Meaning in music is elusive — in fact, there are those who have said that music has no meaning
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Must we always find “meaning” in music? Why can’t our listening experience simply be one of absorbing the sounds which enter our ears without constantly questioning what those sounds might “mean”?
But of course we find meaning in music: it triggers an intuitive, visceral reaction in every one of us, a palpable emotional response, regardless of the genre of the music, and that alone demonstrates that it has meaning. Exactly what that ‘meaning’ is is personal and subjective, and it is this emotional subjectivity in the listening experience that leads me to feel tearfully moved by the slow movement of a piano sonata by Schubert, for example, while others may not feel the same.
This emotional, subjective reaction to music, which we all experience (even those people who say they “don’t know anything about classical music” but can explain how ‘The Lark Ascending’ makes them feel) suggests that the music itself has no meaning, that we invest our personal meaning in the music depending on context. This notion was examined by the composer and scientist Dr David Cope in his explorations of music composed by artificial intelligence: “The feelings that we get from listening to music are something we produce, it’s not there in the notes. It comes from emotional insight in each of us, the music is just the trigger” (interview in The Guardian, 2010). For many of us, classical music in particular is associated with beautiful sadness, deep joy, dramatic battles (between themes or characters), excitement, celebration, reflection, melancholy, tenderness, affection….. The experience of music can be very cathartic for listeners, invoking tears or laughter, with or without reason for the release.
I slightly take issue with Dr Cope’s assertion that feeling is “not there in the notes”, for composers deliberately use various devices in the written score – tempo, dynamics, articulation, harmony, silence – to convey meaning (emotion), and as sentient human beings, just like us, composers experience the full gamut of human emotion which they seek to portray in their music. Performers transmit this meaning through their own response to the score which is based not only on their musical knowledge and expertise, but also their personal emotional response and life experience. And they would not choose to play the music if it did not have some kind of meaning for them. The listener then completes the circle by bringing their own personal emotional reaction to the music.
music is very powerful. It is very difficult to remain unmoved by music
Responses to music and interpretations of its ‘meaning’ may also be determined by extrinsic factors, such as the reputation of the composer and/or performer/s (classical music being rather too obsessed with greatness in this regard) or the urban legend or infamy surrounding a certain work (for example, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata). It’s curious too how highly virtuosic music often has a greater cultural meaning for audiences and critics than simpler music (is it that the difficulty of the music makes it “better”?), yet many performers would agree that playing Mozart or the very spare music of a composer like Arvo Pärt is actually more challenging. Programme and liner notes also play a part in influencing how music is heard and understood; if the programme notes suggest that the Andantino of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata is an expression of anguish because he was dying of syphilis, some people will inevitably hear that anguish in the harsh modulation, frenzied demisemiquavers and dark chromaticism. And then there are associations which come from other media where certain pieces used in film soundtracks, for example, when heard in concert immediately conjure up emotional responses associated with seeing that film; Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, is for many of us synonymous with space travel after it was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thus we find meaning through the association of certain pieces of music with personal experiences.
In terms of its construction, every element of music can trigger a response from the listener: a jaunty rhythm or fast tempo may set feet tapping and raise the heartbeat, thus increasing a sense of excitement and energy (think of the opening of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries). A beautiful melody may elicit a sense of serenity, hushed pianissimo sections tenderness or intimacy, a particular interval or suspended harmony poignancy or yearning
The wonderful thing about music is that it offers the listener an experience of value which can be translated however she/he chooses. So while religious or politcally-motivated works of music, for example, may have a specific meaning for the composer in the context of the time when they were written (works by Messiaen or Shostakovich, for instance), each listener will take their own experience – and meaning – from that music. The great power of music, regardless of its genre, is that its meaning is ineffable – “where words fail music speaks” (Hans Christian Andersen) – and for many of us music perfectly expresses that which cannot be adequately expressed in words….
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MusicGurus, the online music education platform that partners with world
leading artists to create unique interactive lessons, has released Perform Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” March, April, June and October with pianist Julia Zilberquit, exclusively on musicgurus.com.
