Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The popular appreciation of music as a language beyond words has origins in nineteenth-century German Romanticism and its unrestrained obsession with the expressiveness of musical sound. While composers of the genre were busy expanding the emotional dimensions of their craft, poets were writing about music with equal sentimental effusiveness. The expression heard in the works of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms inspired poets like Tieck, Schlegel and Heine to pour out laudatory verses proclaiming music’s unsurpassed ability to convey true feeling. To the poets, music was the embodiment of expression itself—their most venerated aesthetic principle—and they regularly infused their poems with musical references in hopes of harnessing that emotive power. Their ethos is captured in a quote from E. T. A. Hoffmann: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only entirely romantic one.”
The view of music as a transmitter of emotions spread throughout Europe and influenced other fields. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher and biologist, concluded that “primitives” developed the capacity for music specifically as a means of communicating their state of being. This anthropological assumption, while a product of its time, had many antecedents. The ancient Greeks, for instance, devised a musical system comprised of modes intended to evoke or intensify particular reactions. Other societies past and present possess a similar (if not as systematic) awareness of music’s potential to penetrate and manipulate our inner lives. Nonetheless, the exuberance with which Romantic-era writers emphasized and exalted music’s expressiveness has not been equaled.
As an example, here are some of Hoffmann’s comments on Beethoven: “Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens us to the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!”
Embedded in this characteristically verbose appraisal is the contradictory concession that music is “immeasurable” and thus incapable of being justly described in words. Goethe said it best: “Music begins where words end.” Try as they might to explain the sounds and effects, the poets freely admitted that their verse—like other art forms—could only approximate the purity of emotional transmission they felt in music. Theirs was an era when composers and performers greatly expanded the range and intensity of dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, harmony and all manner of musical coloration. Sympathetic feelings aroused in audiences reached unprecedented levels, and it was widely held that the soul of music made contact with the soul of the listener. All of this put music outside the grasp of language.
It is not necessary to adopt the often-exaggerated stance of the Romantics to value music’s emotional impact. Nor must one agree with the view of post-modern detractors, who argue that feelings induced by music are illusory, to acknowledge the limits of musical expression. Still, it is easy to accept the basic Romantic assertion: our emotional responses to music, real or imagined, account largely for our interest in the art form.
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