DESCRIPTIONS OF MUSIC IN LITERATURE

Evocations of the beauty and wonder of music are common in literature. Many authors and poets have declared that music is a marvelous thing that seems to speak directly to the soul. Congreve said it with unusual felicity:

          William Congreve. The Mourning Bride. 1.1.105-9
Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I've read that things inanimate have moved,
And, as with living souls, have been informed,
By magic numbers and persuasive sound.

This passage actually tells the reader nothing specific about music. It merely states that Congreve subscribed to the doctrine based on the myth of Orpheus and promulgated by Plato. Most evocations of music in literature are of this kind, in that they praise music without actually describing it. Most writers will describe in painstaking detail a character, a landscape, a room, a meal, even a play or a painting. But very few will do the same for a piece of music. Most avoid the subject entirely. On the rare occasions when they do describe music, in many cases they either glorify its beauties in general terms, or else render the poetic and purely personal reactions of the author, or his character, in dreamlike imagery. Such texts may be very beautiful, but they fail to confront the reality of the music itself.

Nevertheless, there have been some writers who did indeed describe music explicitly and precisely, and not merely evocatively. Such descriptions depict primarily what is happening in the music, and only secondarily what is happening in the mind of the listener. The text consists of objective facts about the music, not subjective reactions to the music. The music is described as objective reality.

The above generalizations will be acceptable only if they can be successfully applied to specific cases. Each of the following examples is a comparison between two literary passages, in which the subject matter is the same but the manner of describing music is entirely different

Example 1
: Edna St. Vincent Millay vs. Robert Browning. These two poets describe, each in his/her own way, how music has the power to liberate the human spirit.

          Edna St. Vincent Millay: [Sonnet] On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven
Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs a-sprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like the scullions in the fairy-tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun,
Music my rampart, and my only one.

At first glance, the sentiments expressed in this sonnet seem unexceptionable. On closer examination, however, it appears that the description is not of the music itself, but of a blissful reverie triggered by the sound of the music.

Beethoven symphonies are primarily expressive of high drama, of tragedy and triumph, of victory over a cruel fate. One wonders, for example, how Millay could listen to the black despair of the Funeral March in the Eroica, or the demonic bacchanal at the end of the Seventh Symphony, and still write "sweet sounds" twice, and "your air benign." Even the beatific, idyllic movements, like the slow movements of the Fifth Symphony and the Ninth Symphony, are shot through with sudden lightnings. One suspects that Millay was not listening at all, but rather, like many impressionable but unschooled listeners, had embarked upon her own private daydream with the music as a pleasant accompaniment.

          Robert Browning, Fifine at the Fair, XLII.639-44
And, music: what? that burst of pillared cloud by day
And pillared fire by night, was product, must we say,
Of modulating just, by enharmonic change, --
The augmented sixth resolved, -- from out the straighter range
Of D sharp minor, -- leap of disimprisoned thrall, --
Into thy light and life, D major natural?

Here the poet implies that music is divine by employing a Biblical image: "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light;" (Exodus 13:21). But this divine image was the "product" of a modulation -- a series of chords that shifts the music from the key of D-sharp minor to the key of D (natural) major -- "by enharmonic means," that is, by reading notes in their alternative identities, in this case reading A-sharp as B-flat, and C-double-sharp as D.

The modulation described in the poem is a rather complicated one: not the sort of thing one would inflict on first-year harmony students. The dominant-seventh chord in the key of D-sharp minor is the pivotal chord. Its component notes are (from bottom to top) A-sharp, C-double-sharp, E-sharp. G-sharp. Ordinarily, it would resolve to the tonic chord, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp, with the bass moving from A-sharp down to D-sharp, and the top note G-sharp moving down to F-sharp. But if the bass note A-sharp is read as B-flat instead of A-sharp, the chord becomes an augmented-sixth chord, because the interval between its lowest note, B-flat, and its highest, G-sharp, is an augmented sixth. This chord resolves in a different way. The bass note B-flat moves down to A, the C-double sharp stays the same but is read as D, the E-sharp moves up to F-sharp, and the top note G-sharp moves up to A --and the chord is the tonic chord of D major in the second inversion. From there, it is only necessary to proceed to the dominant-seventh and tonic of D major, and the modulation is complete.

In the poem, the spirit is liberated ("disimprisoned") at the magical moment when A-sharp is enharmonically transformed into B-flat, and C-double-sharp into D. Browning's vision is triggered, not by private fantasies, but by musical facts.

Example 2
: James Russell Lowell vs.Thomas Mann. These two authors describe, each in his own way, how a succession of musical sounds progresses to a climactic moment.

