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Make a Joyful Noise

A recent review by one of our foremost music critics contained the following statement: "The avoidance of any suggestion of a program has been one of the diseases afflicting much music in our century, possibly because we have idealized the Bach who wrote the Art of the Fugue and tended to ignore the Bach who wrote the cantatas and passions." But is the avoidance of programmatic ideas really the issue? Or is it the absence of musical impulses which listeners may recognize and to which they may respond — with or without scenarios?

True, some of us remember a time when misguided educators assigned programs (and/or lyrics) to all music, whether or not this was the composer's intent. The fabrication of often absurd story lines used to be a component of "music appreciation," and we are well rid of this preposterous practice. Music for film (especially in the days of silent flicks) was so stock that certain harmonies or rhythmic patterns invariably accompanied certain dramatic situations. Who will forget the dreaded diminished seventh and its theatrical implications? Small wonder that a new generation of composers, wishing to avoid stereotype, sought more abstract, less programmatic, points of departure.

But that amazing medium of human communication, music, is both too simple and too complex to be permanently pigeonholed into devices or their avoidance. What could be earthier, more visceral, less convoluted than music? In biblical times, music already was widely used to enhance military fervor, summon to prayer, express gladness of the heart. Throughout literature, music has been the conveyor of love and the diffusor of sadness. And throughout all the ages of man, music has been the underpinning of dance. It took no esthete or musicologist to respond to its magic. It dealt with time and space and motion in ways instantly perceived by prince and pauper, by professor and peon.

There is a vast difference between scenario and feeling. Take, for example, the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven, bearing the following comment in the composer's hand: "Pastoral Symphony or a recollection of Country-life. (More an expression of feeling than painting.)" The five movements' descriptive captions—I) Cheerful impressions received on arriving in the country; II) By the brook; III) Peasants' merry-making; IV) Tempest and storm; V) The Shepherds' Hymn, Thanksgiving after the storm—have stimulated listeners to conjure up museumsful of pictorial images. Now consider the same composer's Seventh Symphony. Although Wagner did refer to it as "the apotheosis of the dance," no formal program was coined by Beethoven. Does the absence of an ideological or pictorial schema mean, however, that we hear only "abstract sound"? Of course not. There are countless ways of listening to music, each with a wide range of associations. How vividly we are affected by those opening measures, often without knowing it! Those with technical facility might point to the orchestral spacing of the A major chord's detached quarter note, leaving audible only a long, sustained oboe line. But the point is that we do not have to analyze to experience the response. Both the "programmatic" Sixth and the "non-programmatic" Seventh have captivated us for over 150 years.

Moreover, composers' directives on what listeners are to feel (or fail to feel) are largely academic exercises, sometimes helpful in putting the composer-writer in biographical focus, but esthetically useless. Have the copious program notes of some composers enhanced their listeners' response? Has Igor Stravinsky's allegation that the Symphony of Psalms is entirely abstract impeded response?

Why have so many people of taste, education, and means chosen, at best, to pay lip service and, at worst, to ignore music's modern muse? In a 1910 essay on Chopin, Maurice Ravel wrote: "It is a property of all true music to evoke feelings, landscapes, characters." Could it be that we fail to perceive a connection between the music and the most fundamental and ineluctable human attributes? If that were the case, composers might do well to address those dimensions which may be magnetized in all of us, just as the ancient bards did of yore. With all our sophistication, technological and critical, we have changed not an iota and are still appealing to our artists to let us live more comfortably with our humanity, to make us laugh and cry, dance and rejoice. If we but understand its impulse no art may better move us than music.

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