CAN MUSIC TELL A STORY?
by Edward Gold
Igor Stravinsky had a standard pronouncement concerning
music: He said "Music can express nothing but itself." or words to that
effect. This was the equivalent of Balanchine's "Ballet is woman!" and
both were uttered in a video on Balanchine (who was not a woman as far
as I was aware!). That they were both expressing their own prejudices
seems perfectly obvious, at least to me, and Mr. B's statement has long
been disproven in most particulars.
But when it comes to music, it's not that simple.
The idea that music is a mysterious art based entirely on
note relationships seems over-simplified. It must be allowed that it
also has a rich legacy as a symbolic language. If this is thought to be
artificial, consider that any "real" language is artificial to a great
extent, even if some words such as "boom" or "buzz" have an
The musical theory of affects suggest that the key of a
piece of music has a specific association such as Eb major being heroic
(the key of Beethoven's "Heroic" or "Eroica" Symphony.) or A major
being vernal and associated with the color green. But, it must be said
that key associations may vary from person to person. In addition,
smooth motion, often in eighth notes, suggests calm and more agitated
motion suggests strong emotion and the heartbeat for instance. A horn
ensemble playing in fifths and sixths in a fanfare-like style suggests
a hunting scene almost universally, at least in western music.
But when in so-called "program" music, it is said that music
is telling a story, one must question to what extent that is possible.
In vocal music where there is an association with words as in song or
opera, that a story is being told is unquestionable, of course. Where
the music is purely instrumental, then it becomes more problematic.
To a great extent, program music goes way back, even to
antiquity and it's usage is probably universal. In order to "tell a
story" in the more sophisticated examples, a literary program is often
supplied. Or at least subtitles as in Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony
or "Les Adieux" piano sonata or Mahler's partly vocal 3rd Symphony. In
the purely instrumental "What the animals in the forest tell me", not
only does Mahler supply a title but he also bases his material on one
of his "Wunderhorn" songs about a cuckoo and a nightingale. But Mahler
later suppressed these titles and Beethoven says something about "more
feeling than painting" in the "Pastoral". The Liszt Symphonic Poems and
similar works all have implied stories.
It must be said, though, that any successful program music
that has no audible text, needs to make sense musically on its own.
Liszt's famous symphonic poem "Les Preludes" in fact, was based on an
overture to an obscure cantata "The Four Elements" but Liszt revised it
with an introduction based on an entirely different poem by Lamartine.
On listening to this or any other programmatic work, I don't think it
is important or even possible that the story is brought to the mind of
An odd anecdote has it that someone (Respighi who
orchestrated some of his piano pieces?) mentioned to Rachmaninoff that
a certain Etude-Tableaux reminded him of a certain obscure Russian
painting. Rachmaninoff looked startled and said that was the exact
painting on which he based the piece. While this may not prove
anything, it's at least suggestive.
Suffice it to say that Stravinsky's favorite pronouncement
seems very far from the truth. If music's symbolic language attributes
are ignored, then we are left with a very impoverished view of music.