In this exciting masterclass, Julia will help you learn how to play her favourite four pieces from Tchaikovsky’s cycle ‘The Seasons’:
● March: Song of the Lark (G minor)
● April: Snowdrop (B-flat major)
● June: Barcarolle (G minor)
● October: Autumn Song (D minor)
Filmed in Julia’s house in New York City, this course offers more than 27 lessons in which students are taught how to play these four beautiful, atmospheric piano miniatures, and invited to ‘play along’ with Julia using the MusicGurus interactive sheet music player.
The original sheet music for the course was provided by Muzyka/Jurgenson, the leading music publisher in Russia, whose products are also distributed via Hal Leonard and C.F. Peters.
‘The Seasons’ has a very special place in piano repertoire and in addition to pure
technique, Julia helps you put the music into its historical context and to gain a deeper understanding to inform and inspire your own performance of these pieces.
This brilliant course will help you achieve your “most successful and gratifying
performances” (Julia Zilberquit).
The course Perform Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” with Julia Zilberquit is
available to purchase online at http://www.musicgurus.com.
Readers of this site can enjoy a 15% discount off the usual retail price of
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Julia Zilberquit is a Russian-born American pianist who has earned critical acclaim as a recitalist, chamber musician and recording artist. She’s been praised by The New York Times as “an outstanding soloist”, and her recordings have been called “a superb performance” by The Washington Post” or “a gorgeous rendition” by Gramophone magazine.
MusicGurus Ltd is an online learning platform that partners with the world’s best musicians to create interactive lessons to enable music lovers to “become the musician they’ve always wanted to be”.
Established in 2015 by Tom Rogers and Christo Esclapez, MusicGurus is fast becoming the industry leader in online music education. The platform offers 1000s of high-quality on-demand lessons across a variety of different instruments, skills, styles and abilities. Popular world-class ‘Gurus’ already teaching on the site include KT Tunstall, Paddy Milner (Tom Jones), Juliet Russell (The Voice UK) and industry brands including Rockschool.
It’s a simple concept – a theme, or melody, initially stated in its original form, is put through a series of transformations, often quite complex and including textural, dynamic and key changes, to take player and listener on a fascinating musical journey. The Theme and Variations remains a popular genre amongst composers and the myriad ways in which composers respond to this simple form has resulted in some of the most inventive, intriguing and daring music in the piano’s repertoire.
For her new release for BIS, pianist Clare Hammond has chosen to focus on themes and variations from the 20th and 21st centuries which demonstrate a wide range of emotions and expression, from Syzmanowski’s heartfelt and atmospheric Variations on a Polish Theme, replete with Chopinesque filigree decoration and a tender, introspective lyricism, to Sofia Gubaidulina’s imposing and dramatic Chaconne. These works bookend variations by Lachenmann, Birtwistle (his own tribute to Bach’s Goldberg Variations), Adams, Copland and Hindemith. Throughout, one has the sense of composers revelling in the Theme and Variations genre: the angular, abstract modernism of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, perhaps the most “unpianistic” work on the disc with its extreme contrasts, for which Hammond makes a convincing case for it, is offset by the expressive poignancy of Hindemith’s Variations (1936), here given a haunting reading by Hammond. John Adam’s I Still Play (2017) is a an attractive, melodic miniature, written with the accomplished amateur player in mind, whose winding waltz moves through a variety of stylistic allusions, including nods to Erik Satie and Bill Evans. The music never fully settles and Hammond is ever alert to its shifts and switches. It’s refreshing listening after the spiky atonality and dynamic outburst of Harrison Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain. Helmut Lachenmann’s Five Variations on a Theme of Franz Schubert start out in familiar territory – the theme is taken from Schubert’s Ecossaise D 643 – and the variations which follow refer back to the warmth of Schubert’s original interspersed with moments of playful wit, almost camp theatrical drama or turbulent frenzy. Again, Hammond’s account demonstrates how adept she is at handling music which switches between styles, textures and moods.
This interesting compilation of music offers a new angle on a well-known genre, eloquently and vividly portrayed by Clare Hammond, who shows an impressive fearlessness in tackling and recording some of the more complex or obtuse corners of the modern piano repertoire. It also serves as an excellent companion piece to her earlier recording Étude (also on the BIS label), exploring piano etudes by Lyapunov, Unsuk Chin, Syzmanowski and Kapustin.
