Barenboim shows how one Beethoven phrase can be both funny and tragic

His latest mini-lecture addresses conflicting perceptions in Beethoven’s opus 10/3.

Barenboim argues that these two irreconcilable views encapsulate the futility of ascribing meaning to a piece of music. But if music has no meaning except sound why would it occupy the human mind?

Surely music must mean more than the notes on the page?



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  • I think Mr. Barenboim is not saying that music is merely notes on a page. Rather, he is saying that music is a language that cannot be described with words. There is an old saying: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Or another analogy is: “Tell me what blue looks like”

    • Barenboim says literally: ‘Music can only be explained through sound’. But what would that mean? That other sounds than the sound of music can explain music? That only its sounds can be explained? Probably he means the latter. But what is an explanation of the sounds of music, an acoustical graph? A musicological analysis of its melody, harmony and rhythm? A statistical analysis à la Alan Forte? A Schenkerian analysis showing foreground, middle ground and background? All this merely says something about the notes on the page and it is irrelevant to the musical experience, as it is irrelevant to (good) performers.

  • Barenboim says that what we think is the ‘content’ or ‘expression’ of a musical work is not in the music, but is our reaction to it. This is like saying: ‘You think you are seeing the green colour of the grass, but you are merely aware of your own experience of the green of the grass’. Although it is very hard to explain green to a colourblind person, we know that the ‘green’ is a property of the grass, our senses connect us to the world so that we can experience the greenness of grass. So it is with music: all we experience in listening to music, is in the music itself, and our senses (ears, emotional reception wires, our imagination) connect us to the music we hear so that we can innerly experience what is going-on in the ‘imaginary space’ of the piece (as Roger Scruton would describe). The more developed our musical senses, the more we hear, and the more restricted or undedeveloped they are, the smaller the range of expression we experience.

    That people can hear different things in a piece, does not mean that THEREFORE these different experiences prove that they cannot be related to what is ‘in’ the piece. It is obvious that music is not conceptual as language is (and also language can have more than one meaning); music can have multiple expressive meanings in the form of different shades of emotional awareness, and they may be seemingly mutually exclusive. You can have a performance of an autumnal, consoling Brahms symhony, and a perfomance of the same piece that is tense, angstridden and dramatic. They are both as optional expressions embedded in the music and conductors bring-out the one or the other, according to their own receptive framework.

    And then, of course language can say something meaningful about music, and if well done, the language will be poetic, coming close to music. In the 19th century there was a widespread awareness that language and music are related on a deep level, not only in the bourgeois, rather cheap programme booklets of concerts ‘explaining’ the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, but throughout literary and musical professional circles. The genres of the Lied and opera are obvious proof, if any would be needed, that language and music can be related in a profoundly meaningful way, and that is only possible if music holds emotionally-expressive meanings that can be related to words, which have their own meaning (so that a protagonist in an opera can ‘say’ something, but the music in the pit another thing). Music is infinitely flexible and a ‘language’ of emotional experience. The idea that music is only sound, stems from Hanslick, the Viennese 19C critic, and his opponient was, of course, Wagner, who proved beyond any doubt that music is an expressive ‘language’ of the emotions plumbing deeper depts than any analysis of sound could possibly rival. Composers before modernism consciously, willfully, intentionally tried to create sounds that would convey all kinds of emotional experiences, that was the entire point of their art. Barenboim was a friend of some postwar composer I do not want to mention (otherwise I may loose my PA), and it seems that he was influenced by the crooked ideas of sonicism, that music is merely sound and that the whole dimension of what ‘innocent’ audiences and ‘underdeveloped’ performers called ‘expression’ was merely projection and outdated blablah.

    By the way, Arrau was wrong, those first bars do not have anything tragic in them: being an oldfashioned romantic, he tried to put something of pathos in a couple of innocent notes, that also are not ‘humorous’ but merely slightly ironic – as far as irony can be expressed in music, which I doubt. Barenboim has a way of claiming all kinds of things about – preferably – safe master pieces that everybody knows, to convey some sort of definite authority, but he forgets the multifarious, equivocal and suggestive mystery that is the soul of (serious) music making.

    • Here’s an example of what we could call the “Borstlapian Syllogism”:
      1/ Arrau said something
      2/ Barenboim found this something interesting
      3/ Barenboim was a longtime-friend of P.B.
      >> so, Arrau was wrong.

  • Milka has taught for decades that music in itself is only about sound.It is the most abstract of the art forms .The sounds can please or not , depending on
    the listener and performer . Any meaning as Milka has noted here many times comes from the listener .Mr. Barenboim has not shown us how one phrase can be tragic or
    funny except to note two different people attach their own meaning to a work of music .
    It is the same notation .The meaning is always with the listener and conditioning .

  • Barenboim is correct. Yet it is extremely trendy now among musical experts and performers to repeatedly note “the humor” in certain passages of music. Perhaps this is true in certain program music; but it is hardly true in non-program music. I get irritated by musicians who are constantly telling me that I need to hear the humor in something (the implication being if I don’t, I’m under-cultured).

    Abstract art also has no meaning. “But what does it MEAN?” said Mike Wallace to Dorothy Vogel, one of the great collectors of modern art in the 20th century, as they gazed upon a tiny work of art she had acquired that consisted of one piece of yarn attached to the wall. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s art,” said Dorothy.

    • Meaningless art (tinned excrements, cut corpses in formadehyde, dirty beds, balloon animals) is not art. Abstract art = decorative art (islamic mosaics, medieval manuscripts, modern hotel lobby paintings).

