“My God! What has sound got to do with music!”
That provocative statement (in its complete form below) by the uniquely creative and brilliant American composer, Charles Ives, may help explain why his music is not as popular as I believe it should be.
Yesterday, as the Boston Symphony forged through the Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler—perhaps, at ninety-minutes the longest symphony ever composed—I had ample opportunity to wonder how it is we’re consistently able to fill Royal Albert Hall’s 5,000+ seats and thousands more who have the tenacity to stand throughout the ordeal. Mahler is far from my favorite composer, and the Third Symphony far from my favorite Mahler. Yet, his music is so adored by so many. What am I missing? I asked myself as I slogged my way through the half hour first movement.
The BSO plays Mahler Third
The answer I came up with shocked me out of somnolence (jet lag, no doubt) during the second extended iterance of the pastoral offstage flugelhorn solo.
“My God! What has music got to do with sound?”
This is the opposite of Ives’s thesis, but it doesn’t necessarily contradict it. What it means is that it’s the very sound of the orchestra that people love. In the extreme, here’s the blasphemy: It really doesn’t matter who the composer is or what particular composition is being played. All the business about melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint—you name it—is secondary to the combination of timbres so unique to the symphony orchestra. That’s the glory of it.
Even the majority of humans who do not care for classical music would have to admit that there’s nothing like the sound of a symphony orchestra because, frankly, it’s true. There’s no other combination of instruments that produce anything like the sound of a symphony orchestra. And how it got that sound, I thought during the violins’ extended hiatus of the fifth movement of the Mahler, is no accident.
It started out in the mid-18th century, when orchestras were essentially string ensembles. Sometimes a couple horns and oboes would be added for color. Then Haydn and Mozart came along, added things like flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and timpani. Then Beethoven, who brilliantly added trombones to the mix in the finale of the Fifth Symphony. Why the hell did he do that? He was deaf, anyway. It couldn’t be because audiences wanted to hear trombones, because they never had in a symphony and may well have hated it. Clearly, Beethoven, and others before and after him, perceived something very special about the sound that was evolving in orchestras that played symphonies. There was something in the combination of sound waves bombarding listeners that evoked the strongest emotional responses.
Why? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for fifty years. Some of it no doubt is cultural, in that we associate certain musical gestures with shared esthetic history. Some of it is probably neural: Certain combinations of tones activate parts of our brain in ways I couldn’t comprehend. But what I think might be the most important part of the answer—and might explain why people still come to live concerts even when they can stay at home and listen to the same music for free—is that the vibrations created by sound waves of a symphony orchestra have a profoundly stimulating physical effect on listener’s body. And it’s for this reason I came to this idea that sound and music play different, if complementary roles in responding to music. It may even explain why people adore the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, which I find pedantically stultifying in musical terms. When I think of them in terms of the sound, however, I begin to get it.
By the mid-19th century, the symphony orchestra, as it came to be called, a standard template of instrumentation—with plenty of variation, for sure—which has remained stable to this day, had been determined by composers to evoke the strongest responses among listeners:
Strings: Violins I and II, Violas, Cellos, Basses; Winds: Flutes (2 + piccolo), Oboes (2 + English horn), Clarinets (2 + bass clarinet), Bassoons (2 + Contrabassoon); Brass: Horns (4), Trumpets (2), Trombones (3), Tuba; Percussion: Timpani, assorted other instruments including snare drum and cymbals; Harp
So the next time you listen to a symphony, enjoy the music but savor the sound! There’s nothing like it.
Charles Ives (On the Distinction Between Sound and Music):
“A manuscript score is brought to a concertmaster-he may be a violinist-he is kindly disposed, he looks it over, and casually fastens on a passage: ‘That’s bad for the fiddles–it doesn’t hang just right–write it like this, they will play it better.’ But that one phrase is the germ of the whole thing. ‘Never mind, it will fit the hand better this way-it will sound better.’
My God! What has sound got to do with music! The waiter brings the only fresh eggs he has, but the man at breakfast sends it back because it doesn’t fit his eggcup. Why can’t music go out in the same way it comes in to a man, without having to crawl over a fence of sounds, thoraxes, catguts, wire, wood, and brass? Consecutive fifths are as harmless as blue laws compared with the relentless tyranny of the ‘media.’ The instrument!–there is the perennial difficulty–there is music’s limitation. . . . Is it the composer’s fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born–perchance a ‘bastard of the slums,’ or a ‘daughter of a bishop’–and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential–what it sounds like may not be what it is” [Ives’ italics] (Essays 84).
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