BIS RECORDS BIS-2493 SACD
Recorded December 2019 at Potton Hall
The applause, from the orchestra, at the end of Stephen Hough’s performance of Brahms’ expansive, turbulent first piano concerto was unexpected and also very welcome in a concert devoid of an actual, live audience.
I admit I have not always warmed to livestream performances and have watched very few over the past year. But I applaud any artist or organisation which has made every effort to keep the music playing and musicians employed and, importantly, paid during what has been an incredibly difficult year for an already precarious profession. Chapeau to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (my “local” orchestra, since I moved to Dorset in 2018) for keeping us engaged and entertained with a wonderfully varied weekly programme of music and soloists (Paul Lewis, Gabriella Montero, Benjamin Grosvenor and Sunwook Kim, amongst others), presented via livestream and available for 30 days post-concert via the BSO website. They have also found a way to successfully monetise livestream concerts.
Livestream concerts are all we keen music lovers and concert-goers have at present, until the government deems it safe to reopen music venues and opera houses (probably in mid- to late May). I actually watched the BSO/Hough livestream two days after the live broadcast (one of the benefits of livestream is that one can watch it at one’s convenience, and on multiple occasions if desired!), on the first anniversary of my last visit to central London for a concert at Wigmore Hall (of course, at the time I didn’t realise it would be my last visit to a major London concert venue, in the company of a good friend, for a year; the coronavirus was only just beginning to be something of a concern back in February 2020…..).
Stephen Hough has a knack of selecting programmes which seem to perfectly chime with our curious, troubled times – for example, his latest release Vida Breve) – and the Brahms concerto is another good example. A work of restlessness and turbulence, seraphic serenity, and an energetic Hungarian dance as a finale, it seems to reflect the anxiety and hope which colour these strange days of lockdown.
Of course, Brahms didn’t know his music would resonate in this way when he wrote his first piano concerto. It’s the work of a young man, full of passion, intense in its emotional landscape and symphonic in scale and organisation. From the opening with its thunderous, ominous timpani and driving strings, its no-holds-barred orchestral writing, one has the sense of the young Brahms setting out his compositional stall with authority and maturity.
The piano is not always a soloist here, but also an obbligato instrument which takes over material from the orchestra and comments or expands on it. Between the BSO, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, and Stephen Hough there was a constant sense of sympathetic cooperation (sometimes these big romantic piano concertos can feel like an immense tussle between soloist and orchestra). Phrases were sensitively shaped and tempi allowed a certain suppleness. Hough has a remarkable instinct for natural rubato, to highlight certain phrases or harmonies, emphasise certain emotions or perfectly time the delayed gratification which we crave in music such as this; it was especially apparent in the seraphic slow movement, its hymn-like tranquillity and introspection redolent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. This was complemented by some particularly fine bassoon playing.
The Hungarian dance finale was a release of pressure from the adagio, alternately thunderously energetic and graceful, Hough switching between sparkling, fleet-fingered passages and sections of tender intimacy (and a certain intimacy imbues the entire concerto, despite its expansive scale – when Brahms is intimate, he is really really intimate!). Perhaps the greatest benefit of a filmed concert for the ‘piano nerd’, is that one is treated to close ups of the pianist’s hands and fingers in a way one could never see them in a live concert, and Hough has a remarkable economy in his playing, free of gestures which only serves to highlight the intensity of the music he is performing.
Overall, the AV quality of this livestream was impressive. Clever camera angles disguised the fact that the players were socially-distanced, and the camera did not linger long on the empty auditorium, instead offering viewers some excellent close-ups of individual players, conductor and of course soloist.
This concert is available on demand at bsolive.com until March 26
The ‘BSO At Home’ livestream performances from its home at The Lighthouse, Poole, continue on 3 March. Further information here
Most of us have had to live in lockdown or under various restrictions on our daily lives due to the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now. It has been a particularly difficult time for musicians, in an already precarious profession, and the knock-on effect of restrictions leading to the shut down for months on end of concert venues and opera houses, rehearsal spaces and other workplaces, has really highlighted the fragility of the musician’s life and how woefully unprepared the industry was to adapt to the challenges created by a global pandemic and governmental responses to it.