    • Perhaps you need to read this book I’ve got on my shelf:

      “Haydn’s Ingenious Jesting with Art”, Gretchen A. Wheelock, Schirmer, NY, 1992

      • I searched and searched and couldn’t locate my first posting; then when I posted the second one it suddenly appeared (cue “Jaws” music).

    • I recommend the following book:

      “Haydn’s Ingenious Jesting with Art”, Gretchen A. Wheelock, Schirmer, NY, 1992

  • Barenboim is right. So was Eduard Hanslick in his epic battles with Wagner and his accolites a century-and-a-half ago.

    • Hanslick tried to explain that ‘musical expression’ was not the result of vague emotional associations, but of the structural properties of the music itself, that it ‘expresses itself’ through its abstract patterns. But music can be both: expressive through structural patterns which invoke emotional associations. And what is it, that is expressed? It is the distilled emotional essence without its concrete cause, so that the experience can be related to comparable experiences of the listener. It is this property of classical music which makes it accessible to people in very different times and places, because it appeals to universal human experience without being specific. Wagner used structural patterns to achieve his expressive results, as did Brahms, they only did it in different ways and in different genres. Hanslick criticized the superficial emotion cult of his day of which Wagner’s works had fallen prey; his articles about the receptions of the Ring and Parsifal still make hilarious reading.

  • That is because music is the most ambivalent of art forms: one phrase from one piece can have totally different meanings, depending on the person who is listening to it. Hence the myriads of ways this phrase can be interpreted by various interpreters. There were even great interpreters who never played a phrase exactly the same way twice (or so they said). It’s the same with tempo: it varies, it depends on mood, instrument, acoustics, etc.

    • True…. and it’s all in the music, except willful excesses by performers who want to put their own ego into the music for effect (there are lots of them). Performers of integrity want to have their personal range of musical qualities serving the music, not the other way around.

      • Yes, but even here it’s difficult to make objective judgements: for some an interpretation is perfectly fine & satisfying while for others it’s stylistically unacceptable…and some may find a certain interpreter “boring” while others find him/her a model of integrity and tastefulness…

        • Agreed. But that objective judgements in (serious) music are very difficult or probably impossible, does not mean that the experience of music is entirely subjective and for that reason separated from the music. In contrary, music creates a kind of resonance with the listener, and this is in itself an objective observation. How the resonance will be experienced, is then subjective (as our experience of the greenness of grass is subjective but also the colour is an objectively verifiable property of the grass).

          But is the subjective quality of music making and experiencing not the very quality that keeps music alive? A performance is never fixed in stone. But also, interpreptations cannot differ too much from the identity of a center, and what we see in performance history is a gradual defining of the identity of a musical work as a result of many performances in different circumstances in different times. I am sure we are now closer to a correct performance and understanding of, say, the works of Bach, than around 1875 or 1900.

          There is this interesting story about the string quartet that played a Brahms quartet to the composer in his Vienna home, after which he said: ‘Yes, that is beautiful, excellent. Last week there was here another quartet playing the same piece and they did it very differently, but also very beautifully.’ He approved of both renditions, which could only be possible if they did not stretch the identity of the music too far (like playing an allegro in andante, or change notes or dynamics).

    • “Onzin”, because you don’t really understand what he’s writing? I find this discussion very interesting…

          • Don’t forget that Mrs MIlka is suffering in the midst of the Serbian woods, locked-up with a laptop, and excluded from the communal singing sessions after dinner. How could she be interested in musical subjects while hearing the enthusiasm in the next room? Being taken seriously here is possibly her only compensation.

  • And why can’t this phrase be both humourous and serious? Or neither of these? That’s what interpretation is about, and it’s something entirely different from formal analysis of this fragment. And, within the framework of the formal analysis and the composer’s specifications, there exist so many possibilities of how to express it, and, by extension, how it might be heard and experienced. Irrespective of my own opinion, there is no “right” or “wrong” in these different aspects of interpretation. There is only your perception of it based on who you are and how you experience music. I find that incredibly exciting.

    • Agreed! Personally I find this beginning of the third movement neither humorous nor serious or tragic. For me it’s more erratic, with an element of suspense.

  • Poor Borstlap –just as he is in a time warp with music he is also caught up
    in the mistaken belief that Milka is Serbian, how he came to this would be
    an interesting study and is perhaps as equally warped as his music observations.

    • There are more. Yesterday we got an email message from a Mrs Milka from Sankt Gallen, informing us that she is regularly teased on her work for her name seeming to refer to the chocolate name and the ‘bitter remarks’ on Slipped Disc, pleading Mr B to soften his comments and explain it’s not her. Indeed it’s mysoginist! So, it’s not her, for the record.

        • Sorry about that…. it’s because I had to bring the dictionary back to the library.

          Also Lady Bromovic from Hampstead, the widow of late Sir Eldridge Bromovic, who fled the nazis in the thirties and founded the famous button factory, is not ‘Milka’. Her staff giggles every time she starts the computer.

  • Humor in classical music is rather rare but does appear sometimes. In this case however, according to the story as told by DB, both Fischer and Arrau stretched the “meaning” of those opening phrases nearly beyond recognition, the latter of the two particularly so. While with a little bit of effort one can imagine a slight smile in that passage, there is clearly nothing that is anywhere close to tragedy there. When Beethoven wanted truly “tragic interruptions”, he knew how to do that, e.g. concluding phrases of Eroica’s second movement. A hesitant beginning is not at all the same as a dying ending.

  • I have many times thought about this. Both Beethoven and Haydn often take a short motive and repeat it in varying ways, exploring its character. With Haydn, this is called humour; with Beethoven, tragic.

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