Shaping the invisible

When it comes to expressing emotion, is music better than words?

Mark WigglesworthTue 3rd September 2013

Music and words can each in turn be powerful or limited tools of communication – but together they are unbeatable

In his last opera, Capriccio, Strauss examines the relative value of words and music, and in the final scene the heroine has to decide which she believes more important. The ending is appropriately enigmatic. Both means of expression contain as many infinite possibilities as they do definite limitations.

In highly emotional situations one often hears people say that words cannot explain their feelings. I doubt breaking into song would help but music offers access to a channel of communication that allows for more expression than might otherwise be the case. There are people who stutter when they speak but not when they sing. The undiluted specifics of words can inhibit the complexity at the source of the feeling.

Music turns the complicated into the simple and using words to discuss it often proves problematic. Though some orchestras like the focus that comes from conductors who choose metaphors to define an interpretation, others find imagery a restriction on the scope of musical gestures. Like the very air we breathe, the value of music lies in the wonder of its infinite reach. It cannot describe a teaspoon, yet in one phrase it can portray love’s heart-aching joy or reveal the deep sadness of sorrow in a single chord. It shapes the invisible.

But is music’s greatest strength also its greatest weakness? Does its equivocal nature lie at the heart of its merit or might its ambiguities actually weaken its expression? Music may be powerful, but its sentiments can be generic. Musicians appear to wear a heart on their sleeves, but only with the best is one sure whose heart it is. The untranslatable qualities of music can offer a protective cloak of anonymity for both performer and audience alike.

The prescriptive quality of words makes them less open to a personal interpretation, yet they are nevertheless more easily misunderstood. Unlike music, one has to think about words to understand them. The positives and negatives of this are clear. Does the specificity of words limit their depth or make them more potent? Prosody moves fewer people to tears but it can still take your breath away. The greatest writers create mysterious sources of beauty and unending founts of inspiration. Limited is hardly the word that springs to mind when thinking of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Eliot.

Hans Christian Anderson said that ‘where words fail, music speaks.’ But when the singers explode out of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth it sounds as if the opposite is true. Beethoven needed Schiller’s text to make his point explicit. There is a sense of the meaning being extended rather than restricted. It is of course the enrichment that words and music bring to each other that offers the ultimate expression. It is hardly surprising that a song is the commonest form of artistic communication. With the voice of a great composer the message of music can be precise; in the hands of a great writer, the meaning of words is infinite. The combination of the two is irresistible.

On that note, or should I say with those words, I am going to take a break from this series of articles. As a musician, I have reached my limit as a writer - for the time being at least. I'm very grateful to Gramophone for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on music and conducting, and hope that they have been of some interest, to some of you, some of the time!  Mark


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