The lockdown has offered plenty of time – perhaps too much time – to reflect, and for many of us it has led to a reappraisal of how we work and what our priorities might be. I spoke to a number of musician friends and colleagues in the process of researching this article: it was heartening to learn that many have been able to find positives amidst the difficulties, but equally nearly everyone has faced challenges, often financial, over the past year.
As freelancers and self-employed people, musicians have felt undervalued and excluded by the UK government, which seems not to care about the arts nor really understands how the profession works. And to add insult to injury in a profession already feeling the bruising effects of lockdown restrictions, a further body blow was inflicted when a number of government ministers suggested that those who work in the arts were not “viable” and that they should seek employment elsewhere or retrain. This, understandably, was met with derision; what my conversations with musicians have revealed is that far from “unviable”, most have demonstrated that they are resilient, adaptable and resourceful, utilising skills developed through their training, a strong work ethic and a willingness to support one another. Some have had to take work outside the industry in order to survive financially; it cannot be easy trying to retain a sense of oneself as musician when one is working as a delivery driver or in a supermarket.
One of the hardest aspects of lockdown has been the lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues. Music is a collaborative, ensemble activity and in addition to rehearsing and playing, discussions and conversations with others are an important and stimulating part of the process of creating music. Something is lost when such conversations take place via a computer screen. Alongside this, regular interactions with musician colleagues allow ideas to flow and offer an important support network. Amateur musicians feel this strongly too, with the suspension of orchestras, choirs, piano clubs, meet-ups and music courses.
both my musical activities (choral singing, very socially-oriented) and piano playing (not so much) lose much of their meaning if I can’t physically do them with others
To try to counter this, ‘Zoom choirs’ and ensembles have been formed to allow people to sing and play together, albeit virtually. It’s an imperfect way to make music, when the activity is about working and playing collectively, in the same space, but it has at least offered an important sense of connection, and of course the opportunity to actually make music; some of these Zoom performances are really quite impressive. Their success relies on people who are fully conversant with the technology to create performances which are both glitch-free, and, as this example below by composer Thomas Hewitt Jones proves, communicate powerfully – which is what any musician seeks to do in a live performance.
Many musicians have had to get to grips with new technology to facilitate remote teaching and rehearsing. Venues too have had to learn how to present livestream performances; again, some of these have been really impressive with high-quality audio-visual effects which help to create atmosphere as well as convey the music to the audience in the best possible way.
although it is suspiciously easy to deliver orchestral recordings without any live players from my studio in the short term, it completely misses the point of what music-making really is, and there is no substitute for the real thing
Thomas Hewitt Jones, composer
For those for whom performing is their life-blood, their identity and a source of income, the loss of public performances has been particularly difficult. While many musicians have been quick to adapt to livestream and video concerts, almost everyone I spoke to profoundly misses the experience of live performance with an audience. Livestream offers a different way of giving concerts, and it has led to an increase in people engaging with classical music, but what all the musicians I spoke to agreed on is that no technology can ever replace the experience of live music – as a performer and listener. And an ongoing issue with livestream is how to monetise performances. Again, progress is being made here as musicians and venues explore ways to offer ticketed livestream performances, and for many, musicians and venues alike, livestream will continue to be an important part of the concert experience after the venues have reopened to live audiences.
When face-to-face working/rehearsing/performing was (and will be) permitted again musicians have, like the rest of us, had to adapt to measures such as social distancing – which means players are much further apart in an orchestral or ensemble setting, presenting its own challenges for players and conductor (and no page-turners for pianists) – wearing masks, taking regular Covid tests (and dealing with the consequences of a positive test result and loss of work/income), playing to much smaller, socially-distanced audiences, travel restrictions and myriad other issues which can add to the stress of an already stressful profession. In these scenarios, musicians have proved their willingness to be adaptable and, in their desire to be making music once again, have accepted the changes or restrictions to their working practices.
