Music is abstract. Igor Stravinsky said that music was “essentially powerless to express anything at all.” Leonard Bernstein instructed millions watching his Young People’s Concerts on television, “Music is never about anything. Music just is.”
Any yet, and yet, and yet, music, as with Edward Hopper paintings (see previous post) invites meaning, invites interpretation and narrative. Beethoven’s “Eroica” may not be about anything, but it sure seems like it does. We cloak the music in composer biographies, in its historical moment. We add imagery, as the St. Louis Symphony will for Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars this season. We supply dancers or even a circus to the musical experience. Somehow, as do Hopper’s solitary women, the music maintains its integrity. It just is. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has remained inviolable, even after it was used to choreograph dinosaur battles in Disney’s Fantasia.
To allow the music to just be, to allow it no past or future, suspension rather than resolution, as Marks Strand puts it in relation to Hopper’s paintings, is an unnerving proposition. “…For many of us this is intolerable,” Strand writes, “…this unpleasant erasure of narrative.”
Ye we may realize the shattering poignancy of art.