromatic descending death motif:
The work, both musical and philosophical, of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a source of great inspiration for Richard Strauss and there are clear influences of both of these aspects of Wagner’s legacy in Tod und Verklärung. It is also impossible to explore Wagner’s philosophy without discussing the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who was a close friend of the composer and whose enthusiastic view of aesthetics, particularly music, inspired his nickname of ‘the musician’s philosopher.’6 Schopenhauer, a primarily pessimistic philosopher, influenced principally by Platonism and Eastern philosophy, had the view of human nature that people live in a cycle of constant desire and dissatisfaction owing to an aimless, blind impulse that drives us all. He called this ‘Will.’ Schopenhauer was also strongly influenced by Kant. Both held that there is a deeper reality beyond the construction of reality in our minds. In Kant’s writings this is referred to as the ‘phenomenal world’ and Schopenhauer identifies this deeper reality as ‘the world as Will,’ which is roughly equivalent to Kant’s ‘noumenal world’ or ‘Ding an sich’ (‘thing-in-itself’)7. The ‘world as Will’ is, however, somewhat more abstract in nature, as Schopenhauer held that the world as Will was a single, unified force behind everything, comparable to what one might describe as a ‘life force.’ The significance of this theory of the world as Will in reference to his philosophy of aesthetics is that Schopenhauer held that art and, in particular music, can provide relief from the endless cycle of striving and desire which torments our lives. In a platonic sense, his view was that music is able directly to articulate a form of ultimate reality. As a result of this view, Schopenhauer developed a markedly transcendental outlook of a composer’s gift, attributing a quasi-mystical faculty of vision to the act of composition. He wrote: ‘The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world and expresses the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.’8 This view was shared by Strauss who held that ‘First comes art and other considerations come afterwards,’ and ‘[The melody] is the greatest gift of divinity and cannot be compared with anything else.’9
The Schopenhauerian and Platonic philosophies of death also had a direct effect on much of Wagner’s writing, as well as Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. Schopenhauer’s view that death is the aim of life is echoed in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera anchored musically in dissonance and suspension, both of which are only resolved in the final, dramatic scene of the opera. This resolution is realised with Isolde’s Liebestod (‘love-death’) as she collapses, dying beside Tristan, although the term Liebestod in relation to Isolde’s final aria is in fact a misnomer10. Tristan und Isolde does not end with the Liebestod. Wagner called the final, impassioned monologue of the opera ‘Isolde’s Transfiguration,’ or ‘Verklärung,’ the same noun used by Strauss in the tone poem Tod und Verklärung. The view of death in both is analogous. There is no resolution in life until our eventual death, a concept which Schopenhauer himself championed. This musical representation of death in the form of a sublime, metaphysical transfiguration was clearly the intention of Strauss. In a letter to his friend Friedrich von Hausegger in 1894, Strauss writes about the Platonic ideal of the soul’s liberation from the body at death which he sought to express:
‘It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man’s life who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realisation that could not be fulfilled here below.’11
After Strauss’s death, many biographers considered the peculiar fact that a healthy, successful composer and conductor in his mid-twenties should want to write such a seemingly-morbid work, exploring notions such as death, pain and anguish. However, to focus only on the Tod aspect of the work is to neglect the final Verklärung; the pinnacle, the triumphant joy of the soul’s liberation and rebirth after death. It is in this sense that Tod und Verklärung is an optimistic, hopeful work, made even more so by the ascendency of the sublime, consonant transfiguration theme over the chromaticism and dissonance of death.
Whilst the work plainly communicates a message of hope at its core, the fact that Strauss prevailed on Ritter to provide semantic interpretation does raise the question of whether this message we derive from the work is gained through the music itself or the extra-musical text. This question functions as a reformulation of a debate that has existed within musicology and the philosophy of music for many decades without meaningful resolution. Namely, can pure music communicate extra-musical meaning in itself, or is a programmatic or extra-musical element, for instance a programme, a poem or a set of lyrics, required to overcome the inability of pure music to communicate extra-musical meaning? The latter argument was espoused by the philosopher Peter Kivy, who developed the now pervasive theory of expressiveness which challenges the nineteenth-century ideal that music is itself a manifestation of the composer’s psychological state. Kivy’s theory of musical expressiveness lies in the crucial distinction between the idea that music is an outward manifestation of actual emotions and the now more widely accepted idea that instead music manifests outward characteristics associated with an emotion.12 This contradicts the empirical thinking of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach who wrote in 1753 that:
‘A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the effects that he hopes to arouse in the audience, for the revealing of his own humour will stimulate a like humour in the listener.’13
C.P.E. Bach’s view seems to be refuted by Strauss’s own positive and youthful frame of mind whilst simultaneously writing a work which grapples with themes which are at times extremely dark and troubling. Nevertheless, the necessity of the programmatic explanation alongside a tone-poem such as Tod und Verklärung remains a contentious point. Whilst philosophers such as Kivy would argue for the platonic idea that music’s expressive power lies in the resemblances between melodic contours and both human speech and bodily behaviour, it is unclear whether pure music can build more complex narrative structures for listeners. Strauss himself was markedly ambivalent towards programmes incorporating semantic exegeses as whilst he held that the programme is advantageous to the listener, the music still occupies an autonomous position. Schopenhauer explained his view of the relationship between music and extra-musical meaning in a similar way, commenting that specific images, in this case the Ritter poem elucidating the musical narrative, are not connected to the music ‘with universal necessity’, rather they are instead an arbitrary example of a general concept.14 My own view is that Schopenhauer is correct to make this distinction as, whilst the Ritter poem is required in order to understand the exact narrative of the work, the narrative itself is a front for a more general concept. A criticism of hermeneutic approaches to pure music is that interpretation will invariably lie somewhere between conjecture and inference. However, I do think that the overarching theme of redemption and transfiguration is reachable purely through critical analysis of the music as Strauss uses idiomatic musical devices in order to communicate the thematic ideas of the work. The brooding minor tonality of the opening and the chromatic frenzy of the exposition, in contrast with the tranquility of the second subject and the final, sublime resolution of the epilogue suggests in pure musical terms the idea of redemption, as the discord and turmoil finally finds resolution at the coda of the work. An extrapolation of this idea is espoused by the emotivist Jenefer Robinson who writes that highly-expressive works of art allow the listener to feel what it is like to be in the emotional state which the work expresses.15 This view also supports the idea that some hermeneutic understanding of music is possible without extra-musical reference; however, the specific narrative outlined by Ritter has helped musicologists to identify specific themes as relating to specific concepts. It is this less-superficial level of detail within the score, such as the ‘battling’ between life and death expressed through the counterpoint between the life and death themes which enriches our understanding owing to this extra-musical semantic foundation.
Requiring words in order to explain music in detail is not a weakness of musical study, although the inability to understand fully and communicate music purely on its own terms is often regrettably viewed as such. The relationship between language, speech and music is closely interlaced. According to resemblance theories16 of musical expressiveness, we find musical material to be happy or sad in nature partly based on resemblances between speech and melodic contours. For example, sprightly music consisting of series of leaps often occurs to us as happy in nature whilst slower, descending melodies tend to strike us as more melancholy. In an embodied sense, this musical material resembles human physical behaviour. If one maintains that, in a Schopenhauerian sense, music can communicate a reality which lies beyond the capability of linguistic expression, words are still a useful medium for explaining musical concepts in a way that can achieve greater understanding. In this case, the written programme allows for common understanding of the work, whilst not being requisite for an interpretive view of the music, nor the ontology of the work.
1 – Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Early Twentieth Century. P. 36. Oxford University Press, 2010