Thursday 1 November 2012

Beyond the blizzard of meaning

"The music’s skeletal textures now begin to fill rapidly, tension rises, and the dreaded thing finally happens: the secret police arrive, audibly climbing the stairs (figures 46-7) and bursting in through the door on a triumphant crescendo. In a brilliant alienative stroke, Shostakovich switches the two-note motto around in the upper orchestra like torch-beams while the NKVD move grimly through the darkened apartment in the guise of the vigil theme, growled out on tubas ad bass clarinet – an uncanny parallel to Orwell’s similar use of the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in the arrest scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four."

Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich (London: Fourth Estate, 1990), p112-113.  

I was reminded of this description of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony during yesterday’s performance of the Third Symphony of another twentieth century great, Sibelius, given by Osmo Vänskä and the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. MacDonald’s Shostakovich seems to compose only to narrate, and the descriptions of the music fall back continuously on a blizzard extra-musical visualisations. Dig too deep for ‘meaning’, though, and we can lose sight of what music does, fundamentally, which is move vertically and horizontally in a language all of its own.

Vänskä’s Sibelius offers an alternative route to musical fulfilment. He looks beyond the Romantic notion of sounds being analogous to feelings and images. His music-making is all about the notes – the way they fall on top of and beside one another. Suddenly, rhythm and harmony can be appreciated in their own right, rather than as codes and signs. To ask what the music ‘means’ becomes as futile as searching for the meaning of rivers and mountains.

No comments: