Monday, October 06, 2008

Shostakovich and Haitink on words and music.

About a month ago, I offered a post broadly reflecting on the question of how to interpret the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I don't intend to return to that topic in this post, but I do want to invite reflection on an underlying issue - the relationship between words, music and meaning. Is there something fundamentally different about the ways in which words and music convey their meaning? Is the meaning conveyed by one more accessible than the other?

I've been thinking about these questions lately on account of some comments that I recently read and heard from Shostakovich and from one of his ablest interpreters, Bernard Haitink. In the (admittedly disputed) Shostakovich memoir Testimony, the Soviet composer has this to say:
In recent years, I've become convinced that the word is more effective than music. Unfortunately, it is so. When I combine music with words, it becomes harder to misinterpret my intent.
These are striking words from a composer whose intent has often been questioned and held to be concealed by irony and deliberate ambiguity. Was Shostakovich really bothered that Soviet officials didn't fully understand his music? Or, in his old age, did he feel that he wanted to make his true meaning known in a way that he could not before?

It's hard to tell what Shostakovich really meant, but the words of veteran conductor Bernard Haitink offer a way to think about questions like this. The CSO Resound recording of Haitink leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's 4th includes a bonus DVD with a Beyond the Score documentary and various other extras. In a short interview featured on the DVD, Haitink offers his own thoughts on Shostakovich's music before concluding with these words:

Listen, it's all guessing. We can talk for hours about composers, about music, [but] you never will know exactly what these people thought. It's very difficult to find a real truth, and music is . . . of all the arts, in my opinion the most difficult, because it expresses something that you can't express in words. You can talk about a painting, you can read a poem . . . but music is a difficult art.
What strikes me the most about Haitink's assessment is the idea that music "expresses something that you can't express in words." This point seems intuitively obvious to me, though I'm not sure that I could explain why it is so. Combining words with music does not diminish the expressive quality that music has on its own; as Shostakovich admitted, adding words to his music made it harder for others to misinterpret his intent, but it didn't make misinterpretation impossible. Haitink's words seem to imply that an unquestionably accurate and definitive interpretation of music is impossible; I believe that this would still be so had the composer left behind detailed notes explaining the meaning that the music was meant to convey, for music takes on a life of its own and quickly slips out of its composer's control.

I suppose I could write more about this, but for now I'd like to reflect more on what Shostakovich and Haitink have to say on this point. If you have any thoughts on the topic, I would be happy to hear them. AMDG.


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