In terms of managing the day-to-day “sameness” of lockdown, many musicians cited the importance of having a daily routine. The loss of concert bookings has meant not only the loss of income but also the motivation to practice regularly, but equally this has offered more time to explore new repertoire or refresh previously-learnt music. And with all this extra time on their hands, many musicians have allowed themselves a much-needed break from the rigours of daily practicing, rehearsing, travelling and performing. This has also led some to reappraise their career in a profession with often unsociable hours and unattractive working conditions.
having personal projects and focusing on what is important for ME is still possible and that’s where where my growth as a musician is
Eleonor Bindman, pianist
Those musicians who also teach have perhaps fared better, as teaching at least offers regular income, but many have had to adapt very quickly to online teaching and learning new technology in order to continue to work. This has added to their skill set and allows them to be more flexible in their approach to teaching: when face-to-face teaching is not possible, they can at least continue to offer online teaching. Many have also reported that students seem more motivated and relaxed when playing at home on their own instruments.
online courses bring together musicians from all over the world, which is particularly important during the pandemic and post-Brexit
Penelope Roskell, pianist & professor of piano at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance
The overriding comment in response to my question What have musicians learnt from lockdown? is that there is no substitute for live music, before a live audience, and that we should never take for granted the importance of music and music-making (and the arts in general) is in our cultural, social and economic life.
Personal Demons – Lowell Liebermann, piano (Steinway & Sons label)
Released to coincide with his 60th birthday, American pianist and composer Lowell Liebermann’s new double album Personal Demons features three of his own compositions which have special significance for him alongside music by other composers which has haunted, inspired and shaped his musical career and compositional output. It’s an interesting mix of moods, from the demonic Presto opening movement of Liebermann’s suite Gargoyles (his most performed work) to the fragile lyricism of Kabeláč’s Preludes (a composer whose music I had not encountered before), the dark majesty of Liszt’s Totentanz and Busoni’s herculean Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Liebermann’s unsettled and haunting Apparitions complemented by the expressive peculiarities and unexpected harmonies of Schubert’s Hüttenbrenner, and finally Liebermann’s Nocturne No. 10, Op. 99, written in memory of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, which provides a moving and intimate, if not entirely settled, close to the album.
Liebermann’s playing is vivid, expressive and, when required, fleet and ferocious. This is exactly the kind of selection I’d happily hear in concert, and the opportunity to experience not only a composer playing his own music, but also the music which is particularly special to him offers some fascinating insights into Liebermann’s musical influences. This is also music which demands concentrated listening, but it’s well worth the effort.
Saint-Saens: Chopin and Liszt Sonatas arranged for two pianos – Simon Callaghan & Hiroaki Takenouchi (Nimbus)
This new release from Nimbus explores Saint-Saens as arranger in his own versions of piano sonatas by Chopin and Liszt.
I was expecting thicker, fuller textures, given that two pianos instead of one are employed here, but there is surprising lightness and delicacy in the passages where both pianos are playing, and wherever either piano is playing alone, it is playing the original text. Saint-Saens exercises surprising restraint in not adding too much of his own musical personality to these sonatas; instead, in Chopin’s “Marche Funebre” sonata, we are invited to fully appreciate the exquisite clarity and variety of Chopin’s writing. In the middle, lyrical section of the second movement, we have the sense of a proper duet between two separate instruments as Saint-Saens’ arrangement highlights Chopin’s elegant organisation of voices. In the funeral march, the bass line is a dark, dead bell, tolling solemnly beneath the famous melody before the second subject opens out into more majestic territory. The contrasting middle section is tender and lyrical, sensitively phrased with sinuous rubato.
Liszt considered making a two-piano transcription of his B-minor sonata and he would have doubtless approved of Saint-Saens’ arrangement which remains so faithful to the original but with the opportunity for expressive emphasis in the passages where both instruments are playing. As in the Chopin sonata, Saint-Saens’ deftly highlights duetting passages, allowing the listener to appreciate inner lines and details which may not always be obvious in the original version.
I have to confess that I never really taken to Liszt’s B-minor sonata, but Callaghan and Takenouchi make a persuasive case for this music in their performance and there are moments of high drama contrasting with great beauty and lyricism. The Andante Sostenuto middle movement is particularly arresting.