          James Russell Lowell: Remembered Music, A Fragment
Thick-rushing, like an ocean vast
Of bisons the far prairie shaking,
The notes crowd heavily and fast
As surfs, one plunging while the last
Draws seaward from its foamy breaking.

Or in low murmurs they began,
Rising and rising momently,
As o'er a harp Aeolian
A fitful breeze, until they ran
Up to a sudden ecstasy.

And then, like minute-drops of rain
Ringing in water silverly,
They lingering dropped and dropped again,
Till it was almost like a pain
To listen when the next would be.

The form and the content of this poem place musical climaxes precisely at the end of each of the following: a rushing herd of bison, waves breaking on the seashore, an Aeolian harp, and drops of rain. But all of these are repetitive and arhythmic. None has the temporal coherence of progressing through articulated stages to a climactic point and then dying away.Thus none resembles the form of the poem, or the form of the music that the poem purports to evoke.

The most important point to be made, however, is that the poem consists entirely of similes. The sounds of the music are "like" bisons, "as" surfs, "as" an Aeolian harp, "like" drops of rain. The poet gives us his own private associations, telling us what he imagines the music is like, but not what it is.

In contradistinction, Mann describes a specific harmonic progression in the climactic paragraph of his short story Luischen. In this story, the attorney Jacoby's wife and her lover, the musician Alfred Lautner, devise amateur entertainment for a party. To indulge his wife, Jacoby agrees to perform the song "Luischen," costumed as a female impersonator, to music for piano duet newly composed by Lautner. Thus, the concluding number in the show finds the unfaithful wife and her paramour together at the piano, and the cuckold, grotesque in his pathetic masquerade, on the stage.

          Thomas Mann: from Luischen (my translation)
Well, in his composition of a new musical setting to these words, Alfred Lautner had achieved his masterpiece, in which he had carried to an extreme his artifice of startling the listener with a sudden bit of high art-music in the midst of a vulgarly comic piece of hackwork. During its first few stanzas, the melody, in C-sharp major, was tolerably pretty and wholly banal. At the beginning of the above-quoted refrain, the rhythm became more animated, and dissonances occurred which, by an increasingly enthusiastic emphasis on B, aroused the expectation of a transition into F-sharp major. These dissonances became more and more complicated until the word "perform"; and after the words "I am." When the complexity and the tension had become total, a resolution into F-sharp major must inevitably have followed. Instead of this, the most amazing thing happened. With an abrupt twist, by means of what was almost a stroke of genius, the tonality here suddenly switched to F major; and the little section that followed, with the use of both pedals on the long drawn-out second syllable of the word "Luischen," had an indescribable, an utterly outrageous effect! It was a completely breathtaking surprise, a sudden touch on a nerve that made a shiver run down one's spine; it was a miracle, a revelation; it was, in the suddenness of its almost cruel disclosure, like the tearing asunder of a curtain.
     And at this F-major chord, the attorney Jacoby stopped dancing.

The harmonic progression described here is similar to that described in the poem by Browning. Here it is an enharmonic modulation from C-sharp major to F major through an augmented-sixth chord:

The song is in the key of C-sharp major. The tonic chord is the pivotal chord. Its component notes are (from bottom to top) C-sharp, E-sharp, G-sharp. The note B is added at the top, and repeated with "increasingly enthusiastic emphasis" which turns the chord into the dominant-seventh chord of F-sharp major. Ordinarily, it would resolve to the tonic chord, F-sharp, A-sharp, C-sharp, with the bass moving from C-sharp down to F-sharp, and the top note B moving down to A-sharp. But if the bass note C-sharp is read as D-flat instead of C-sharp, the chord becomes an augmented-sixth chord, because the interval between its lowest note, D-flat, and its highest, B, is an augmented sixth. This chord resolves in a different way. The bass note D-flat moves down to C, the E-sharp stays the same but is read as F, the G-sharp moves up to A, and the top note B moves up to C --and the chord is the tonic chord of F major in the second inversion. From there, it is only necessary to proceed to the dominant-seventh and tonic of F major, and the modulation is complete.

The unexpected harmony somehow reveals to Jacoby the terrible truth of the situation. In the middle of his vulgar song, he falls dead on the stage. The contrast with Lowell's poem is blatantly obvious. It is the difference between romantic idealism and cruel realism, between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. No less obvious, however, is the difference in the character of the description of music. Mann precisely specifies the details of the harmonic progression. He delineates, with merciless clarity, not only exactly what happens, but also on exactly what chord it happens.

Example 3
: Emile Zola vs. Aldous Huxley. Each of these authors puts a description of music in the mouth of one of his characters. In both cases, the character describes the music of several composers and draws comparisons between them.

