Mimesis: Musical Representations

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

This season’s opening concert addresses a basic and persistent question that has remained the subject of endless debate and speculation. The answer remains unresolved and contested, a fact that inspired Leonard Bernstein to appropriate the title of a work by Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question,” for his Harvard Norton Lectures on music. This concert invites the audience to explore the character of music through the medium of “classical” (or, as Bernstein once put it, “exact”) music written during the past century and a half.

The program seeks to inspire each of us to ask: How does music mean? What resemblances or divergences does it have to words and images? What did composers intend to communicate and can we know that from hearing the music? Do we perceive or attribute significance in music differently from previous generations? Is listening, like seeing, a human experience that changes over time, rendering listening as an historical phenomenon? Has something changed over the past century in our perception of the musical experience?

The oldest piece in this concert, and its closing work, was written at the end of the 19th century. It is the best known and perhaps the most candidly philosophical work of the four on tonight’s program. Richard Strauss was influenced, as were many in his generation, by Nietzsche’s startling poetic masterpiece, the epic Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Strauss read literature and philosophy closely. His encounter with Nietzsche informed, among other things, his lifelong atheism and his skeptical attitude to an idealistic view of music as a medium of metaphysical truth. Despite his deep admiration for how Wagner wrote music, he remained skeptical about Wagner’s extravagant claims on behalf of music with regard to philosophy and politics.

As the famous opening of Nietzsche’s poem (and Strauss’ tone poem) make plain, Nietzsche’s ambition is to force us to fundamentally invert our inherited scale of values. It is not a metaphysical God or the Sun whom we should worship and feel beholden to. Rather it is the Sun who should be grateful to the human individual, for only humans create value and meaning. If it were not for someone to shine on, the Sun would have neither purpose nor meaning. It is not God (our invention), the heavens, or our soul that is of greatest value, but the body, the physical, the time bound, mortal character of real human existence on earth that is our greatest gift and merits celebration. It is we, after all, who have invented the idea of the soul. Our very mortality and earth-bound world permit us to love, sense beauty, and think. The glorious, triumphant, and sensual opening (made famous by Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) of Strauss’ tone poem is not a musical depiction of the sun rising, but is rather the bold expression of an individual imagination that helps vest what we see with a grandeur that is not inherent in what is out there, but exists only in the act of lending experience meaning. What Strauss drew from Nietzsche is the conviction that the making of art, and music in particular, was the highest and most fully human expression of greatness and the most powerful medium by which to define, represent, and conjure human reality and experience. As Strauss traverses Nietzsche’s poem, he displays his unrivaled command of musical thought and sonority to evoke the language, events, and ideas of the text, and to match the poetry with a musical interpretation as moving, beautiful, and dramatic as the literary text itself.

Next in chronological sequence is the late Gunther Schuller’s best known orchestral work, the Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee. Written in the late 1950s, a half-century after Strauss, Schuller’s concerns were more formalist in nature. Schuller, an eclectic and astonishingly versatile modernist composer, explored the formal parallels between music and the visual arts. By the mid-twentieth century, modernist painting rejected the illusions of visual realism, in which art gave the viewer the sense of seeing some “objective” external reality or seeing how the painter saw external reality subjectively. Consider a portrait, a landscape, or a genre scene. The most aggressive retreat from any such connection between representation and the clearly artificial frame of a painting was abstraction and non-objective art, both of which sought to celebrate the self-referential formal elements of the visual as autonomous and divorced even from an impressionist or expressionist subjective response to the external world. In Klee, Schuller found a painter who sought to do something similar to what modernist composers in the twentieth century hoped to achieve: a distancing from any overt inherited connection between musical rhetoric—the shape of melodies and the use of rhythm and harmony—and ordinary meaning. Music ought not illustrate or represent reality in any manner reminiscent of realist painting. Music had to become free of overt mimesis and create new meaning within the framework of its own elements and practices, using sound, silence, and time. Klee, who was also a fine musician and a devoted listener, found inspiration for his visual creations in music, and Schuller, in turn, took inspiration from Klee’s unabashedly “musical” approach to painting.

Henri Dutilleux, one of the great composers of the late twentieth century, in his song cycle Correspondances explores, as Byron Adams points out, not only the link between language and music, but between the visual and music. Using the tradition of speculation about art centered in Baudelaire, Dutillieux also references letter writing. Dutillieux uses music to augment and divert from linguistic meaning and seeks to work out from language. The letter, as a medium, is the most direct form of communication; it is private writing between two people. Dutillieux explores how composed, written music can create sensibilities and meanings beyond the range of words. In letters there is a writer and a recipient: two subjective voices. In music, a unifying temporal frame is created. The writer and reader meet simultaneously, and share in a transformative reading that extends the boundaries of the text. Music neither represents nor interprets the text. Yet it reveals a nascent presence of something in words that without music never comes into being. The descriptive language about the visual experience only deepens the link between music and words. The irony in the title becomes evident. When we write, do we actually correspond, and match our understandings? Does the reading of a recipient match the intentions of the writer? If that is clearly a complex and open question, might one also ask whether there are correspondences between music and words?

Last but not least, this first ASO concert of the season presents a contemporary work by a celebrated young American composer, Nico Muhly, whose long association with the American Symphony Orchestra dates from well before he came into the limelight. Muhly’s music explores not only the nature of music, but also its potential connections to reality, to the contemporary social fabric, and the cultural conceits and expectations of audiences. What are the unique possibilities facing new music today? What functions can be ascribed to contemporary music written within the classical tradition in the context of the rich varieties of music that flourish today?

Music is not strictly mimetic in the literary sense, particularly as most famously elaborated by Erich Auerbach’s classic book Mimesis. But it is clearly in some sense mimetic of the human experience, of memory, joy and suffering, tied to concrete realities that disappear, fade, and dissolve. Music does so in a manner that neither falsifies nor hides the more familiar physical and historical dimensions of the external world. Music’s temporal nature, its capacity to be remade, reheard, and recreated, its distance from but affinity to the linguistic and the visual, may ironically make it the most profoundly mimetic, with respect to the human experience, of all the arts.