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Music Speaks

Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song

Daniel Albright
Volume: 69
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Music Speaks
    Book Description:

    From Daniel Albright, author of Musicking Shakespeare and Berlioz's Semi-Operas, comes a collection of essays on music and on dance, probing the problems of articulating the meaning(s) of music; the larger question of how music and language interact; how

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-729-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Note on the Text
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Daniel Albright
  6. Part One: Music

    • Chapter One Music’s Pentecost, Music’s Stupidity
      (pp. 3-14)

      We often think of music as a translation of emotional states. You know that a violin playing droopy phrases means you’re supposed to weep; you know that Sousa marches mean you’re supposed to feel exhilarated. But these conventional mood settings seem pretty vague. Can music aspire to more precise kinds of translation? Can sentences, stories, dramas be translated into music? If so, does the resulting music have any of the properties of spoken or written language? I want to discuss the ways in which music—instrumental music—has a linguistic character, as if it translated texts (real or imaginary) into...

    • Chapter Two Heine and the Composers
      (pp. 15-38)

      We are in a cozy salon, which we see in soft focus, lit with warm red, full of upholstered leather furniture in the best modern taste. The soprano, sober in a fur-collared jacket, gazes at us as the pianist plays the gentle prelude. There is something odd about the windows, though. The left window shows a somewhat jittery scene, as if there were a minor earthquake that no one was noticing; the right window shows the right eye and part of the mouth of the soprano’s huge face.

      Heinrich Heine and Franz Schubert were born in the same year, 1797....

    • Chapter Three The Diabolical Senta
      (pp. 39-57)

      Bored with her life of repetitive chores, a girl dreams of a dark ship full of death and annihilation, an escape from the mundane into some fantastic passion (figure 3.1):

      Bored with her life of repetitive chores, a girl dreams of a dark ship full of death and annihilation, an escape from the mundane into some fantastic passion (figure 3.2):

      But I repeat myself; and in a sense Kurt Weill, in the famous refrain of “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (1928) repeated Wagner from eighty-five years before. Weill’s refrain has a similar profile to that of Senta’s phrase...

    • Chapter Four Les Troyens: The Undoing of Opera
      (pp. 58-71)

      Berlioz found it easier to make money as a critic than as a composer, and much of his music is essentially critical in character. Les Troyens, for example, can be understood as a critique of opera and a critique of epic.

      In the French imagination, opera and epic were only hazily separated. In the Diderot-d’Alembert Encyclopédie, the author of the entry on opera (Louis de Jaucourt) defines opera as follows:

      As to its dramatic aspect, an opera is the representation of a marvelous action. It is the divine of the epic turned into spectacle. Since the actors are gods or...

    • Chapter Five Far Sounds in Zemlinsky and Schreker
      (pp. 72-93)

      Seated one day at the organ,

      I was weary and ill at ease;

      And my fingers wandered idly

      Over the noisy keys.

      I know not what I was playing

      Or what I was dreaming then,

      But I struck one chord of music

      Like the sound of a great Amen.

      It flooded the crimson twilight

      Like the close of an angel’s psalm,

      And it lay on my fevered spirit

      With a touch of infinite calm.

      It quieted pain and sorrow

      Like love overcoming strife;

      It seemed the harmonious echo

      From our discordant life.

      It linked all perplexèd meanings

      Into one perfect...

    • Chapter Six Butchering Moses
      (pp. 94-104)

      There is no Moses, only a whole tribe of Moseses. In the course of his life he undergoes many shape changes: an abandoned child drifting down a river; the leader of a slave revolt; a guide through the wilderness; a miracle worker; a lawgiver; a literary man writing the Pentateuch; a figure of disappointment, gazing from the mountaintop at the land of milk and honey he will never be permitted to enter. It is to be expected, then, that artistic representations of Moses would be vague and contradictory.

      There is a small tradition of memorable musical Moseses. For example, in...

    • Chapter Seven Elliott Carter and Poetry: Listening to, Listening Through
      (pp. 105-121)

      Poets have always been listening. The meanings they seek to convey in their poems often seem to lie half outside the words, in the rush of wind or water, in the thunder, in the cries of birds, as if poets were trying to translate into human language a poetry that preexists in the whole body of the world’s sounds. Composers also listen. When they read poems, they listen both to the music of the words themselves, and to the music on the far side of the poems, the music that the poets themselves were attending to. So when Haydn sets...

    • Chapter Eight Sophoclean Opera
      (pp. 122-144)

      Everyone knows that opera arose at the end of the sixteenth century as an experiment in recapturing the music of Greek tragedy. But strangely, the composers of the first operas had little use for the actual texts of Greek tragedies. Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600) and Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) were both based on the story of Orpheus as known principally from Ovid’s Metamorphoses X, with certain details taken from Virgil’s Georgics IV and Angelo Poliziano’s terse drama La favola di Orfeo (1480). There is no extant Greek tragedy starring Orpheus, but the early opera writers were so enamored of the...

    • Chapter Nine Belletristic Music in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 145-160)

      Every face of modernism is the face of Janus. To tell the story of modernism is to tell two stories simultaneously, in dissonant counterpoint—for each story makes itself felt against the antistory that shadows it. For example, one story of modernism concerns aesthetic purism, the strict partitioning of one medium from another. The great narrator of this story is the art historian Clement Greenberg, who writes, “To restore the identity of an art the opacity of its medium must be emphasized.”¹ The puritan Greenberg resists the slightest erasure of the lines that divide one art form from another. He...

  7. Part Two: Dance

    • Chapter Ten Golden Calves: The Role of Dance in Opera
      (pp. 163-177)

      Imagine a performance of Swan Lake in which Odette waves her arms up and down and runs in circles while a puzzled Prince Siegfried looks on, scratching his head. Eventually the exasperated ballerina simply stops, turns to him, and says, “Don’t you get it?—I’m supposed to be a swan!” Few rules in any art form are more stringent than the rule in classical ballet that dancers can’t talk. Long ago I saw at Covent Garden a performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet The Song of the Earth, in which Anthony Dowell made a megaphone of his hands in front of...

    • Chapter Eleven Elephant Swan Space Grace
      (pp. 178-196)

      What is the origin of dance? According to one distinguished authority, dance precedes speech, precedes thinking, precedes feeling itself. Dance is the very first art of being human. The distinguished authority I have in mind is Ludwig van Beethoven, who described the beginning of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus as follows:

      The two [statues] move slowly across the stage from the background.— P[rometheus] . . . is pleased when he sees that his plan is such a success; he is inexpressibly delighted, stands up and beckons to the children to stop—They turn slowly towards him in an expressionless...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 197-208)
  9. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 209-212)
  10. Index
    (pp. 213-218)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 219-225)