The Zola example is from his novel L'Oeuvre. In a cafe late at night, Gagniere, one of the Bohemians with which the novel is populated, suddenly begins to expatiate upon various composers. The following few sentences are only the beginning of his harangue, which continues in the same vein for three pages.

          Emile Zola: L'Oeuvre, from chapter 7 (my translation)
"Haydn is rhetorical grace, a little tinkling music for an aged powdered grandmother... Mozart is the pioneer genius, the first to have given the orchestra an individual voice... And those two existed, above all, because they produced Beethoven... Ah, Beethoven! The power, the strength in serene suffering. Michelangelo at the tomb of the Medici!"

On the face of it, this dilettantish twaddle is in character. Gagneire is a second-rate landscape painter who dabbles in music. But this excerpt is seen in a different light when one realizes that all of Zola's passages on music are just the same. Zola, himself quite ignorant of music, parrots the pronouncements of his informant, the author Henri Ceard (1851-1924). The description of the overture to Tannhauser in L'Oeuvre is copied almost verbatim from the book Lohengrin et Tannhauser de Richard Wagner (1851) by Franz Liszt. None of Zola's characters is a competent musician. Their conversation about music is always satirical and insensitive. This is, on Zola's part, a means of masking his musical ignorance.

In Huxley's short story Young Archimedes, the narrator, staying at a rented villa near Florence, discovers the precocious genius of Guido, the youngest son of the neighboring tenant farmers. Guido listens avidly to the narrator's phonograph records. His comments on the music reveal a penetrating insight, unexpected in such an illiterate, uneducated little boy.

          Aldous Huxley: from Young Archimedes
"I don't like that one," he said of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. "It's like what we sing in our house. Not really like, you know. But somehow rather like, all the same. You understand?" He looked at us perplexedly and appealingly, as though begging us to understand what he meant and so save him from going on explaining. We nodded. Guido went on. "And then," he said, "the end doesn't seem to come properly out of the beginning. It's not like the one you played the first time." He hummed a bar or two from the slow movement of Bach's D Minor Concerto.

The symphonic poem Till Eulenpsiegels Lustige Streiche, Opus 28, by Richard Strauss, is intended to portray the adventures of a clownish German folk hero, and Guido instinctively recognizes its folk-like quality. He compares it to the folk music that his family sings in the evenings. He also perceives the loose structure of the work, the result of the composer's close adherence to the sequence of events to be depicted, even at the expense of strictly musical coherence. Quite rightly, Guido contrasts this approach with that exemplified by the second movement of the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043, by Johann Sebastien Bach, with its impeccable, autonomous musical logic.

The character's insight is astonishing, but the author's is no less so. It would have been relatively simple for Huxley to discuss the difference between Strauss and Bach in his own adult, sophisticated persona. To do so in the persona of an unschooled little peasant boy is a remarkable feat.

Descriptions of music as objective reality, such as those in the above examples, are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, there are quite enough of them. Even the three authors quoted in the examples would make a substantial anthology like this:

Robert Browning:
A Toccata of Galuppi's (from Men and Women)
Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha (from Men and Women)
Abt Vogler (from Dramatis Personae)
Flute-Music, With an Accompaniment (from Asolando)
Parleying With Charles Avison (from Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day)

Aldous Huxley:
The Bookshop
Point Counter Point, Chapters 2, 4, 37
Island, Chapter 15
Farcical History of Richard Greenow, Part 2
Brave New World, Chapter 5 Part 1

Thomas Mann:
Waelsungenblut
Tristan, Chapter 8
Doktor Faustus, Chapters 8, 15, 46
Der Zauberberg, Fuelle des Wohllauts
Buddenbrooks, Part 11 Chapter 2

The value of such objective descriptions of music lies, of course first of all, in the reader's pleasure in the artistry and expertise of the authors. But in addition, they may serve to break down the artificial barriers between what we call, pedantically and dogmatically and unjustifiably, separate disciplines.

Knowledgeable readers -- authors, critics, university lecturers -- with whom I discussed the subject, admitted that they did not remember the passages I quoted. Because of their unfamiliarity with music, they had simply overlooked the descriptions of music. On the other hand, musicians and musicologists, with whom I discussed the subject, admitted that they had never read the works I quoted.

Professionals of both kinds might profit from familiarity with these materials. Both groups are surely aware that metaphysical theorizing and pontificating about the "meaning" of music usually leads nowhere. These literary descriptions, precisely because they are musically "unprofessional" but still the products of artistic insight, reveal in a unique way how music is meaningful.