Saturday, November 11, 2017

Roger Sessions, Guest Blogger

I picked up a copy of Roger Sessions's The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener at a library sale last month. It is a collection of six lectures that Mr. Sessions gave at the Juilliard School of Music in 1949. I thought that, being a small book, it would be something I could read on an airplane. I think that I'll just keep it with me all the time to read and re-read wherever I happen to be. Here's a sample from the second chapter, "The Musical Ear:"
As happens so often in speaking of music, the facts are much simpler than the words found to describe them. No one denies that music arouses emotions, no do most people deny that the values of music are both qualitatively and quantitatively connected with the emotions it arouses. Yet it is not easy to say just what this connection is. If we try to define the emotions aroused by specific pieces of music, we run into difficulties. I have referred elsewhere to cases in which the emotional purportedly expressed in a given work have been defined by different musicians in quite different terms. For instance, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony has been described by three composers, including Berlioz and Wagner, as "heroic" or "warlike," as "pastoral," or as the "apotheosis of the dance." This is a celebrated example, since two composers of genius and many musicians of lesser stature have been articulate about it. But you have only to read the various interpretive comments on almost any well-known work to find the same result.

Does this mean that the "message" or "emotional content" of music is an illusion, and that actually a given piece of music conveys one thing to one man, another thing to another, and that our illusion of specific emotional content derives entirely from the quite adventitious associations which we are able to bring to it? I do not believe this for a moment and I thoroughly dislike the terms, indeed the whole jargon, in general use. On the contrary, I believe that music "expresses" something very definite, and that it expresses it in the most precise way. In embodying movement, in the most subtle and most delicate manner possible, it communicates the attitudes inherent in, and implied by, that movement; its speed, its energy, its élan or impulse, its tenseness or relaxation, its agitation or its tranquility, its decisiveness or its hesitation. It communicates in a marvelously vivid and exact way the dynamics and the abstract qualities of emotion, but any specific emotional content the composer wishes to give to it must be furnished, as it were, from without, by means of an associative program. Music not only "expresses" movement, but embodies, defines, and qualifies it. Each musical phrase is a unique gesture and through the cumulative effect of such gestures we gain a clear sense of a quality of feeling behind them. But unless the composer directs our associations along definite lines, as composers of all times, to be sure, have frequently done, it will be the individual imagination of the listener, and not the music itself, which defines the emotion. What the music does is to animate the emotion; the music, in other words, develops and moves on a level that is essentially below the level of conscious emotion. Its realm is that of emotional energy rather than that of emotion in the specific sense.


Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

wow - what a find - years ago I came up with "music is gesture made audible" and have wondered why that's not talked about more - et voila! Many thanks for this post.

Michael Leddy said...

A little book ... maybe this is The Elements of Style of music.